'Somewhere,' 'Black Swan,' and the European Curse

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Stephen Dorff in Sofia Coppola's 'Somewhere' Merrick Morton / Focus Features

Sofia Coppola’s new movie, Somewhere, has the emotional arc of a Lifetime movie conceptualized to the nth degree. The story of a successful-but-absentee Hollywood father belatedly recognizing how to be present in his daughter’s life is strung together with a maddening series of “man contemplating aloneness alone” sequences purloined from 1960s art-film director Michelangelo Antonioni. The one thing Coppola doesn’t steal from Antonioni is his class awareness; there’s never so much as a glimpse of the lives of, say, the maids in her “I’m rich and depressed in a hotel” movies. Perhaps Coppola’s tight focus on a well-heeled daddy-daughter relationship is the point—the freedom not to feel mildly inquisitive about the wages of privilege feels timely in light of the extension of Bush 43’s upper-bracket tax cuts. But as long as she was affirming the status quo, she might have thrown the audience some sort of narrative stimulus package as well.

Coppola’s not the first U.S. filmmaker to adore Antonioni, but by using his tricks to try to build American-style pathos, she commits the same aesthetic foul as director Darren Aronofsky did with the narrow point of view and phantasmagoric metamorphosis in Black Swan. They both cram the dark syntax of European provocateurs into the sentence structure of the multiplex.

Somewhere’s distant-seeming father figure is supposed to have difficulty connecting with a loved one, like the best of Antonioni’s protagonists. And yet Hollywood—yes, even indie Hollywood—requires discernible character arcs. Without spoiling the film’s conclusion, it’s fair to say that Johnny Marco, the father played by Stephen Dorff (pictured), undergoes some behavior modification. But that evolution feels tacked on, and clearly runs against Somewhere’s hard stillness, in which long takes of a car running round and round the track recall the studied alienation in European art-house flicks.

Antonioni’s static pretensions worked because he never asked the audience to endure something—a punishingly long scene, or a lack of uplift—that his characters didn’t also have to grapple with. But the characters in Somewhere are bonded and bailed by Coppola from the jail of stasis, the place where her viewers still have to mark time.

At least Europe still has some ideas about what to do with its cinéastes’ tools. In White Material, Claire Denis’s film about a French family in Africa working to make sense of their role in a postcolonial milieu, the deployment of chilling technique bears some relation to the story. The confusion of Isabelle Huppert’s coffee-plantation manager is reinforced by the nonlinear editing: just as the lead characters have no way of knowing when militants will throw up a roadblock, neither does the audience know when Denis is about to halt her narrative’s forward progress and flip back into history. In Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, the story of a would-be 21st-century nun is told with the almost religious asceticism of old-school art-film grandee Robert Bresson. Its passion-play pacing sets up a finale of unexpected, terrorizing violence that is scarier than any concatenation of 24 episodes.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the language of “art film” belongs to Europe alone. Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Spike Lee (among others) have trailblazed divergent paths. But it feels as though something has changed—that an American frontier wildness is giving way to rote emulations of Europe’s art house. The sooner our young, ambitious directors cease recharting that cinematic course, the sooner our homegrown, independent cinema may get somewhere, too.

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