The films of auteur Sofia Coppola explore two things: Narratives of feminine empowerment and the loneliness of masculinity, often with these two intertwined. The Jeffrey Eugenides coming-of-age novel The Virgin Suicides created the perfect platform for Coppola’s first film and displays her interests and sly, mundanely subversive film making.
Coppola established herself as not just a film making child living in the shadow of her famous father, Francis Ford Coppola, but as a prodigy of her art with the 2003 film Lost in Translation, largely considered her best and one of the great films of the early 2000’s.
It is clear to me that Coppola had yet to truly find her own voice with her 1999 film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, but Eugenides’s voice was a good springboard into a film that would build a bridge to Lost in Translation which , for good or ill, became the standard by which Hollywood judged Coppola’s voice. Her following films, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring, and A Very Murray Christmas polarized critics and audiences and Coppola proved that 1. She was willing and able to make films that withdrew from the shadow of Lost in Translation and 2. She, clearly, does not give a crap what (largely) male critics think of her work. So, now, I must own my voice in this conversation: I am a young male critic of Coppola’s work. I have been deeply inspired by her films and I have loved almost all of them, even the ones that have been disliked by critics. Lost in Translation is a great film, one of the best, but so is Somewhere and yes, so is Marie Antoinette.
Coppola’s adaptation of the Thomas Cullinan novel The Beguiled has been making waves and winning awards, including the best director award at Cannes. She is only the second woman in film history to win the award. The first one was fifty-six years ago. American critics and audiences are eager to see The Beguiled when it is finally released on June 30.
6. The Bling Ring
Coming from Sofia Coppola, The Bling Ring is a disappointment. I had hoped, before the film was released, that Coppola would conjure up the charm and atmosphere that she gave us in another important coming-of-age film, The Virgin Suicides.
Instead, The Bling Ring feels like yet another teen movie about bored, rich white kids gone bad. It is full of EDM, lip gloss, Valley Girl talk, hot cars, selfies, and shallow personalities. It feels different from Coppola’s other films. It does not contain a single drop of Coppola’s smokey artistic touch and vibrant feminism. I have tried to convince myself that this was Coppola’s point, to make a shallow teen film about how shallow rich white kids can be. That’s pretty darn “meta” if you think about it! The story of the actual “Bling Ring,” based on an article written by Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair, captivated Coppola enough to make a movie about it.
But, she decided to make a movie that feels like a tremendous waste of time, particularly for her devoted fans. The actors are good at playing shallow, self-absorbed teens, but that is really all that can be said about The Bling Ring. Watching Emma Watson act like a spoiled, wannabe Valley Girl makes a little piece of my heart die. Not only is it Sofia Coppola’s worst film, it isn’t a very good film, period.
A Very Murray Christmas is great. It is proof that Coppola knows how to have fun and that her relationship with the genius Bill Murray is one of the best decisions she ever made — twice!
The Netflix Original holiday special opens in Murray’s New York apartment and looks like a scene right out of Lost in Translation. An aging Murray is dressed in his tuxedo shirt and suspenders with Christmas antlers atop his head. He has that typical Bill Murray look of melancholy on his face as he looks out his window at the lit up NY skyline.
Much like his character in Lost in Translation, Murray is playing a tired, sad, worried actor. He fears he is washed up when the brutal Christmas Eve snowstorm confirms that the Big Apple will be virtually shut down, and his live Christmas special will have to be cancelled. What follows is a charming and hilarious special that features Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, Michael Cera, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Thomas Mars (Coppola’s spouse) and his band Phoenix, Paul Shaffer, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, and Jason Schwartzmann (Coppola’s cousin), among others. The fifty-six minute holiday special reminds us that Coppola has a witty sense of humor and loves to entertain. And that Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola should work together more often.
The first time I watched Marie Antoinette, I was struck by what a gorgeous viewing experience it was. I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Barry Lyndon.
Much like the team of Coppola and Bill Murray, Coppola has proven that she does some of her best work with the wildly underrated actress Kirsten Dunst. The film itself is a force to be reckoned with. It is bright, vibrant, and pulsing with daring feminist energy. Antoinette has always been a controversial historical figure, but Coppola forces us to see her as the product of a lifestyle that chewed her up and spit her out. Dunst plays her as young and immature, certainly, but also as one who contained too much life for the slow death of French royalty.
Sofia’s subversive feminist cinema is quite apparent throughout as we recognize almost immediately that the soundtrack does not fit the era. No, this is not A Knight’s Tale. Coppola established her soundtracks as characters of their own in her movies and, strangely enough, when it’s a period piece, the music doesn’t fit the period. For example, the French electronic band Air provided the ethereal soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides, a story that takes place in 1970’s Michigan. Marie Antoinette features period baroque pieces mixed in with songs by The Strokes, New Order, The Cure, Aphex Twin, and Adam and the Ants. It fits. As strange and off beat as the film is, everything in it fits.
Somewhere is Sofia Coppola’s quiet meditation on fathers and daughters. I’m not sure what impressed Coppola to cast the normally mediocre Stephen Dorff in the lead role of washed up, lonely actor Johnny Marco, but, again, it was a stroke of genius. Dorff is perfectly cast as the wandering, alcoholic star who has completely lost sight of himself. Dorff proves here, that with the right director and the right script, he can actually put on a believable and moving peformance.
I find his work in this film captivating. When the young and luminous Elle Fanning finally breaks her way into Johnny’s loneliness, we watch something wake up within Johnny. A light turns on. It is hard to tell if Coppola is projecting her relationship with her own father onto the film, but, whatever it is, it works really well. Somewhere is not more Lost in Translation and it is not more The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antoinette. It is it’s own quiet, precious light, and for that, we are grateful.
Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel about the suicides of the Lisbon sisters in 1970’s Michigan is a story told by young men, all of whom are exploring the mysteries of womanhood for the first time. Coppola’s adaptation is tragic and lovely film that was released in 1999, the same year as American Beauty, Magnolia, The Matrix, Office Space. All of these films explore themes of depression, dread, and violence inherent in the white suburban American landscape.
The Virgin Suicides is a wonderful film and shows off Coppola’s ability to use music very well (Air’s electronic soundtrack is one of my all-time favorite movie soundtracks) but, held up against Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, it dwarfs in comparison. What Coppola does is very interesting, however. She tells the story of suburban existentialist dread through the eyes of boys just entering the throes of puberty. They might be horny, but, Coppola does not place their adolescent male horniness at the center.
Instead, her focus is their sense of wonder at the seemingly angelic beauty of the Lisbon sisters, of whom Kirsten Dunst is the focal point. Coppola’s move is a bold one. She lets the boys tell the story. And Air. And Kirsten Dunst in a frilly white dress with flowers in her hair. The result is intoxicating and lovely.
Lost in Translation is a flawless beauty of a film. The opening shot of pre-Marvel Scarlett Johansson lying by herself on a hotel bed is Coppola’s gorgeous still-life that leads us into her dream-like vision of Tokyo. But it’s not only this shot that inspires and confounds, it is also the shot of Bill Murray’s lonely, middle-aged actor, in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial, standing tall in an elevator full of shorter Japanese people. It’s the shot of Scarlett Johansson sitting on the window sill in her husband’s tee shirt and looking out over the Tokyo skyline. It’s Murray and Johansson meeting at the bar at 2 am, her with Marlboro Lights and him with a neat whiskey, somehow finding spiritual communion with one another despite the fact that he is in his fifties and she is fresh out of college with a philosophy degree.
They are both, in a word, lost. They don’t understand one another’s world or context. They don’t fully understand their own existences. Murray is married to a woman who doesn’t listen to him anymore. Johansson is married to a photographer who only understands appearances. Johansson cries as she listens to self-help CDs. Murray sits on his bed and listens to a hired hooker try to seduce him poorly. They are both stuck in Tokyo where they don’t understand the language or the culture and yet, they are lost together. At the bar, they find each other, and all Billy Murray needs to ask with a whiskey in one hand and a cigar in the other is, “Are you in?”
Lost in Translation is eloquent, daring, beautiful, and secretive and you will never hear “Just Like Honey” by the Jesus and Mary Chain the same way ever again. Lost in Translation is one of the greatest American films of the past twenty years and if Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes for The Beguiled, I can only guess that Coppola’s return to period filmmaking might be the new standard by which we judge her cinematic voice. All I know is, we devoted fans of Sofia Coppola can’t wait to see it!
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.