[Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for the films The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring.]
It’s no secret that the director’s chair in Hollywood is dominated by men. This isn’t for lack of working women directors; there are plenty who pay their dues working on music videos and television programs who aren’t given the chances necessary to develop themselves as auteurs or even just consistently hired feature film directors. One of the few exceptions to this trend is Sofia Coppola, a strikingly unique filmmaker whose sensibilities are not always in line with what the average audience member has come to expect from cinematic narrative, thereby alienating the average Joe but instead gaining a devoted following that gravitates toward her take on the medium.
Coppola’s work could best be described as mood poems. She opts not to adhere to traditional plot conventions but instead seeks to illustrate themes through snapshots of time in her characters’ lives. An excellent example of this is her feature debut, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, even though this might actually be the most plotted of her filmography. Set in the 1970s during a reported escalation in teen suicides, the film follows five teenage sisters, the youngest of which attempts and eventually succeeds at killing herself. From that point the film explores the lives of the remaining four girls, particularly the second oldest, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), who becomes involved with a boy and rebels against the puritanical sensibilities of her parents.
In this film we see the strong presence of two of Coppola’s favorite themes: The disaffected ennui of troubled youth and the tenuous relationship between people of disparate generations. The eventual suicides of all five sisters are rooted in the problems that most teenagers face: A restrictive lack of independence, problems at school and in their relationships that they cannot talk about with their parents because of either awkwardness or disapproval, isolation from friends, and friends who turn out to be duplicitous and unreliable. Many of these problems come from a parental resistance to the lack of control they have over their daughters’ developing minds and bodies. Rather than embrace their children’s blossoming adulthood, they would rather suffocate their children figuratively until the girls feel no choice but to die literally. And even as the film closes, the parents don’t understand the role they played in their daughters’ deaths, despite the plethora of warning signs in their faces.
However, you shouldn’t think that Coppola’s perspective on inter-generational relations is entirely bleak, as her 2003 film Lost In Translation handily demonstrates. In Tokyo, Japan, two American visitors make their way through the foreign culture. One is the young wife of a celebrity photographer, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), the other is a celebrity named Bob Harris in town to shoot a commercial for whisky (Bill Murray, basically playing himself). Charlotte is a disaffected intellectual who is bored with the vapid company her husband keeps, while Bob is consistently baffled and underwhelmed by the expectations and “perks” of his fame. The two find one another across the hotel bar, and a friendship develops against the strain of their daily lives and generational differences.
Despite inter-generational conflict’s central role in the film, Lost In Translation is much more optimistic that Coppola’s previous film. At the end of the film, her two leads head their separate ways, seemingly because the differences between them have become irreconcilable after Bob chooses to have an affair with someone other than his young female friend. But as we have seen throughout their short time together, their friendship is more than a hope for a sexual escape from the mundanities of lives over which they have no control, and Bob chooses to track Charlotte down in the final scene before heading to the airport. He whispers something into her ear. She kisses him, not romantically, but sadly at his leaving. We may never know what he said, but whatever those magic words were, they reminded Charlotte that their time together is what mattered, even if they will never have it again.
Bob Harris opened the door for Coppola to explore the psychological impact of being a celebrity, from his over-extravagant amenities to the eccentricities of people in a business insulated from the real world. She continued looking at celebrity, but took a slightly different tact to it with the 2006 historical drama Marie Antoinette. With the return of Kirsten Dunst as a leading role, Coppola married her fascination with celebrity with the restless adolescence that Dunst so well portrayed in The Virgin Suicides. Coppola’s Antoinette is a girl taken from her home against her will who must roll with the punches as she represents the future of her home country of Austria in being married to the prince of France (Coppola’s real-life cousin Jason Schwartzman). Antoinette is surrounded by the finest luxuries and must deal with the cloistered noble culture whose boredom results in constant rumor-mongering, backstabbing, and social manipulation. At first resistant to the constant eyes expectantly looking to her as a source of entertainment, she eventually embraces her new surroundings as a coping mechanism. If she is expected to be a gluttonous and egocentric aristocrat, then in order to survive that is what she must become.
Coppola draws explicit parallels to modern celebrity by making as much of the film’s proceedings as gaudy and anachronistic as possible. Juxtaposed with the fabulous costuming and set design are actors who don’t try to affect so much as an accent and a soundtrack that blares pop-punk from the past 30 years rather than classical pieces from the era. The opulent lifestyle is a cage that keeps Antoinette—the real Antoinette—shielded from the constant judgment and expectation that is laid upon her. However, once the French Revolution begins to set in motion, the film’s unspoken conclusion is that this opulence will ultimately be hers and the aristocracy’s downfall. Coppola posits, however, that maybe she is just a victim of her environment. The mechanism she used to survive in the short term would ultimately hide her too well among her peers, and as the queen she became a symbol of the very people from whom she was trying to protect herself.
Marie Antoinette is the least successful of Coppola’s films, primarily because it relies too much on mood and spends so much time on its eccentricities that it collapses under its own runtime. This is why it was refreshing to see her return to smaller productions in the modern day with 2010’s Somewhere while still retaining that sharp observation of all three of her pet interests. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a 30-something who recently rose to celebrity stardom but feels hollow in the party-rich lifestyle he finds himself embroiled in. His 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning)—whom he clearly does not have a close relationship with—winds up on his doorstep and they have to struggle through the awkward process of discovering a paternal relationship.
It’s clear that Johnny never found purpose in being a father, but achieving a career aspiration of stardom rings just as hollowly, if not more so. But even as he tries to connect with his daughter—and he genuinely tries—he becomes enthralled in solo activities and passes his daughter off to other people so that he doesn’t have to cope with the fact that he is supposed to be this young woman’s role model. And she notices as he guiltily objectifies women in a celebrity climate that encourages him to do so. When he finally sends her off to summer camp, he yells over the noise of a helicopter that he was sorry to not have been around. But unlike Bob’s parting words with Charlotte, Cleo doesn’t hear her father’s words, and their parting leaves Johnny hollow with the full realization that he hates his life. So he leaves that life behind, abandoning the party, his hotel suite, and finally, his car to walk away with a growing smile on his face.
But if the story of Johnny Marco is one that inspires hope for those who have become ensconced in the cult of celebrity, Coppola’s latest film, 2013’s The Bling Ring perhaps only inspires dread. Following the exploits of a group of teenagers who discover that celebrities are remarkably security-lax when not at home, we as audience-voyeur are treated to the comically clueless entitlement of rich, teenage, wannabe stars. They commit petty home invasion robberies from the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Megan Fox, seeking to get just a taste of the party-rich lifestyle they want to grow up to have.
What is absolutely perverse about the leads of this film is that their teenage ennui is precisely what leads them to want the celebrity lifestyle. They’re rich and bored, so they think that fame is what will propel them into actual happiness, and tangential attachment to that fame through the material items they steal is enough of a rush to sustain them. Even more insane is how their parental influences are almost universally non-existent or are forgiving to the point that there’s no belief that any wrong has been committed. Guiltlessly, the so-called Bling Ring is propelled into stardom by transgressing against the stars they so admire, and even their punishment is light enough that their notorious status elevates them before the credits roll.
So what have we learned from Mrs. Coppola? From her fascination with teenage tedium, we can deduce that she thinks of teenagers—particularly teenage girls—as some of the most emotionally vulnerable and malleable of people, who often fall victim to social and familial pressures and influences beyond their control. We see that one of those corrupting influences is the cult of celebrity, which causes people to lose themselves to hedonism and forget what is actually valuable, even if subscribing to the cult is merely a mechanism for emotional survival. The cure? Inter-generational support and guidance. When generations are unable to communicate and build bridges for mutual understanding, it’s ultimately the younger generations that suffer for it, and the older generation is most fulfilled when functioning in a guiding and supportive capacity.
Sofia Coppola is a unique voice that has been relatively quiet for the past few years (with the exception of a Netflix holiday special that saw her reunited with Bill Murray), but on the horizon she has a new Western film, a remake of 1971’s The Beguiled that will see Coppola favorites Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning back in the limelight. Why this material appeals to her is hard to say, but you can bet she’ll craft it into a moody piece that enters the psyche of her female leads. And I for one look forward to it.
(via Total Film)