A radical new direction for the acceptable face of art house cinema? Hardly, says Declan Tan
“Let’s open with one of those long, audience-testing shots, yeah, yeah, keep him driving around. Make about ten laps then we’ll cut.”
I imagine this is how Sofia Coppola speaks and I imagine this is how she sets up her anchored camera, after watching some ‘70s european art house cinema and listening to some French indie pop, before mumbling instructions to her Ray-Ban-wearing crew. She silently pats herself on the back with a studied expression of seriousness.
Wait. That’s a bit harsh. To be fair she has done some worthwhile work (Lost in Translation) then again, some bordering on disgraceful (Marie Antoinette), with the rest in between (The Virgin Suicides). But it’s this next one, starring Stephen Dorff and Elle (sister-of-Dakota) Fanning, that turns out to be simultaneously intriguing and self-satisfied, dropping in somewhere around the middle of Coppola’s so-far tolerable filmography.
Dorff plays Johnny Marco, an actor whose very name even sounds like a cliché. He has lived in the well-worn fast lane like many of his kind before, blitzing circuits in his Ferrari, habitually bed hopping in the Chateau Marmont, probably chunking his nose but certainly draining exorbitantly priced bottles. But (you guessed it) there is something desperate nagging at him. Do you see now? Miss Coppola wants to poke her golden stick at despair and existential angst again. Joyous day.
Plot? Easy. We have Johnny going from place to place, day to day, not knowing when or what, regularly booking the same blonde twin pole-dancers to perform for his amusement. He parties now and then, breaks an arm, cracks a smile occasionally (but only for the twins), not finding what he’s looking for anywhere, oh but his daughter, Cleo (Fanning), she appears and isn’t she so down-to-earth? Surely, their love for each other can help him find that somewhere. Right, right.
So, familiar territory and safe ground for Coppola, picking apart that theme again, allowing a repeat of those possible interpretations (from her own experience growing up in a similar position to Cleo, or from the perspective of Johnny, a reflection of Coppola in her own career), a subject that allows her to sharpen her already-cut teeth on the fluffily fake glamour of the movie business. Being a bit too repetitive for anyone that saw Lost in Translation, there is nothing said here that wasn’t said last time round. Perhaps this is the only life that Coppola has ever known, or can ever depict. So just as in her Tokyo story, the press and PR incompetents again receive the same treatment as before; they are evermore insincere, moronic and ridiculous. Sometimes laughably so, yet mostly it’s single-chuckle material at best.
Nevertheless, it’s subject matter with plenty of meat for the audience to chew over. We’re presented with the hollow man, a mould (literally, in one scene), who is neatly given purpose and meaning in his on-camera moments, by a script or a director. Outside of that, Johnny is the empty vessel that is filled only during the hours when he embodies someone else. When he is off-set, there is no dictated purpose or meaning or lines to deliver; he is vacated. He realises this, saying: “I’m nothing. I’m not even a real person”. This is where Coppola strikes the right notes. Even a character that has everything is still reduced to nothing, evoking the sympathy of the audience. There are moments when we can ourselves taste the bitter nothing, subdued performances allow these moments to poke through, but often the camera technique is what gets in its way, becoming a film never allowed to realise its considerable potential.
All of this works as a distraction to what could be something real, a message though heard before, still worth listening to. But instead we’re faced with the smugness that seems to underline it all. It’s hard to ignore the self-aware camera work that draws attention to itself with every static shot, every long take, topped with the conspicuously drawn symbolism. It also doesn’t help that the ending is a lazy one.