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CineMasters: Sofia Coppola

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“I just feel like I have a feminine point of view and I’m happy to put that out there. We certainly have enough masculine ones.”  [1]

Growing up, Sofia Coppola spent a lot of time with her father, Francis Ford, and his friends. This male-dominated environment meant she felt “closely connected to being feminine”[2]. Though not explicitly feminist, her films are characterised by unabashedly feminine perspectives. They often feature ‘feminised’ palettes of dusty pinks and blues, and sun-hazed, dreamlike montages.

            Her films’ aesthetic beauty has led some critics to accuse Coppola of style over substance - as if one must choose. Sadly, perceptions of the director’s frivolity are often anchored (at least in part) in her focus on adolescent female characters. Criticisms are augmented by Coppola’s preference for visual storytelling, which uses minimal dialogue and plot. Journalist Sean O’Hagan described Marie Anoinette (Dir. S. Coppola, 2006) as “a historical drama for the Wallpaper* generation”[3] - in other words, a generation obsessed with superficial attractiveness, who care little for beauty as truth.

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However, this highly stylised female subjectivity can be seen as a statement of defiance in itself. In a patriarchal industry, female directors are usually expected to prove themselves on masculine territory (see the success of Kathryn Bigelow, for example).[4]While women should be welcome here, this suggests studio narrow-mindedness. The backing of her father’s production company, American Zoetrope, means Coppola doesn’t have to please major studios. While she clearly has a coveted leg-up, this allows her to makes films that redress the gender-perspective imbalance.

            This includes retelling old stories from a female perspective. The Beguiled (Dir. S. Coppola, 2017), a reinterpretation of Don Siegel’s 1971 film, presents the narrative from the eyes of its women. The film employs Coppola’s habitual use of colour to denote femininity. Scenes of the seminary are coloured by soft, blackened pastels, until the arrival of the wounded soldier brings more masculine pigmentations of greens and reds.[5

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Likewise, Marie Antoinette reimagines history from the eyes of the young girl hoisted into the seat of the throne. Knocked for its anachronisms, some felt it glorified the real Marie Antoinette’s notorious over-spending. The film, however, treats Marie Antoinette’s profligacy as a reaction to her oppressive surroundings. As Robert Ebert put it, “This is Sofia Coppola’s third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you. [...] Every criticism I have read of this film would alter its fragile magic and reduce its romantic and tragic poignancy to the level of an instructional film.”[6

            Loneliness is a recurring theme for the director. She is drawn to the strangely beautiful melancholia that arises from a dreamer’s disconnect from the surroundings that define them. In The Virgin Suicides (Dir. S. Coppola, 1999), Lux’s adolescent vitality is juxtaposed with a school photograph that betrays a deeper disengagement from her reality. Lost in Translation’s (Dir. S Coppola, 2003) Charlotte is searching for identity, isolated both in Tokyo and within her marriage.

“What we have here is a dreamer. Someone who is completely out of touch with reality.”[7]           

Most of Coppola’s films contain shots of their protagonists watching their surroundings from the window of a moving vehicle, marking mental transition.[8] This was first done in her short film, Lick the Star (Dir. S. Coppola, 1998). Positioning them as oberservers, the window motif gives characters subjectivity. At the same time, the window partitions remind us of the characters’ struggles to meaningfully connect with their surroundings.

            “It's a very personal thing, making a film, and I need complete freedom. I have to be able to create an atmosphere and everything else flows from that.”[9]

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Creating atmosphere, to Coppola, means mirroring her characters’ mental states in all the viewers see and hear. Coppola excels at visuals, but is also well-known for using with extra-diegetic music to this purpose. Bow Wow Wow’s pop hit “I Want Candy” sets the tone perfectly for Marie Antoinette’s debut into lavish consumerism. The gorgeously decorative “Alone in Kyoto” by Air has eternalised Lost in Translation’s wandering Charlotte. Air’s score album for The Virgin Suicides is - lyrically and tonally - a perfect match for the Lisbon girls’ fragility. The Bling Ring (Dir. S. Coppola, 2013) uses diegetic music to the same effect. Here, it accentuates the crassness of the fame culture that posseses its characters - see Marc’s new confidence as he smokes a bong to Ester
Dean’s “Drop It Low”.

            “I looked at the movies they made for teenage girls and thought: why can’t they have beautiful photography? Why shouldn’t we treat that audience with respect?”[10]

            Artworks have inspired the director’s strong photographic aesthetic. Her films are rich with intertextuality, which adds layers of depth to her work. Referent artists include Bill Owens, Paul Jasmin, John Kacere, and Ed Ruscha.[11] These references attest to the beauty of the everyday that Coppola explores in her own work.

            Owens’ and Jasmin’s photographic influence is evident in The Virgin Suicides. Coppola’s style marries Owens’ personal ’70s suburbia with Jasmin’s succulent, colourful portraits of disillusioned youth. Lost in Translation’s opening shot is a replica of Kacere’s painting of a woman in her underwear, “Jutta” (1973), evoking private-sphere femininity.[12]

Of these artists, Ruscha is perhaps drawn from the most.[13] His photo book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), is a continuous view of 1.5 miles of the strip in Los Angeles, shot in real time by a camera strapped to a truck. Coppola was inspired by his documentation of the city, and emulates it in Somewhere (Dir. S. Coppola, 2010). A camera follows Jonny Marco’s car through L.A. for minutes at a time, establishing setting, again, as character-defining.  Coppola also uses this real-time method for intimate moments. One example is a long take of Jonny Marco smoking silently (“I wanted the audience to be alone with this guy, to get to know him.”[14]). This method brings documentary-style intimacy to her work, and again demonstrates her knack for narrative without dialogue. A Ruscha painting - “Cold Beer Beautiful Girls” (2009) - sits in Marco’s apartment to dispel any doubts of these allusions.

            This year, Sofia Coppola has become the second woman ever to win the Best Director prize at Cannes with The Beguiled. Bringing together her aesthetic and narrative talents, the film has further cemented her reputation as a modern auteur.

 

Sandra Kinahan 

Freelance Copywriter 

July 2017 




[1] Sofia Coppola (2/7/17) ‘I never felt I had to fit into the majority view’, interviewed by Guy Lodge for The Guardian

[2] Lodge Interview 2/7/17

[3] Sofia Coppola (8/10/06), ‘Sofia Coppola’ interviewed by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian

[4] Lodge, 2/7/17

[5] Daisy Woodward, ‘Sofia Coppola’s Colour Palettes’, AnOther Magazine, 14/6/17

[6] Rogert Ebert, review of Marie Antoinette, 19/10/17

[7] Tim Weiner (character), The Virgin Suicides (Dir. S. Coppola 1999)

[8] Joanna Elena Batsakis, ‘Sofia Coppola: Cine-Poet’, The Focus Pull, 2/11/14

[9] O’Hagan Interview

[10] Lodge Interview

[11] Batsakis

[12] Batsakis

[13] Batsakis

[14] Sofia Coppola, ‘The Director and Star of “Somewhere”: At the Intersection Between Life and Art’, Beverly Berning, Culture Vulture,  2/12/10 

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