The Work of Sofia Coppola

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Writer-director Sofia Coppola has come a long way since her infamous acting role in her father’s 1990 film “The Godfather Part III.” As one of Hollywood’s brightest and coolest filmmakers, Coppola has a knack for visual storytelling. Each of her films is aesthetically compelling, both in their beautiful cinematography and classic soundtracks. Since most of her films have little to no dialogue, the music and visuals carry the weight of Coppola’s narratives, as well as the acting and editing. The themes of Coppola’s films involve alienation, loneliness, detachment, and dissatisfaction, which are usually embodied in her protagonists. Coppola collaborates often with her father (who produced three of her movies), her husband and Phoenix lead singer Thomas Mars (who provided background vocals on a song from “The Virgin Suicides,” made a cameo with his band in “Marie Antoinette,” and composed the score of “Somewhere”), producer Ross Katz, and actress Kirsten Dunst (who appears in three of her films). Though not all of her films are acclaimed, Coppola is undoubtedly one of the most talented film directors and screenwriters working today.

“The Virgin Suicides” (2000)

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After watching “The Virgin Suicides” for a second time, I realized how great the film truly is. Some may become frustrated by the film’s ambiguity and disturbing content — it is called “The Virgin Suicides” after all. But regardless of how it may turn people off, “The Virgin Suicides” is a mesmerizing, eerie, and absorbing drama and a fantastic start for Coppola (arguably her best work). Based on the 1993 novel by James Eugenides, the film features a dreamlike score from rock group Air, picturesque composition, and impressive acting from James Woods, Kathleen Turner, and a young Kirsten Dunst. Set in 1970s Michigan, “The Virgin Suicides” follows the mysterious, blonde-haired adolescent Lisbon sisters, who become the object of desire for a group of hormonal teenage boys from across the street. The important thing to note about “The Virgin Suicides” is not that the story is about who the girls were, but how the boys thought about the girls. The narrative being told here parallels to the film’s overarching theme of voyeurism and loss of innocence, which is referenced throughout the film via the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), who speaks on behalf the male group and recounts the time that changed their lives. The film literally begins with the aftermath of 13-year-old Cecilia’s (Hanna R. Hall) suicide attempt. As the youngest of the five Lisbon sisters, Cecilia is the loneliest and most self-conscious, but also the least clueless; she understands and observes her surroundings with a quiet, subtle sorrow. The Lisbon sisters live under the strict supervision of their authoritarian Catholic parents (Woods and Turner). 14-year-old Lux (Dunst) is the most rebellious and sexually curious of her siblings, toying with the affection of desperate heartthrob Trip Fontane (Josh Hartnett). However, as the Lisbon girls attempt to branch out from their hawk-eyed parents, especially after Cecilia’s second fatal suicide attempt, they ultimately become confined to their house. The now four sisters go with Trip and the group of boys out to homecoming, but Lux gets herself and her sisters in trouble after staying out late from a steamy midnight hookup with Trip on the high school football field. Now, the Lisbon girls have become an enigma, both for the group of boys and the audience, as they are not allowed to be let out of the house for a single moment. While the boys try to figure out what’s happening, the story reflects on the passage of time, both in the present and future. The future parts are primarily just an adult Trip, fondly reminiscing his love for Lux, whom he left quickly after their night out together. While time-lapse sequences are interspersed, we see that Lux is forced to burn all her rock records, causing her to rebel even more and have sex with strangers on her rooftop. Gradually, the Lisbon sisters’ seclusion from the world becomes even more of a mystery. The best scene in the entire film comes when the boys attempt to speak with the sisters by calling them and playing romantic songs on vinyl as a way of subliminal communication (in case their parents were listening). It’s a soft, heartfelt, and nostalgic scene, one of the lighter moments of an otherwise tragic film. Eventually, the boys plan an escape with the Lisbon sisters, which is really only seen in a dream sequence, as the group drives down an empty highway, free of restrictions like school and family. Unfortunately, that’s not how things end up and, well, you can guess what happens next. The Lisbon girls form a suicide pact and one by one, they no longer are just objects of affection. As the film’s conclusion indicates, “The Virgin Suicides” ruminates on how the boys and the rest of the neighborhood dealt with the aftermath of the Lisbon deaths. The narrator notes that while everyone else seemed to forget about the Lisbon family, the boys never forget who they were. That kind of humanism is truly what grounds “The Virgin Suicides” and makes it much more than an ordinary film. Coppola understands the pains of growing up as a young girl and shows that process with a sensitive and perceptive eye.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Lost in Translation” (2003)

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Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” is considered by many to be her best and most accomplished film, but I slightly disagree. It’s definitely an admirable piece of work and certainly has many high points, yet I was sort of disappointed with “Lost in Translation,” especially since it started out great and continued to do well until its somewhat trite ending. Coppola’s recurring themes of loneliness and alienation are definitely present here, as the story follows two Americans, aging actor Bob Harris (a remarkably restrained Bill Murray) and doe-eyed Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), staying in Tokyo. Bob is in Japan to film advertisements for a whiskey he’s promoting, having to suffer through the unintelligible words of his Japanese director and other locals. It doesn’t help that his estranged wife and children don’t want anything to do with him, adding onto his already thick pile of detachment from others. Married to a douchey photographer (Giovanni Ribisi), Charlotte is aimless and so intensely bored by everything that she ends up having a premature existential crisis. Together, Charlotte and Bob make the perfect match, as the two meet in their hotel and decide to walk through the streets of Tokyo, going to strange parties, strip clubs, and karaoke bars. Their friendship feels genuine and heartfelt, especially since Murray and Johansson have surprising platonic chemistry. They are able to infuse those internalized emotions of dread and apathy into those characters without seeming too boring or contrived. At the same time, Bob and Charlotte’s shared dissatisfaction with life is interesting to see, considering that they are both experiencing the same level of distress at different times in their lives. Even when they’re not discussing their hopes, dreams, and problems, Bob and Charlotte bond over the equally fascinating and alien world of Tokyo. In addition to the fantastic lead performances, “Lost in Translation” also benefits from another woozy soundtrack/score, breathtaking cinematography, and a general sense of weightlessness. Even the symbolic lighting is inventive, as Coppola utilizes chiaroscuro (strong light and dark contrasts) to illuminate the conflicting themes of happiness and despondency (perhaps Coppola learned a thing or two from her dad?). However, even with all these positive aspects in mind, my main problem with “Lost in Translation” was mostly with how Bob and Charlotte’s relationship culminated into a kiss in the end. I was praying that the two characters wouldn’t become romantically involved, not because they were already married to other people, but because of their notable age difference (keep in mind, Johansson was 19 when this was being filmed). It once again perpetuated the creepy old man/younger woman trope found in several romantic dramedies (Woody Allen, ring a bell?). Other than that slightly major flaw, “Lost in Translation” was a stirring and visually enthralling experience, a story of two lost souls making a connection in a place that feels somewhat disconnected.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Marie Antoinette” (2006)

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It makes sense why “Marie Antoinette” was considered divisive at the time of its release. For one thing, many people thought it wasn’t a great follow-up to the universally acclaimed “Lost in Translation,” that its maximalist approach was beautiful to watch but unnerving, that it was historically inaccurate, and that it felt empty beneath its gaudy exterior. And while most of that is true, “Marie Antoinette” is still an entertaining and appealing drama that continues to showcase Coppola’s visual, aural, and narrative talents. What “Marie Antoinette” lacks in historical accuracies, it makes up for with another powerful lead performance from Kirsten Dunst as the titular protagonist, lavish cinematography, impressive direction, and an unexpectedly talented cast (Molly Shannon! Rose Byrne! Jamie Dornan! Rip Torn! Danny Huston! Jason Schwartzman!). The film also benefits from an awesome contemporary soundtrack, which may turn some off due to its anachronistic nature. But admit it: how cool is it to hear The Strokes’ “What Ever Happened,” Bow Wow Wow’s “Aphrodisiac,” Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th,” and New Order’s “Ceremony” in a movie set in the late 1700s? The modern soundtrack also bodes well with the character of Marie Antoinette, who was all about living in the present. As the story goes, Marie Antoinette was the infamous Queen of Versailles, known as the first party-girl queen who was unintentionally complicit in the rise of the French Revolution, leading to her death via beheading. But the film primarily focuses on Marie’s journey from an innocent, puppy-loving Austrian heiress to a full-fledged, materialistic aristocrat. Coppola makes the audience sympathize with Marie, showcasing the literal and figurative stripping of her innocence, as she is coerced to wed King Louis XVI of France (Schwartzman) in order to solidify the French-Austrian Alliance. Even while living in luxury, Marie experiences boredom with her rather routine lifestyle: waking up every morning to a crowd of servants, eating gargantuan amounts of foods, attempting and failing at getting her husband to help her conceive a child. Eventually, Marie does bear children, one of whom dies a few days after childbirth. While she is shown to indulge in gluttonous acts like drinking, dining, wearing colorful outfits, and donning awkwardly tall wigs, it’s moments such as when her child dies that truly capture Marie’s despair and utter loneliness. She never wanted this life of royalty, yet it had been given to her and shoved down her throat. That being said, there are some not-so-great parts to the film, particularly its lengthiness (123 minutes, ugh) and occasionally boring sequences. There are a lot of questions one may ask after watching “Marie Antoinette”: Why was Kirsten Dunst speaking in an American accent and not an Austrian/English accent? Why didn’t they show Marie’s beheading in the end? To answer the first question: I’m sure there were certain dramatic liberties Coppola needed to take in order for the film to work and I doubt Dunst would be able to pull of a believable English/Austrian accent. To answer the second question: we don’t see an actual beheading, but one of the last scenes involves Marie going out onto her balcony and resting her head and arms on the balcony’s edge as a group of angry French protestors watch in silence. It essentially resembles a beheading, a symbol of Marie’s defeat as a queen who could not heed to the cries of the people because she couldn’t even heed to her own needs.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Somewhere” (2010)

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In contrast to the maximalism of “Marie Antoinette,” Coppola’s follow-up film, “Somewhere” featured a more minimalist approach. And despite being beautifully filmed and relatively well-acted, “Somewhere” was frustratingly slow-paced, which for some can make the film and for others break the film. It definitely treads familiar ground from Coppola’s previous films — specifically “Lost in Translation” — in its portrayal of an empty male celebrity protagonist finds solace in a younger woman. In the case of “Somewhere,” that male celeb is handsome womanizer Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and the younger woman is his cute, precocious 11-year-old daughter Cleo (a stunning Elle Fanning). Before we even meet Cleo, we get a sense of who Johnny is, based on the painstaking single take opening shot of him driving his black Ferrari around in circles on an empty road. He’s trying to get a thrill out of doing something that should be exciting, but as he stops and gets out of the car, Johnny doesn’t seem too thrilled. In later scenes, Johnny lives a wealthy lifestyle at the famous Chateau Marmont, which acts the film’s symbolic setting for both paradisal living and celebrity ennui. Johnny goes to parties and hooks up with the hottest girl there or watches two pole dancers perform in his bedroom. Though his life sounds like a flurry of fun, it’s really just noise for Johnny, whose joylessness can be seen through his passivity, monotone voice, drinking and smoking, and emotionless face. Coppola has mentioned that Johnny’s character isn’t having an existential crisis, but simply has anhedonia, which means the inability to feel pleasure. That is until he finds some meaning when he’s unexpectedly reunited with Cleo, who stays with him after her mother and his ex-wife goes missing for unknown reasons, possibly from suffering from a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, Cleo and Johnny bond as daughter and father to make up for lost time and their relationship, like in “Lost in Translation,” is genuinely sweet. He watches her ice skating lessons, lets her cook dinner for him, and takes her to Italy for promoting his movie and treats her to a mini vacation. Yet, some of Johnny’s insecurities get the best of him when he sleeps with an Italian model and doesn’t have the guts to explain to Cleo who the woman is at breakfast the next morning. Seeing Cleo’s contempt for his actions, Johnny considering refocusing his lifestyle choices and eventually stops sleeping with random women, even closing the door on a prostitute in his bed and getting burgers with Cleo instead. While the film sounds remarkable, which some parts of it are, I was impatient watching “Somewhere.” There’s no real wow or a-ha moment, but the closest it gets to that occurs late in the film, when an emotional Johnny calls up his ex-wife and tells her that he’s nothing. It’s a quietly powerful and devastating scene, reverberating towards the end when he tells Cleo that he regrets not being around her before and later driving off into the distance, only to get out of the car with the ignition on, not looking back. “Somewhere” is certainly enigmatic and I may revisit it again, but I wouldn’t say this is an essential Sofia Coppola film.

Grade: B

Favorite shots:

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“The Bling Ring” (2013)

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Unfortunately, “The Bling Ring” is Coppola’s weakest film so far, even with captivating cinematography, a promising story, and a hilariously devilish performance from Emma Watson. It also has an aptly pop and hip-hop heavy soundtrack that includes artists Sleigh Bells, 2 Chainz, M.I.A., Rick Ross, Phoenix, and Frank Ocean. Yet not even that can compensate for the film’s extremely unlikable characters, grating performances from Katie Chang and Taissa Farmiga, and an overall uneven tone. It attempts to be a social commentary about fame, obsession, and greed in the post-modern era, which it honestly almost was. Coppola certainly was the right person to write and direct it, but somehow it fell flat. Based on true events, “The Bling Ring” follows a group of unruly, vapid, fame-obsessed high schoolers who break into the homes of Hollywood movie stars and steal their belongings for themselves and to sell to others. The leader and starter of the group, Marc Hall (Israel Broussard), is a quiet, lonely teen, the most likable and sympathetic character of the whole film. He starts out as the new kid at a San Fernando Valley high school, where, on the first day, he meets Rebecca Ahn (Chang), who introduces him to the world of L.A. artifice and vacuity. They start off stealing wallets, then cars, and then jewelry from the home of Paris Hilton. Knowing that Rebecca is his only friend, Marc struggles with his morality in order to have a successful social life. At a club one night, Rebecca introduces Marc to her girl friends: the overtly flashy Nicki (Watson), her adopted sister Sam (Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). Together, they begin breaking and entering Hollywood houses of celebrities, trying on and taking clothes, makeup, and wads of cash. As most crime dramedies go, these kids will eventually be caught and, since this is based on a true story, they are in fact indicted for their actions. “The Bling Ring” never really glorifies the lifestyle of the rich and famous, since these kids essentially absorb it up like empty, overprivileged sponges. With the exception of Marc, who takes full responsibility and apologizes, the rest of them certainly don’t learn from their actions, especially not Nicki. She victimizes herself to her advantage in order to gain exposure from the paparazzi and media, which ultimately works in her favor in the film’s haunting final scene. Yet “The Bling Ring” doesn’t feel as compelling as it should. It’s not necessarily a bad film, but it’s not a great one either.

Grade: B-

Favorite shots:

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One thought on “The Work of Sofia Coppola

  1. Really loving these director portraits. I stopped watching Coppola after Marie Antoinette (which I liked, but not as much as Lost in Translation) – sounds like I times it about right based on your post. I do need to finally see The Virgin Suicides though . . .

    Like

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