Sofia Coppola, whose films Lost in Translation and Somewhere are playing as a double feature on Friday and Saturday, May 24th and 25th, brings a new view to cinema’s contentious relationship with money. And, yes, sex notwithstanding, there has never been a more contentious relationship in cinema than that it has with extreme wealth.
On the one hand, the medium has often been drawn to stories of those who live in comfort and opulence living glorious lives of ease. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are rarely anything less than blindingly wealthy, and while Fred may often play men whose fortunes are on a temporary hiatus, he still has enough scratch and/or connections to stay dressed in tuxedos and have dinners at the Ritziest night clubs in nearly every single one of his films. To cite a more modern example, the characters in Nicholas Sparks romances typically have access to quaint Tuscan villas, any kind of wine they want, and a wardrobe to make the average person blush in envy. And don’t get me started on Jon M. Chu’s recent Crazy Rich Asians. The film is wonderful, but the wealth on display should make everyone uncomfortable.
On the other hand, Hollywood is just as often drawn to stories that are deeply critical – some might say resentful – of the ultra-wealthy. Citizen Kane, for example, handily delivers audiences the archetypal “rich bastard” character, openly displaying that with great wealth naturally comes corruption, loss, and emptiness of the soul. These empty, vapid tycoons are often depicted as villains in movies starring the disenfranchised, and were regular installations in Frank Capra movies. The rich are incapable of human connection, blinded by their lives of advantage, ambition, and lack of scruples.
Cinema’s twin obsessions with wealth are both easy to understand. Film is a visual medium, and displaying lives of comfort is, on mere visceral level, incredibly pleasing. Part of cinema’s function, after all, is ornamentation, and most audiences, if they’re being honest with themselves, crave to see life at its most opulent and indulgent. Stories of the ultra-wealthy give us all an escape into a world we may crave on one level or another. At the same time, those of us who are not wealthy long to see the cracks in the myth’s facade. Is being rich really the way to happiness? Indeed not. Wealth is instead the surest sign of moral downfall.
Sofia Coppola was raised in an environment of privilege. She appeared in relatives’ films from infancy onward, attended private schools, occupied the poshest hotels, traveled extensively, and had the capital to found her own fashion line, all before she directed her first feature film in 1999. Coppola, by her own admission, has never wanted for much materially.
But rather than fall into the Hollywood debate as to whether the life of wealth was loaded up with an endless string of cheery dandies, or a dark pit of corrupt villainy, Coppola outstripped the debate by presenting cinema with a much more natural, compassionate, surprisingly gentle, and infinitely human view of the moneyed lifestyle. Coppola wasn’t interested in the debate. She was interested in the emotional truth at the heart of the matter.
In both Lost in Translation (2003) and Somewhere (2010), Coppola’s characters find themselves divided from the rest of the world because of their money and fame. In Lost, Bill Murray’s Bob Harris is a famous movie star in Japan to film a TV commercial (for Suntory whiskey) that will only air in Japan (a common practice for many American movie stars who are attracted to ad dollars, but want to maintain a modicum of commercial integrity in their home country). He is alone in his massive hotel room, and only speaks to his distant off-screen wife to discuss the decorations of their home. Perhaps recognizing his loneliness – or more likely catering to the illicit habits of wealthy American business travelers – the hotel provides him with a sex worker that he doesn’t quite understand, and that he feels no lust for. At first he is game, but the scene devolves into a sub/dom game that he doesn’t know he’s engaging in. Murray’s soulful and quiet performance allows us to see the distance and loneliness Bob seems to be trapped inside of, very much like the ill-fitting tuxedo he has clipped around his body for his commercial.
At the same time, a rich traveling American photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) has arrived in Tokyo with his young recent bride Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who has recently graduated college and has hit quarter-life crisis mode pretty hard. She has no real career ahead of her, her husband is busy working, and she’s left to drift through Tokyo observing the culture, but with the eye of an outsider. She, too, is divided from the world because of her comfort, because comfort leads to aimlessness. As luck would have it, Charlotte and Bob meet at a hotel bar one night and seem to instantly recognize each other’s aching loneliness. Wealth, it turns out, is an empty plain. You spend your time clawing upward only to find fewer and fewer people the higher you go. That’s not an arc of “success” in the sense of the traditional American entrepreneur, but a gentle drifting outward from a warm central nest of humanity.
Wealth offers not solace, but solitude. And connecting with humanity is that much rarer and more beautiful as a result. Bob and Charlotte fall deeply in love through this mutual recognition. Bob’s final words to Charlotte as they part are not audible. Bill Murray, when asked in an interview what Bob and Charlotte said, simply answered “It’s between lovers.” Their circle expanded to include one other person.
If Lost in Translation was about two souls finding one another in an isolated bubble of wealth and/or fame, her 2010 film Somewhere (part of a thematic loneliness trilogy that also includes Marie Antoinette) is about someone so isolated from humanity that he has essentially ceased to exist in any sort of human level. At the start of Somewhere, movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff in a career-best performance) is seen racing his expensive sports car around a track. The camera is static and there is no music. The photography (by Harris Savides) indicates how gray and unremarkable the action is. Johnny leads a life of luxury, but we see right away that it brings him little.
Johnny lives at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, regularly gets massages in his room, eats hotel meals, occasionally parties, but his life has reached a point of infinite idleness. He has sex, but it’s transactional. The parties are attended though a sense of weary obligation rather than any sort of hedonistic impulse. What he does has become distant and inscrutable. There is no passion in his life. Living in ostensible luxury has assured that his life will be disconnected from ordinary humanity. In one brief moment of connection, Johnny sees Benicio Del Toro waiting for an elevator. They nod to each other. They both briefly understand this weird well-moneyed bubble of isolation called fame.
During a breakdown late in the film, Johnny on the phone with his agent (one of the only people he talks to) and, in tears, openly declares that he is nothing. He’s right. He’s essentially vanished form the world. His fame has, in a weird, way, robbed him of his ability to feel, well, anything.
The only thing that connects Johnny to the world at large is his relationship with his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), who he unexpectedly has to take care of when her mother has some sort of emotional breakdown off camera. Cleo’s presence in Johnny’s life is, at first, yet another weary, disconnected commitment he only seems to partially acknowledge. Cleo doesn’t seem to expect a wild life of parties or opulent ease while staying at the Chateau Marmont. She just sees an opportunity to, well, have a dad. Cleo offers him, time and again, the ability to connect to something human. Unlike Lost in Translation, however, the connection does not happen. Johnny is left adrift.
Both Somewhere and Lost in Translation are ultimately stories of depression. The life of the wealthy is one that disconnects your emotions from your heart. In Lost in Translation, the characters can find that missing solace in one another. In Somewhere, that solace is ever elusive. As the magazine headlines go, celebrities are just like us. Requiring warmth and human connection to survive. For some, however, it’s more difficult than for others.