Feminism and the Art of Banality: Sofia Coppola's Somewhere
by Scott Oris
In her film, Somewhere (2010), Sofia Copola has created a critical meditation on the “male gaze” (a term created by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey), which establishes her as one of the most important, active female directors. Somewhere focuses on male gaze from the perspective of a movie star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). At the offset Johnny has everything, fame, a fast car and the pick of any woman he desires. However, his relationship with his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), an eleven years old that needs her father, forces Johnny to change his “gaze” from that of objectifying women to seeing them as real people.
Johnny is shown multiple times throughout the movie watching strippers in his bedroom. The first time he falls asleep, and the second time he actually enthusiastically grabs one, as if he has to obtain her as a possession. The luxury to be able to fall asleep during their performance, and then the other time to be able to grab one of them after watching, demonstrates the power of the male gaze to determine female worth on the screen. Laura Mulvey, in her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” defined this as the traditional exhibitionist role of women, who are judged by their “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 715). This is how Johnny’s perspective of women in the first part of the film is defined.
Another example of this comes when Johnny is driving and makes eye contact with a woman he has never met. He then follows her all the way to the closing of her gate. Mulvey believed the cinema created a pleasure world of looking at women in a narcissistic way. She stated, As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the power of the active power erotic look, both give a satisfying sense of omnipotence (Mulvey716). In the first part of Somewhere, this was further exemplified by the use of long takes leaving the audience to hold the gaze longer then has previously been possible. The film forces the viewer to become a voyeur and creates a mood of stillness. In viewing one of his conquests, the audience is able to see Johnny walk up to the girl’s apartment, watch her answer the door and then show their sexual embrace. During this entire shot, the camera remains fixed from the street, as the audience watches through her window.
This kind of voyeurism has been made famous by director Alfred Hitchcock, especially in his film, Rear Window (1954). The film mirrors what Tania Modeleski in “From The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory” describes as Jimmy Stewart’s character L.B. Jefferies' evolution of how he views women. Initially, Jefferies is almost infantile in his viewpoint of women. In being unable to walk with a broken leg, Jefferies becomes more fixated on watching all his neighbors then he is the beautiful and nurturing Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, who is actually present in his apartment (Modeleski, 725). Similarly in Somewhere, Johnny is fixated on every girl he sees, who he finds attractive in that exact moment. His gaze is based on the surface, without understanding the long term effects it has had on his life.
Modelski also discusses how the first image of Jeffries, while he sleeps, shows his hand on his thigh, which she believes is subtly masturbatory, stating it was “as if he were an invalid who abused himself in the dark” (Modeleski, 725). In Somewhere, Johnny’s arm is broken with a cast, which is present as he watches strippers in his bedroom. When portrayed this way the broken arm is almost seen as masturbatory in that it shows the meaninglessness of his narcissistic pleasure of objectifying women. According to LoBrutto and Morrison when he removes his arm cast, he is “symbolically casting off what is broken about him” (130). As Jefferies maturity was complete when he realized he desires to marry Lisa, Johnny’s is likewise complete when he realizes how his objectification of women has kept him from living a meaningful life with his ex-wife and daughter (Modeleski, 725).
Coppola uses long takes, with ambient silence, which creates a very realistic and empty portrayal of Johnny’s life. Stylistically, the film has similarities to Linklater’s Before Trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013), which creates a sense of reality using very long takes that unfold in real time. These films focus on the self-awareness of the relationships between men and women. This is similar to how meditative Somewhere is on Johnny having his realization about what is important in his life.
The film also demonstrates influences from the French New Wave such as Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) where events also unfold in real time (Tyree 14). Another film from the French New Wave, which Somewhere references is Eric Rohmer’s, My Night At Maud’s (1968), where there is minimal camera work with very long takes, which informs the scope of time in the narrative. In choosing to film, Somewhere in this more minimalistic style, Sofia Coppola is able to convey a more meditative kind of voyeurism, which conveys the banalities of the male gaze. When the film opens, it is dark with only the sound of a car moving. When the car is finally shown, it goes by only to disappear again. The audience is made to wait for the car’s appearance again. This goes on for over two minutes, with one static camera shot. By doing this, the audience’s mind is put into a more meditative state, leaving their thoughts to wander a bit before the car finally stops, and Johnny Marco steps out of the Ferrari. This also influences the perception of the audience, forcing them to a linger on viewing something they would not usually stare at when watching a movie.
The following scene shows Johnny falling off the stairs in a drunken party, where he breaks his arm. According to Vincent LoBrutto and Harriet R. Morrison, in their book, The Coppolas: A Family Business they describe the party in Somewhere as allowing “[Johnny's] environment wash over him” (LoBrutto, Morrison 129). He is aimlessly in this in-between stage of his life, vulnerable and without direction. The film’s sparse dialog and long takes of Johnny Marco sitting in silence by himself, bring attention to the emptiness of his life. His own pleasure seeking starts to become more of a routine and less of the active and exciting lifestyle for which he is thought to have. In fact he falls asleep during a striptease and later falls asleep during sex with a woman he just met.
The camera provides a more detached feeling during his numerous liaisons with women. This is similar to the Marilyn Monroe silk-screens of Andy Warhol, which were taking a sexual pop icon and showing how, when viewed over and over, the image becomes empty; thus her face blurs. The one shot is a long shot from the street, another is too dark to see anything, and for one only the noise of the actual sex is heard through the movement of the bed. All of these cinematic choices by Coppola create a very detached and impersonal feel to Johnny’s numerous conquests.
Cleo, Johnny’s eleven year old daughter, is the changing force which causes his viewpoint of women to change. After hosting another night of strippers in his bedroom, he wakes up with Cleo signing his cast. The first shot of Cleo is a close-up on her face, which directly contrasts the other shots of Johnny's interactions with women, all of which are much more distant. His interactions with her are more meaningful and close. Due to her mother not being able to have her for a certain amount of time, Johnny now has to become her sole caregiver, which forces him to reevaluate the meaning of his life and his treatment of women.
The theme of water is connected with Cleo and very prevalent in the film. Cleo ice skates and swims, and she is often wearing a dress which incorporates blue. When Johnny first wakes up to her signing his cast, his sheets are white, and Cleo is wearing blue. The water/blue represents her purity in the movie. When they are at the ice skating rink, Cleo starts ice skating, while Johnny barely pays attention to her instead looking at his phone. Then he starts watching her and begins to change. The water being frozen represents his relationship with her and how it eventually thaws. Later they are in the water together, which demonstrates the closer their bond has become. This is part of his slow realization that how he thinks of women should change - his recognition of the importance of his daughter in his life. They bond throughout the film, doing many activities such as ping pong and swimming (which again reflects the water motif) and prompting Johnny to understand his importance in life and the responsibility he has for his daughter.
The name Cleo is most likely a reference to Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7, in which a famous singer named Cleo is chronicled. The film unfolds as if it happened in real time and demonstrates a transformation from an object of the male gaze to actually returning the gaze on men. Molly Haskell, in reference to Cleo From 5 to 7, terms this as “coming to consciousness” which she describes as, “a woman’s sense of herself as a figment of men’s fantasies." In Cleo From 5 to 7, our protagonist realizes, while she is waiting for the results a biopsy, that if she really were sick the men in her life would not pursue her anymore; thus realizing the person she created was solely for their satisfaction (Haskell 296). In Somewhere, our protagonist has a realization of how he views women in his life. His relationship with his Cleo, who is very intelligent and self-reliant, demonstrates his respect for women. He is now able to see women as not being objects.
Another film from the French New Wave that deals with transformation and the male gaze is Eric Rohmer’s My Night At Maud’s, which unfolds in the scope of a night with a passive and repressed man spending time with a woman who is divorced and sexually powerful. There is almost no music, and the film predominantly focuses on long takes of dialogue exchanges between the characters. These kind of scenes focus on the details of the banalities of everyday life and how they formulate into deep philosophical ideas. This is very similar to how Sofia Coppola utilizes long takes and stillness, which add more meaning to subtle gestures of the dialogue of the characters.
In making Somewhere, Sofia Coppola has created a unique film, which demonstrates a strong French New Wave influence. By making the bold choices of using long takes and forgoing a central story, Somewhere resembles its title, in that it creates the atmosphere of emptiness in Johnny Marco’s life. Coppola demonstrates this by showing the banalities and the routine nature of his many conquests. By realizing his own love and appreciation for his daughter, his character is redeemed, and, as such, Johnny Marco demonstrates that a man can change his gaze of objectification of women in the movies. Coppola boldly states that men in the movies can view women as human beings after all.
"Cleo from 5 to 7." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 10 May 2015.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1987. Print.
LoBrutto, Vincent, and Harriet R. Morrison. The Coppolas: A Family Business. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012. Print.
Modleski, Tania. From The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock And Feminist Theory. 2009. Film Theory and Criticism; Introductory Readings. By Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. 7thed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 723-735. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. 2009. Film Theory and Criticism; Introductory Readings. By Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. 7th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 711-722. Print.
My Night At Maud’s. Dir. Eric Rohmer. Perf. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Vitez. LesFilms du Losange. 1968. DVD
Somewhere. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Perf. Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning. Alliance FIlms, 2010. DVD.
Tyree, J. M. "Searching For Somewhere." Film Quarterly Summer 64.4 (2011): 12-16. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. May-June 2015.