Sometimes the drugs stop working. Sex doesn’t thrill. A sitcom laugh track grates more than usual because it refers to jokes that aren’t even half-funny anymore. The vague flicker of light illuminating the world’s myriad joys has been snuffed out by an unseen hand. What remains is an indescribable lack, an impossible need that can’t even be called a need, for desire has vanished. It’s called anhedonia, and this inability to experience pleasure, this afternoon shadow of depression—a long, black stretch of nothing attached to searing pain, the worst something—is the subject of Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s latest dispatch from existential angst’s VIP room.
It is a difficult movie, in its quiet way, and I did not like it very much. No, that’s not true—I didn’t like it at all. I hated it, in fact, until a few days ago, when I realized not a night had passed without some stray image from Coppola’s Hollywood fugue intruding and imploring me to reconsider my first impression. This sort of thing happens occasionally—I recall Michael Haneke’s Caché lingering, waiting for me to notice the impact it had made—and it is one of cinema’s more complex and bewitching effects. Somewhere comes loaded with blaring, neon-lit metaphors (many even work), and I am trying to think of a suitably obvious way to describe the strange delayed reaction I experienced. Let’s try this: I was cut with a blade so sharp that the wound did not even ache until it was already scabbing over.
Like Coppola’s last two movies, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, Somewhere is a slack weave through well-appointed spaces filled with pretty faces, a slow trip into rarefied air too thin to sustain life. Less fixated on the comedy of the exotic (Lost in Translation) and the erotic pull of shoes (Marie Antoinette), Somewhere is the strongest work in Coppola’s “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” trilogy, as it manages to make Easy Street look a lot like the places where we live and sometimes don’t want to go on living.
OK, this is where I explain what the movie is ostensibly about and you gag a little bit, because a plot summary of Somewhere reads like a People puff piece about some gilded dickhead’s forged redemption journey. But here goes: Famous actor Johnny Marco (played by sorta-still-famous actor Stephen Dorff) is living in the Chateau Marmont—Belushi died there, Lindsay Lohan lived there, many beautiful people have enjoyed cocaine there—while promoting his new film and sleepwalking through what appears to be a charmed life. He drinks, he smokes, he drives his Ferrari in circles, he conks out with his tongue inside a gorgeous woman. Money can’t buy happiness, etc. Enter Cleo (Elle Fanning), Johnny Ennui’s 11-year-old daughter, a part-time responsibility who becomes a full-time suitemate when Johnny’s ex-wife skips town on a vague mission of self-improvement. Might Johnny learn that the car and the career and the women mean nothing if he can’t love himself and make lasting, real connections with the people who love him for him? Guess.
But disregard—or forgive—the predictable arc and sentimental revelations, because Coppola’s only using them as girders for a weightier project: rendering emotional vacancy and existential exhaustion as it is actually experienced. This is where I ran into what seemed like glaring problems with the film. The long shots of action and inaction—Johnny driving, strippers stripping while Johnny sleeps, Cleo ice skating, Johnny being fitted for a latex mask—seemed to me to be diaphanous padding for an inconsequential narrative, or tony window dressing borrowed from Chantal Akerman’s too-real realism, some so-slow-it-must-be-good-for-you catnip for the Kiarostami set. I was busy looking for a character study in a movie that isn’t even attempting to be one. The figure of Johnny Marco, generic secular god of a celebrity culture, functions more as an avatar, a sort of guiding awareness through which we might come to experience and understand one of human nature’s more distressing recesses. That blank middle between us and the world is not an easy place to live, so it seems perfectly appropriate that it took me two weeks to figure out where, exactly, “somewhere” was, and to appreciate what Coppola had to do to get me there.