Thursday, 16 December 2010


Another day, another film about existential angst - not the usual fare in the run up to Christmas. This film explores the existential angst of celebrity nihilism. The clue to the subject matter comes right at the beginning as the fixed camera shows the central portion of a circular race track with a black Ferrari driving circuits. As the car moves in and out of frame, the only thing holding the attention is the beautiful symphony of Maranello's orchestral Ferrari 360. Throughout the film sound is noticeably important rather than the usual 'invisible' support to the pictures. It is though the microphones have been sewn into the very fabric of the actors clothing as we hear every last little sound. The Ferrari's throbbing V8 even crackles and ticks as it cools after being turned off. We spend a lot of time in the movie cruising the cool neighbourhoods of Hollywood in the 360 but it is as though it never reaches second gear just so that we can hear that beautiful engineering harmoniously grunting and groaning. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the life of the film's central character?

Stephen Dorff plays jaded actor Johnny Marco who exists in the hotel Ch√Ęteau Mormont on Sunset Boulevard recovering from a broken arm. His life is filled with pills, parties a pole-dancing twins, but he is a passenger drifting in and out of consciousness between movies. Everybody loves Johnny and his easy and amiable personality makes him likeable. However complicit you feel Johnny Marco is for his predicament, his genuine likeability will provoke feelings of sympathy in you - particularly through the way he tenderly interacts with his daughter Cleo (played by Elle Fanning). There is more than a hint of re-run and re-contextualisation of Lost in Translation here - but that was an awesome film, so no real problem.

It soon becomes clear that Johnny's life is empty. Johnny Marco is a world famous actor dutifully attending photo shoots and news conferences at the bidding Marge whom we never see but only hear on the phone. He has everything he could seemingly want - except purpose and intimacy. Both turn up in the shape of his 11 year-old daughter Cleo whom his ex-wife dumps on him as she goes through her own episode of angst and the need to get away. Johnny appears to be an excellent father. he takes his daughter skating, although he didn't know she'd been doing it for 3 years! He takes her to Milan for the launch of his latest film in Italy where he receives an award - a kind of Italian Oscar. In the limelight of the stage he slips into role and presents a coherent and together persona. The next day he and Cleo escape the celebrity cocoon and head for the airport taking another celeb's car to escape the attention.

As the film progresses, a press conference delivers a metaphor for Marco's life. He is unable to answer a series of innocuous questions about the meaning and content of what he does and the roles of his characters. His life is empty and meaningless. After having spent a few weeks with Cleo as mum sorts herself out, Cleo goes off to camp in Nevada. The only thing more pretentious that driving from LA to Las Vegas in a black Ferrari 360 would be to fly across the city in a helicopter to rendezvous with the camp taxi - this Johnny and Cleo do for some undisclosed reason. Her departure to summer camp precipitates Johnny's slide into angst ridden insecurity. He calls his ex and begs her to visit him to talk - she declines. The next morning he resolves to move out of the hotel and he drives off into the Californian desert. In an isolated spot he pulls to the side of the road, gets out of the car and walks off with the hint of a smile on his lips. Perhaps he has had an epiphany and come to his senses. We don't know because the music changes and the credits roll.

The soundtrack is excellent with the usual choice of good mood music and songs. As I mentioned, the way the sound is recorded is with maximum detail and brightness which reinforces Johnny's sense of isolation. Furthermore, in addition to the long opening shot of the circling 360, there are two other long held shots - one is a very gentle zoom in to Johnny's head as he sits sleeping as a head cast is taken for SFX for an upcoming movie, the only sound is his heavy nasal breathing - the only holes in the plaster cast that encases his head - another cocoon metaphor? The third long held shot is of Johnny and Cleo sunbathing on loungers at the hotel pool after enjoying a playful swim together. The length of the shot emphasised for me the nothingness of their existence - I have never been one to waste time sunbathing when the sun can be enjoyed in so many more active ways!

Much of the footage of this film is recorded on hand-held cameras giving a reportage rather than dramatic feel to the film. It could be a documentary about the emptiness of this kind of lifestyle. Being part of the Coppola dynasty I'm sure it is familiar to the Director, Sofia. This film demonstrates the maturing of her style. It's muted palette is handled creatively and with sensitivity. There are no bad guys in the film only good guys - it's just that they need help to discover themselves. But then don't we all?

This story is timely as the cult of celebrity is increasingly coming under the spotlight and we are even seeing the rise of anti-celebrity in some corners of our media infested world. We have too many people enjoying celebrity for no good reason. The worlds of music and drama have very few stars these days and far too many celebrities. The likes of Youtube and other social networking sites means that everyone now has the facility to be famous - exposure and celebrity with no responsibility. Even bloggers like me! Another post-modern malaise?

A worthy film - I'll give it 7.5/10.


Anonymous said...

Excellent description of the movie!

Jench said...

What a great review of the movie with an excellent tasteful of words!!

Duncan Strathie said...

Thanks for the encouragement Jench - glad it was helpful.

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