Thursday, June 6, 2013

Riske Business: The Films of Sofia Coppola

The most enjoyable part of my 2013 movie-watching summer has been going back and catching up on old favorites. I’ve watched a bunch of Star Trek, all of the Fast and Furious movies and the Before Sunrise trilogy, but no revisit was more of a pleasure than the filmography of Sofia Coppola.

Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors, and I wanted to take an opportunity before her next movie The Bling Ring is released to point out why I think she’s one of the best writer-directors working in movies today. If you haven’t caught up with all her work yet, I am envious of you.
There is something about Sofia Coppola movies that hit me in a way no other director does. I guess she’s my angst. I just seem to share her sensibility and her movies know how to push my emotional buttons. Her movies are like daydreaming while listening to a really good album. You just get lost in them. They are moody, sensitive, empathetic, soulful and, at times, sublime. They are also meandering and indulgent but in a way that doesn’t bother me.

I wonder if the sensitivity and empathy come from her real life. It has to, right? Coppola seems to be at home and knowledgeable in not only American culture (The Virgin Suicides, Somewhere) but also Japanese (Lost in Translation) and Italian (Somewhere) and the sense of setting in all of her movies is uncanny. This perspective probably comes from her globetrotting as a member of the vast Coppola troupe of artists. I also think the sensitivity and empathy in her movies (particularly to women) might stem from how much crap Coppola took for her Razzie-winning performance in The Godfather Part III. Who knows -- if that went well, she might have become an actress and we might not have gotten to see her output as a director. I also think she is unique in exploring women in general, especially in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, where she seems to be considering the female gender and what society wants out of them. It’s not usually in their best interests.
Sofia Coppola’s feature directorial career began with 2000’s The Virgin Suicides. From the start, it is obvious that she is a master at capturing mood (and has a unique voice) but her storytelling chops are not yet honed. Interestingly enough, The Virgin Suicides might be her most traditional movie in terms of narrative. Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere are more character studies that free flow and avoid a traditional narrative structure. With The Virgin Suicides, she’s using an existing novel as the source material (it’s said to be Coppola’s favorite book) to establish her own voice, which she resoundingly does. It’s a personal story for her to tell -- a theme that continues throughout the rest of her work. Of all of her movies, The Virgin Suicides is the most affecting. I have trouble shaking the movie for days after watching it.

In brief, the story concerns a strict family in 1970s Michigan raising five teenage daughters who all end up committing suicide. The story is framed from the point of view of the neighborhood boys who worship the girls but never know or understand them. The Virgin Suicides is a very sad movie -- few are as good at expressing such malaise -- but it’s shocking how Coppola manages to make the movie NOT depressing. I think that’s because Coppola occasionally gives the viewer a little moment of comedy, relief or happiness when things get too glum. More importantly, she makes the viewer almost a backseat detective, trying to deduce (along with the narrator) what exactly happened that caused the girls to all end their lives. The mysteriousness makes the movie all the more haunting. The Virgin Suicides has a lot of interesting themes all working at once: our need to analyze and interpret events we cannot understand, our curiosity with death and why we are drawn to it, men only considering women for their own purposes and not trying to understand them as individuals (the girls are seen almost like movie stars) and the way we hold onto pain in order to keep memory alive. The most powerful element seeded in the movie is that these girls are being at least emotionally abused in plain sight of an entire neighborhood and everyone chooses to watch the proceedings like a movie, never intervening. It’s as if to say that we (maybe as movie audiences) want drama more than reality and are content being passive voyeurs.

Like all of the movies by Sofia Coppola, the music is well selected and says everything about each scene, allowing for economy of dialogue. I also noticed that The Virgin Suicides is a mirror to Coppola’s later work, Marie Antoinette.
Next came 2003’s Lost in Translation, which is one of those movies that is so good it looks effortless. Everything works. It’s a very funny movie filled with great personal observations. It’s said that Lost in Translation was semi-autobiographical for Sofia Coppola. Scarlett Johansson is Coppola. Giovanni Ribisi’s character (as Johansson’s husband) was said to be a riff on Coppola’s real-life ex-husband Spike Jonze and Anna Farris’ ditzy movie star was supposed to be a parody of Cameron Diaz. This is also the movie that made me turn the corner and start to like Bill Murray. Up until 2003, I was always bothered by his sourpuss jerk act, but this movie made me understand that persona a little better. As I mentioned before, one of Coppola’s strengths as a director is making you empathize with her characters. She also gets a career-best performance from Scarlett Johansson. Unlike other directors, Coppola knows what to do with Johansson besides making her seem sexy.

Lost in Translation does so many great things. It’s a movie that gets how wonderful it can be to wander around a foreign city by yourself, how everyone wants a witness to their lives and how we willingly isolate ourselves (represented by staying in the hotel) as opposed to taking a risk and venturing into the city (i.e. the unknown) which is usually more exciting and rewarding. JB has mentioned on the podcast that some people believe life is an adventure and that some people reject that theory. This is partly what Lost in Translation is all about. At the end, it is a very hopeful movie that understands that incredible things happen all the time -- especially when you least expect it.

A lot has been made of the relationship between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Is it romantic or is it more the comfort of strangers in a strange place? I think the connection happens because each recognizes the other has something they need. Both characters have a lot to get off their chests, and they're the type of feelings that can more easily be expressed honestly to a stranger. Johansson needs confidence and Murray is someone who tells her to relax and that he believes in her. Murray needs to go outside himself and almost be a parent to Johansson. It’s a common feeling for most people to feel better when helping others. Murray learns, through spending time with Johansson, that guiding someone else who’s stuck (when you’re stuck yourself) makes everything better. I wonder if Lost in Translation could even happen today. Would social networking have tarnished the goodbye between Murray and Johansson at the end? Sure, email was around back then, but would Murray have whispered “I’m on Facebook and Twitter” into Johansson’s ear if the movie were made in 2013? I also think it’s cool that characters throughout the movie are having Hall of Kick Ass moments with Murray’s character -- good for them! Plus, Coppola is again mirroring later work. There are many similarities between Lost in Translation and Somewhere.
Riding a career high with Lost in Translation, Coppola’s next movie was her most ambitious: 2006’s Marie Antoinette. Just like in The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette features some of Kirsten Dunst’s best work. Coppola really knows how to bring the A-game out of her actors. The movie is Coppola’s least successful work, but also the most interesting for various reasons. The movie is very anachronistic, foregoing the traditional biopic route to incorporate glam rock fashions that would be at home in the late '70s and throughout the '80s and, more importantly, New Wave music of that era as a way to encapsulate the Marie Antoinette era – decadence, frivolity, emo and ennui.

The '80s music is key in modernizing the Marie Antoinette character so audiences can better understand her. She’s portrayed as someone living in the moment as opposed to someone who knows they are a character out of history. She’s a girl who is reckless and irresponsible, but not necessarily immature. She was thrust into a role she was not ready for and at a time she was not ready for it. Coppola understands that the story is a tragedy -- Marie Antoinette matures by the end of the movie, but at that point it’s too late. Her fate is already sealed. The movie plays as a neat inverse of the "Age of Entitlement" of modern movies, where a young character is given a position of enormous power and responsibility and turns into the savior for all. Coppola’s Marie Antoinette argues that doing this can prove very costly for everyone.

Getting back to the mirroring, let’s look at all of the common threads between The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette: both movies feature young girls who are free spirits but not allowed to be themselves, rebel and pay dearly for it; the last acts of both movies play very tense (almost like thrillers) with mounting dread; both explore insular worlds where certain characters ignore the gravity of the events happening in plain sight around them, and both close on the ghostly remnants of abandoned homes.
Marie Antoinette was met with a mixed response critically (it was considered a step back from Lost in Translation) and bombed financially, which landed Coppola in movie jail. Somewhere was the result, and it’s a really good, under-seen movie featuring strong performances by a never better Stephen Dorff (who may have landed electronic cigarette ads from this...just kidding) and the freakishly talented Elle Fanning. It’s also the safest movie of Sofia Coppola’s career. It covers one of her favorite subjects -- celebrity -- and once again takes place primarily in a hotel. The movie is basically a feature length version of the song from Pinocchio ("Hi diddly dee, an actor’s life for me..") but it’s original in that sense. I think it’s cool to see actors at press tours or sitting in makeup tests. The movie also reminded me of a famous Jack Nicholson quote where he (paraphrasing) says that a celebrity meets more people in a year than most non-celebs meet their entire lives. To the movie’s benefit, it explores that notion. Yes, Stephen Dorff’s character meets a lot of people (most are pretty girls who want to fuck him…GOOD FOR YOU) but almost all of the conversations are surface-level. It’s no mistake that Somewhere and Lost in Translation both feature scenes of characters existentially crying into the phone to people who are too busy to understand them. Coppola understands that even people of celebrity status and wealth have feelings that are sometimes marginalized because of their good fortune. She sees the loneliness in all of it.

Of all of Sofia Coppola’s movies, Somewhere is the one where you really marvel at her technique. She makes completely ordinary, innocuous moments hypnotic and fascinating. She adds a lot of local flavor (mirroring Lost in Translation) to enhance setting, mood and character development. Coppola likes to capture moments with these fringe characters because they’ll be special moments. Somewhere is a movie without traditional plot-derived conflict, but it feels very important because it, like all of her movies, deals with the question "What is my purpose?"

So if you haven’t seen all of Sofia Coppola’s movies, I strongly recommend you check them out. It might not be your cup of tea, but if it is you will have a new director to love. Still not convinced? Sofia Coppola is also very good at knowing where to put a camera.


  1. Great article, Adam, of her movies I've only seen Lost in Translation and that was during the budding romance with my still girlfriend/wife/spousal equivalent so I don't think I was paying that close attention - need to rewatch that and all the others as well. Consider me one of the lucky ones getting to view and hopefully love them for the first time.

    And maybe then I'll have a reason to look forward to The Bling Ring other than the humina-humina GIF Doug posted a couple months ago.

  2. "Lost in Translation" and "Somewhere" have given Sofia Coppola an automatic must-watch for every new movie she makes, though "Marie Antoinette" was a mini-disaster IMO. I enjoy her mise-en-scene and come away from her movies feeling there's life in indie American cinema, even if its somewhat derivative of the better works of Godard and (primarily) Antonioni. "Bling Ring" cannot come soon enough. :-)

    1. BTW Adam, in case you missed it, here's my take (based entirely on your pushing it on us) on "After Earth."

    2. Marie Antoinette is her only movie that feels sluggish to me. I still like it as a whole.

      Glad to know I'm not the only non-critic in the world that saw After Earth. My review was 50% coming from 'it's not that bad' and 50% feeling like sticking up for something just because everyone was dumping on it.