When I asked whether Sofia Coppola considers herself a feminist director, she explains, “I never thought about labeling myself. I just make what I’m interested in and I really embrace my female point-of-view.” Based on her filmography, it’s evident her point-of-view is many and varied. She is a feminist director, but one tuned into the changing landscape of feminism that’s still promulgated on idealizing and exploiting females for consumption.
I was thirteen when I saw Sofia Coppola’s debut feature, The Virgin Suicides. I’d always had a more mature reaction to film than my peers, but Coppola’s film spoke to me. It told me my feelings of alienation, isolation and yearning to fit in weren’t new or unique. Coppola showed me the world probably wouldn’t appreciate who I was, but that I was important nonetheless. Since that time, the director has grown into an Academy Award-winning director with her sixth theatrical feature film, The Beguiled, continuing the conversation of how women are, and should be, portrayed in cinema.
Released when Coppola was just 28, The Virgin Suicides encapsulates the director’s interest in female desire and a stifling society that tempers it. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, it is the story of the five Lisbon sisters, growing up in a Michigan suburb in 1971. The Lisbon sisters are interested in boys and sex, but aren’t allowed a safe or encouraging way of expressing said desire. When a male comes to dinner they immediately, and secretly, glom onto him; a shot under the dinner table shows the Lisbon sisters’ feet on his. The slightest hint of skin, like Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) baring her shoulders without a sweater, causes her mother to express that she cover up. For Coppola’s females, there is no healthy way of being a sexual woman in society. Boys, parents and the world at large will always believe there is something wrong.
Told through the clouded lens of their male neighbors, Coppola creates a world familiar yet hindered by expectations and, ultimately, male dominated. The unknown male narrator illustrates how his friends romanticize the girls, calling them “beautiful creatures” whose inner thoughts are a total mystery. The Lisbon sisters become a gateway to God Himself, oracles who “understood love, and even death.” In the wake of the youngest sister Cecilia’s suicide, a pamphlet is dispersed to students, providing tips on how to spot a depressed teen while newscasts ask parents what their children are up to. The Lisbon sisters are unknowable to everyone, but especially to their male peers, who are left to forever question why they killed themselves.
The boys’ desire to understand the Lisbon sisters is misinterpreted time and again. While “decoding” Cecilia’s diary, Tim Winer, dubbed “The Brain” attempts to mansplain her personality and the reason for her demise. He calls Cecilia a “dreamer” and “out of touch with reality.” His armchair psychology is proven incorrect when he can’t even pronounce the name of one of the men referenced within the diary’s pages. The boys can only attempt to understand the Lisbons through other male experiences. Several boys are interviewed, all of whom are uninterested in getting to the heart of the Lisbon girls’ personality and only talk about sleeping with them.
The male given any sense of legitimacy is Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), one of Lux Lisbon’s paramours. The moment provides legitimacy to the other boys’ stories while simultaneously giving Trip the glory. He opines, in rehab of all places, that he “never got over that girl,” but feels little remorse for abandoning her on a football field. “I didn’t care how she got home,” he drily intones. Hiis story involves slut-shaming Lux while presenting the “true” version of what countless boys before have seemingly lied about.
In 2006, Coppola embarked on her most ambitious project, a biopic of doomed queen Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette is the apotheosis of the “girl under glass” motif seen in The Virgin Suicides before and The Beguiled later. Sent off like a lamb to slaughter, married off to a man she doesn’t know, Marie Antoinette is warned that “all eyes will be upon you.” As she traverses the unknown French court she’s judged; by her husband, who refuses to have sex with her; the King and the courtiers who blame her for their lack of an heir; and, by extension, the grander world stage who see France as a global superpower. Marie herself is a sexual being, desperate to share physical love with a husband who turns away from her and treats her more like a friend, leaving her compelled to find physical satisfaction outside her marriage in the arms of Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan).
The French court hisses and boos her for presumably being barren, but they lack the knowledge that behind closed doors it is her husband who refuses her. Coppola plays with this theme of isolation and miscommunication time and again. Coppola loves to show isolation amongst the masses, situations where the outer world is confused and lacks understanding of why bad things happen. In 2003’s Lost in Translation and 2010’s Somewhere, characters live in major metropolises and find themselves just as lonely and isolated. Marie Antoinette utilizes this to look at how an increase in status comes at the expense of personal identity. Marie becomes a grander fixture in the French court her public persona becomes wrapped up within her personal persona. As her extravagant parties are perceived by the masses as proof of her apathy towards the starving populace—the famous “let them eat cake” exchange—the private and public bring about destruction. Coppola moves societal expectation away from her locale and puts it on a national pedestal. The men advising Marie demand she must please both her new home, and by extension her husband and King, while doing everything she can to benefit her homeland and mother. Marie Antoinette becomes no different than Lux Lisbon, whose sexual escapades become proof of the sexual beast the boys envision she is, as opposed to a lonely woman seeking escape.
In 2010 Coppola made the minimalist film Somewhere which demonstrates her influence in shaping male characters who are, often enough, completely numb to life. Dorff’s Johnny Marco is no different than Bill Murray’s Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, in that they keep themselves from loving anything at the expense of experiencing life. Marco and Harris are grown-up versions of the neighbor boys in the Lisbon house. Each looks at the woman in their life—whether it’s Johnny and his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), or Bob’s newfound friend Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson)—and can’t fathom them. The women are a mystery. Cleo and Charlotte make their intentions to the men known, but Johnny and Bob are too self-absorbed to decode it.
Lost in Translation and Somewhere bring Coppola’s public and private life into stark relief. Coppola says she worries about whether her own public persona influences her work. Critics have called her out as a woman who writes about what she knows: beautiful rich people. “I want to make something authentic…I worry sometimes that [my characters] are too privileged, but that’s the world I know about. I feel I can only write what I know and hopefully there’s some universal, human aspects that everyone can relate to.” It’s easy to create parallels to Coppola’s own life, particularly in Somewhere, the story of a successful movie star’s (Stephen Dorff) attempts to connect with his estranged daughter (Elle Fanning) that seems a mirror image to her relationship with her own father, director Francis Ford Coppola.
Unlike Marie Antoinette, whose gender limits her from giving up her queendom, the men in Coppola’s world are given a choice in their life’s direction and it’s unknown whether they do anything significant with it. Lost in Translation and Somewhere end with the male character’s fate undefined. Does Bob go home to his wife and child? Does Johnny reconnect with Cleo and become the father she dreams of? Coppola wants to be authentic and that requires leaving the story untold. This could explain why Lost in Translation and Somewhere are the only two films she’s scripted free of adapted material with a male protagonist. Johnny Marco and Bob Harris can only go so far as their female counterparts allow them to. Once Charlotte and Cleo leave the frame, the story must end.
The one outlier in Coppola’s career spans the bridge between her original films and her adapted works. Based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” The Bling Ring follows a group of Los Angeles teens who rob celebrities in the Hollywood Hills. The film is a gaudy, garish look at teenagers that’s harrowing in its authenticity. There’s a romanticization within The Bling Ring that’s also found in The Virgin Suicides. Coppola states, “ I felt teen movies never looked good. Why shouldn’t teenagers have a good aesthetic?” She litters her frames with large closets stuffed with clothes and other accoutrements that we’ve come to expect from movies focused on teenagers, and from Coppola’s works as well. Showing the commodification of adolescence, the teens engage in robbery out of boredom, to live a lifestyle promoted by TMZ and other gossip rags. Designers are name-dropped like M&Ms and at one point, while raiding Paris Hilton’s house, masterminds Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) walk past an image of Hilton in a shirt that says “Can you afford me” a question the teens answer “yes” to by robbing her blind.
Rebecca, Marc, Nicki (Emma Watson) and crew are modern-day Marie Antoinettes, gambling and partying with no regard to consequences. Unlike the doomed queen, the group are held up as heroes, given their own brands and websites. It makes you wonder if Marie Antoinette had Twitter, would things have been different? The Bling Ring’s character are relatable in that they depict a teenage landscape obsessed with celebrity and branding. Like the Lisbon sisters, the teens here present an ideal. We see the group in nightclubs and hanging with celebrities, but to “keep up with the Joneses” it forces them to embark on a life of crime.
The Bling Ring stands as Coppola’s most cynical work. The Lisbon sisters are the sacred deer sacrificed because of an unfeeling society, a similar sentiment felt in Marie Antoinette. Somewhere and Lost in Translation end on more hopeful notes with characters who profess to make a change, though the consequences are undefined. The Bling Ring is Coppola’s way of saying there’s no understanding teens today. What once was a time of youth and freedom is now frightening and criminal. Since Coppola is now a mother it could be said these are her own fears of raising children in Hollywood today.
All Coppola’s theme culminate with The Beguiled, her first remake. While it’s tackling material she already charted in her debut, there’s an air of maturity that opens the door for a litany of films just as complex as their predecessors. The women of The Beguiled are contained within a Civil War setting that boasts many commonalities to the Lisbons in 1971. Each group is unable to express their sexuality and thus desperate to please the first male to enter their domain. In a callback to Virgin Suicides, teacher Edwina (played by Dunst) is asked to cover her shoulders by Ms. Martha (Nicole Kidman). Unlike the Lisbons, this desire for sex extends to the adult women of the school, compelled to remain protective and chaste influences for their younger charges. The women of The Beguiled are protected at the expense of their sexuality. Miss Martha destroys Edwina’s chance at happiness in a misguided attempt to “protect” and keep her cloistered, no different than Kathleen Turner’s Mrs. Lisbon, who fails to understand how her “love” smothered her daughters to death. The young women in Virgin Suicides presume that the only way they’ll be free is to die; in The Beguiled freedom comes by offing the man who threatens their autonomy and hegemony. Coppola’s “girl through glass films—”Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and The Beguiled—focus on a tight-knit cabal of women who provide support, but more often than not constrict and tear each other down. Coppola says, “I think there’s a mysterious and powerful effect and dynamic of a group of girls or women. I missed having sisters, but female friendships have always been important to me.”
Sofia Coppola is a director aging in line with her audience. Watching her films as I change through life adds additional complexity. In a way she captures both her own state of becoming through her work, as well as the lives of all the women she’s touched alongside.