In anticipation of one of 2017’s most anticipated films, The Beguiled, which is hot on the lips of both ardent filmgoers and Cannes critics alike, I was keen to write a few words about its director, Sofia Coppola, and her suitably beguiling body of work, her impact on myself as a viewer, and her ongoing influence as one of the most prominent female voices in 21st century cinema. Any suggestions that Coppola’s early success stemmed merely from the nepotism associated with being the daughter of one of the most esteemed and prolific filmmakers of the 1970s were fiercely and repeatedly dismissed as Coppola began to mould her own voice as a director and screenwriter, and craft one of Hollywood’s most unmistakable aesthetic styles. This surely epitomised the lack of proper, deserved recognition and accreditation for female filmmakers in the wake of the New Hollywood era that her father played such an instrumental role in creating. In spite of this, Coppola’s career glows with a multitide of gorgeous, richly-textured and thematically-driven character pieces, underpinned by the iconic celluloid fuzz and introspective soundtracks we have come to expect from her. Her style may be consistent but it never becomes dull; her writing evokes the most indescribable of images, articulating feelings in a way you never thought possible.
Coppola’s 1999 debut feature effort came in the form of her beautiful, dream-like adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel. Its plot was led by Kirsten Dunst, who would later become a frequent collaborator of Coppola’s, and her pensive, mysterious portrayal of Lux Lisbon, one of five sisters living a stifled and sheltered existence as a result of their deeply conservative and religious parents in 1970s Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The film also marks her first artistic union with French electronic dream pop duo, Air, whose serenely indulgent score cements the film’s slow-burning, other-worldly mood. The band’s music would later go on to evoke this very same quality in her later work, and undoubtedly set a precedent for the rich, enveloping texture Coppola has proven herself to be an expert at creating.
The film follows the increasingly depressive behaviour of the Lisbon girls as their coming-of-age desires are quashed by their overprotective parents, recounted from the perspective of the group of teenage boys who spent their youth fixated on their infatuation with the sisters. Comprised of hazy vignettes and muted pastel hues, The Virgin Suicides contains many of the features which are considered hallmarks of Coppola’s career, which often chronicles characters wishing to become something more than they appear to themselves.
The aforementioned statement is perhaps the most defining idea behind Coppola’s 2003 sophomore film, Lost In Translation, for which she received her award for Best Original Screenplay at the 76th Academy Awards in 2004. This film remains my personal favourite film of all time, and has been ever since I first saw it. It brings me to tears with every single viewing, and is perhaps one of the most arresting explorations of loneliness and disconnection ever put to screen, at least in my eyes. Starring a fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson as a directionless graduate accompanying her photographer husband on a work trip to Tokyo, and Bill Murray as tired actor filming a commercial, it explores the unlikely connection between the pair as they struggle to identify with Tokyo as well as their home country. The beauty of Lost In Translation lies with Coppola’s ability to delve into the absolute depths of a character’s soul through her camera work: indeed, every turn of the camera can be read in terms of the internal language of Bob and Charlotte, as they find solace in each other’s company.
I cherish this film more than any film ever made, and I love immersing myself in all its rapturous, melancholic, fuzzy, insomnia-drenched beauty. I do struggle when it comes to articulating how deeply ingrained into my very being Lost In Translation is, because of course I’m heavily biased and I know this film is a very personal one. That, however, is where Sofia Coppola succeeds as a master of creating such personal works of art, in the sense that she utilises her camera and her screenwriting gift to build scenes which can be deciphered and interpreted in a hundred different ways, characters which will be embraced so differently by so many, and experiences onto which viewers can project their own sadnesses. Her attention to detail highlights the many facets and manifestations of loneliness, creating a reflective pool in which I found such emotional clarity. I feel that the words I have shared about Lost In Translation act as a sort of intermission within the rest of this article, but I find it impossible to discuss this film without divulging at least a small fraction of my overall take on it. I hope one day to be able to write something fuller and more cohesive which fully justifies why this film is so important to me, but for now at least, just know that Lost In Translation is Sofia Coppola’s stirring, shoegaze-filled masterpiece, and remains as magnetic as ever.
Following Lost In Translation in 2006 was a slightly more divisive output, Coppola’s flighty post-modern biopic of Marie Antoinette, the doomed 18th century French queen who was largely heralded as one of the central figures in the build-up to the French revolution. The film is a far cry from the archetypal biopic format, with Coppola’s distinctive meandering, drifting narrative structure appearing once again, detailing the indulgent and ostentatious ways of the queen as she lives and parties, all the while struggling to spark any kind of connection with her new husband.
Kirsten Dunst stars as the titular Marie Antoinette, taking on the role with a certain flightiness and innocence which both captures her character’s reputation for reckless spending and debauchery, as well as bringing a fresh, post-modern feel to the character. The camera mirrors this youthful, modernised glow by lingering on the smallest of details, harmonising effortlessly with its heavily 21st century-infused soundtrack which creates an unexpected but welcome sense of nostalgia. Every frame is dripping with sheer opulence, a clear step up in production for Coppola compared to her previous more modest efforts. Marie Antoinette is notorious for being booed upon its initial Cannes premiere, but there is so much to appreciate and delve into inside this underrated gem within Coppola’s career.
2010 saw Sofia Coppola step into more indie territory, with Somewhere, a very quiet, nihilistic and understated depiction of growth, finding purpose, and a lost sense of self. Stephen Dorff steps into the shoes of hard-living Hollywood actor, Johnny Marco, for whom the apparent banality of fame appears to have dampened any trace of identity. To some, this exploration of a life of such privilege may be somewhat alienating, which I believe may go some way towards explaining critics’ lukewarm response. If there’s anything Sofia Coppola specialises in, however, it’s providing an insight into the often uninspiring and hollow existence of fame. Something I often find troubling is the possibility that the goals and destinations I aspire to reach in life will prove far less blissful and fulfilling than I expect them to be, and as a result I will merely fill the resulting emptiness with petty distractions and waste my time, as is the case for protagonist Johnny. Coppola channels this idea effortlessly in Somewhere, hinting that life’s real beauty lies in its nuance and simplicity.
Clearly, Johnny’s main outlet for joy is the simple pleasures which accompany spending time with his daughter, Cleo, played impressively by Elle Fanning, who turns up unexpectedly after her mother has to leave for a while. The film’s slow pacing and seemingly vacuous plot are utilised to hint at Johnny’s growing sense of purpose and contentment since becoming a greater presence in his daughter’s life. The subtle use of lingering facial expressions, naturalistic dialogue and the unspoken bond which grows between Johnny and Cleo is what underpins this film’s ability to get under your skin, in the kind of unexpected way which leads the viewer from fairly passive viewing to a huge sense of melancholic sadness as the credits roll. Somewhere certainly won’t be for everyone, but for me was another beautiful example of why Sofia Coppola is one of cinema’s most accomplished handlers of inner turmoil and the complex emotions which come with being human.
Coppola’s most recent feature film, prior to the yet-to-be-released The Beguiled, comes in the form of 2013’s The Bling Ring, a semi-biopic centred around the real life story of a group of teenagers who task themselves with acquiring the addresses of Los Angeles-based celebrities, such as the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, and rob their homes. This film marks Coppola’s second and final collaboration with cinematographer Harris Savides, before his untimely death, with Savides’ style adopting the same visual feel as Somewhere to highlight the glamour of Hollywood in an occasionally grandiose, yet often intentionally unpretentious way. Whilst the film is undoubtedly a visual delight, The Bling Ring is rightly considered to be the weakest of Coppola’s filmography. Whilst it carries consistent entertainment value and effective pacing, I can’t help but feel the weakness stems from a disconnect between the film’s subject matter and Coppola’s style.
This isn’t to say Coppola is bound or restricted by her trademarks, as she proved with 2006’s Marie Antoinette, which stepped outside of her usual subject matter despite incorporating the same hazy, dream-like aesthetic. The Bling Ring, however, does not carry the same uniqueness or poignancy as her other films, with little in the way of character study or overt thematic dialogue. Irrespective of the film’s weakness, the subject matter is undeniably interesting, and would have benefited from a different directorial approach, be that under the helm of Coppola or a different director entirely. Her penchant for exploring the vapidity and superficiality of fame is clearly at the forefront of her interests as a writer and director, as exhibited in almost all of her films to some extent.
The harmony which exists between Coppola’s distinctive writing style, and her visual directorial presence solidifies her as potentially my favourite modern director, with her films stirring up deep and potent feelings within my psyche which can only be attributed to the exceptional emotional affinity which exists between her and her characters. Her upcoming release, The Beguiled, is a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 classic, and features her second collaboration with Elle Fanning, third with Kirsten Dunst, and first with both Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell. Such an illustrious cast has generated a great deal of speculation audiences, as well as the fact that writing and directing a remake is new territory for Coppola. The film is already proving to be one of the most exciting releases for 2017, having secured the Best Director award for Sofia Coppola at Cannes earlier in the summer. With such early praise for the director and the recent onslaught of glowing reviews, The Beguiled promises to be yet another jewel in the crown of one of cinema’s most pensive filmmakers. Of course, we can only wait until its release to know whether the acclaim is warranted, the date for which is June 23rd here in the UK. Either way, Coppola’s filmography is consistently breathtaking and hugely important to me on a personal level, having inspired my love for cinema enormously, and providing a number of films which resonate with me more vividly than any other artistic work. The Beguiled is as intriguing as its name, and certainly not a film to be missed this summer.