FIRST WORKS (1993-1998)
The old adage that “first impressions are everything” is especially true in the world of cinema. Chances are, if the first film an average moviegoer sees from a given director leaves a bad taste in his or her mouth, there won’t be much in the way of eagerness to see that director’s other work.
Some even take their criticism to a personal level, dismissing the director outright on terms of character and artistry. For instance, the first film I ever saw from director Sofia Coppola was 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION.
I was captivated by the quiet sensitivity of her characters and the evocative melancholy of the Tokyo setting, and as such, I’ve come to regard her as an accomplished filmmaker with a uniquely sensitive worldview worth expressing.
However, I know plenty of other people who saw the same movie and have written her off entirely as “boring”, “out of touch”, “over privileged”. As is the case with all forms of art, beauty is in the eye of beholder, and to my mind, Coppola’s films are all filled with an ethereal, ephemeral beauty and deftness of touch that’s exceedingly resonant in our increasingly-mechanized modern world.
The highest-profile and, perhaps, most serious, charge leveled against Coppola’s artistic character is the charge of nepotism. Nepotism courses through nearly every profession, naturally, but it’s an especially-visible phenomenon in Hollywood– after all, when you live in a town where a key barrier to success is “who you know”, having legendary New Hollywood auteur Francis Francis Ford Coppola as your father gets you a pretty serious leg up over the competition.
The film industry is full of such privileged and meagerly-talented royalty with which one could credibly argue for a case of actual nepotism, but the Coppola clan proves the exception to the rule. From immediate offspring like Sofia, Roman, and Gia, to extended family members like Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, visual artistry clearly runs through Coppola blood like a hereditary trait.
Sofia in particular has had a steeper uphill climb than the others– not only did she have to contend with charges of nepotism from an early age, she also had to overcome the inherent challenge of simply being a woman in an almost-exclusively male profession– indeed, she’s only the 3rd woman in Oscar history to be nominated for Best Director.
She’s never disavowed her admittedly privileged upbringing, which has given her an unique, well-traveled outlook on life that many find to be uncompelling at best, and hopelessly out of touch at worst. It’s easy to dismiss her work as a series of shoegazing portraits about the white leisure class, but look again, and you might see a biting self-awareness that adds layers of subtle nuance and humanizing depth.
Over the course of five features (as of this writing), Sofia Coppola has proven her bonafides as a director with her own distinct stamp, and has stepped out from under the overbearing shadow of her father’s legendary career to forge her own path.
Born in New York City on May 14th, 1971, Sofia Coppola was the youngest child of father Francis and mother Eleanor. She quickly earned her status as an artistic figurehead of Generation X by getting herself involved with film and fashion at an exceedingly early age.
She made her film debut only a year after her birth, standing in for Michael Corleone’s infant son during the iconic baptism scene in her father’s 1972 classic, THE GODFATHER. Her childhood was well-traveled, often accompanying her parents on Francis’ film shoots around the world– including a long stretch in the Philippines while her father was making APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).
In the 1980’s, she made efforts to cultivate an acting career by appearing in several of her father’s films from that decade: THE OUTSIDERS (1983), RUMBLE FISH (1983), THE COTTON CLUB (1984) and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).
She even appeared in Tim Burton’s 1984 short FRANKENWEENIE under the name “Domino”– a stage name she adopted for what she perceived to be its implications of glamor. At fifteen, she began exploring a lifelong interest with fashion by interning at Chanel (1).
1989 saw her professional writing debut, having collaborated with her father on the script for LIFE WITHOUT ZOE, a short film contained within the larger omnibus feature NEW YORK STORIES. Following her graduation from St. Helena High School in New York in 1989, she moved to Oakland, CA to attend Mills College.
After her disastrous, Razzie Award-winning supporting performance in THE GODFATHER PART III (1990), Coppola abandoned her budding acting career altogether in favor of one behind the camera. She would transfer to Cal Arts in Valencia before dropping out altogether to start a fashion line called “Milkfed” (which is still sold exclusively in Japan)(3).
WALT MINK: “SHINE” (1993)
Coppola’s first official credit as a director is for a music video– a format that served as the entry point into the industry for many members of her generation. Created for Walt Mink’s track “SHINE” in 1993, the video marks the first appearance of several themes and images that would come to define Coppola’s distinct aesthetic.
“SHINE” seems to foreshadow the central approach Coppola would take for her 1999 debut feature, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: a dreamy, shoegazing feel with a pastel color palette and a warm, summery setting. The piece is mostly shot as a conventional performance video, intercut with handheld footage of teenagers napping in the grass and swimming in the pool.
It’s obvious that Coppola is depicting a world she knows quite well– one of suburban privilege and leisure (that’s also exclusively white). Notably, the video was shot on the Coppola estate, and edited by filmmaker Spike Jonze, who Coppola would marry in 1999.
A simple concept with little structural shape to speak of, “SHINE” nonetheless hints at the artistic style Coppola would come to be known for: an observational and nostalgic gaze spiked with a punk edge.
THE FLAMING LIPS: “THIS HERE GIRAFFE” (1996)
Coppola’s second music video, for The Flaming Lips’ “THIS HERE GIRAFFE”, further embraces the rough-hewn punk inclinations of its predecessor. She again adopts a loose, cinema-verite approach that utilizes handheld photography to capture fleeting moments instead of staged setups, while embracing the imperfections of the format by keeping in light leaks and other filmic aberrations.
When combined with the punches of bright pastel colors dotting the otherwise monochromatic, blue-collar suburban environs, the overall effect reads as an avant-garde twist on the mundane. The video, which also delightfully features literal giraffes, further explores Coppola’s aesthetic interests in the iconography of suburbia as perceived by the teenage female.
A substantial amount of attention is paid to what is undoubtedly a girl’s bedroom– festooned with cats, rock band posters, and a plentiful splash of pink. Coppola’s unpolished technique echoes the rough, crunchy quality of the Flaming Lips’ track, making for an effortless match between sound and picture.
LICK THE STAR (1998)
At the age of twenty seven, Coppola made her narrative debut with the 1998 short film, LICK THE STAR. She wrote the script in collaboration with Stephanie Hayman, spinning a story about a clan of vicious teenage girls who hover obsessively around their queen bee while hatching a juvenile plot to poison the boys at their middle school.
Whereas most burgeoning filmmakers must make their first narrative efforts on a truly independent scale, her status as a second-generation Coppola filmmaker availed her of some admittedly enviable production resources.
LICK THE STAR was produced by Andrew Durham and Christopher Neil through Francis Ford Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope, as well as through her own directing representatives at Director’s Bureau. She even got such cinematic luminaries (and family friends) as Peter Bogdanovich and Zoe Cassavetes to make brief cameos as a principal and a PE teacher, respectively.
Despite these considerable helping hands, Coppola’s work on LICK THE STAR ultimately asserts itself, reinforcing the strength and competence of her own unique voice.
LICK THE STAR was shot on black and white 16mm film by cinematographer Lance Acord, who would go on to become a regular collaborator of Coppola’s on her feature work, in addition to the work of other directors in their wider social circle (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, etc.).
The decision to shoot in this format is undoubtedly an aesthetic one as opposed to a pragmatic necessity– Coppola’s handheld, observational approach effortlessly melds with the grainy monochromatic film stock and various needle drops from various garage bands like Free Kittens, The Amps, and The Go-Gos to create a tone that’s unequivocally punk rock.
The compositions are mostly functional and close-up, rather than deliberately artistic and cinematic. At the same time, however, Coppola punctuates her fairly straight-forward cinematography with impressionistic flourishes like languid slow-motion shots at key beats in the story.
While the rough-hewn cinematography may stand in stark contrast to the dreamy beauty of her feature work, the narrative themes on display in LICK THE STAR are part and parcel with her core aesthetic. The most obvious of these is the singularly feminine perspective, detailing the exploits of a squad of proto-Mean Girls who have managed to grip their entire school in a stranglehold.
They inflate the superficial dramas of middle school with life or death stakes, injecting a heavy dose of existential angst into the world of white suburban privilege. Coppola delicately walks the fine line between empathy and self-awareness, giving the plight of her characters serious weight while never losing sight of the larger social perspective– these girls aren’t inherently bad people, they’re just conditioned that way by the materialistic culture they were born into.
Their disaffected style of talking isn’t simply bad acting (although that may indeed be the case for some), it’s a deliberate decision employed to illustrate how complacency can lead to a severe detachment from reality and emotion.
Beneath its choppy surface layer, Coppola’s first short evidences a substantial degree of directorial promise and raw talent. It would go on to screen regularly on the Independent Film Channel, but has otherwise been little-seen by all but her most die-hard fans.
Nevertheless, LICK THE STAR accomplished its purpose of opening a path for Coppola to espouse her own distinct voice– one that has made American independent cinema all the richer.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999)
Some stories are so perfectly suited to a particular filmmaker that it’s inconceivable to think of anyone else sitting behind the camera. Director Sofia Coppola’s 1999 debut feature, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, is such a film: a stunning harmony of source matter and artistic vision that immediately announced her as a major new voice in American independent cinema.
The film was adapted by Coppola herself from the 1993 Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name, which spun the nostalgic and melancholy tale of five sisters blossoming into womanhood one fateful suburban summer, hidden away from the world by their overbearing but well-meaning parents.
At the sprightly young age of 27, the music video director / budding fashionista / art world socialite reportedly hadn’t yet considered a feature filmmaking career for herself, but when she was given a copy of “The Virgin Suicides” by her friend (and Sonic Youth frontman) Thurston Moore, she knew she had the perfect story with which to make her feature debut.
Undeterred by the fact the book was already in development elsewhere, she went against the advice of her father, esteemed 70’s auteur Francis Ford Coppola, and wrote her own script anyway. When she presented her draft to the rights holders, they agreed to make her version of the film instead of what they’d been developing on their own.
Soon enough, Coppola found herself in the suburban outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, shooting her first feature film with a budget of $6 million and the production oversight of her father’s company, American Zoetrope. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is set firmly in the 1970’s, but the film’s perspective approaches the story from a point of hindsight, narrated in the present day by the curious neighborhood boys at the center of the film.
Now grown men with careers and family of their own, they can’t help but steal away to quiet corners whenever they’re back together, going over their old teenage obsession with the five Lisbon sisters who all took their own lives in a defiant act of rebellion against their strict parents.
James Woods and Kathleen Turner (who played Coppola’s older sister in father Francis’ 1986 feature PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED) play Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, an uptight religious couple who fear for their daughters’ collective chastity to the point that they are willing to seal them off almost entirely to the outside world.
As such, the five sisters– Bonnie (Chelsea Swain), Therese (Leslie Hayman), Cecilia (Hannah R. Hall), Mary (AJ Cook), and Lux (Kirsten Dunst)– have taken on an enigmatic, almost-ethereal air that captivates the neighborhood boys.
Their focus (and Coppola’s) converges on Lux in particular, played by Dunst with a flirty, knowing sensuality. This may be Coppola’s first film, but this isn’t the first time she’s worked with Dunst– the actress previously appeared in Francis Ford’s LIFE WITHOUT ZOE, a segment for the 1989 omnibus film NEW YORK STORIES that she co-wrote with Dad.
This particular summer coincides with Lux’s sexual awakening, sparked by a romance with the school stallion Trip Fontaine, played by a gangly Josh Hartnett in an aloof, cocksure performance. The revelation of this development causes a crackdown on the girls’ freedoms, leading to the mysterious group suicide that will captivate the neighborhood boys’ attention for the rest of their lives.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES places an emphasis on its cast’s performances in lieu of sweeping turns of narrative, a challenge to which the members of Coppola’s cast ably meet– including short cameos from Danny DeVito as a psychiatrist and future Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen, as a moody member of Trip’s football team.
Edward Lachmann’s cinematography ably evokes the summery, nostalgic vibe that Coppola aims for, and in the process helps to establish the foundations of Coppola’s signature aesthetic. Exterior scenes are lathered in warm, saturated tones, golden highlights and lens flares, while interiors are rendered with pops of bright color against the beige florals of white suburban domesticity.
Coppola and Lachmann manage to imprint a palpable sensuality on the 35mm film image, imbuing it with a soft, creamy texture not unlike sun-kissed skin. She frames the action primarily in wide, thoughtfully-considered compositions, making full use of the 1.85:1 frame while accentuating the potency of her closeups by virtue of their relative scarcity.
The camerawork adopts a classical, period-appropriate approach, utilizing dolly moves, locked-down one-offs, and languid traveling shots from the perspective of a car’s backseat (something of a signature shot within Coppola’s features).
Other aspects of the film, however, suggest more of an impressionistic, contemporary vibe– seen most visibly in the use of double exposures, 8mm home movie footage, timelapse photography, and even a present-day, documentary-style testimonial from a middle-aged, burned-out Trip Fontaine.
The most effective of these techniques is the staging of key conversations behind closed doors, reinforcing the film’s central themes of isolation and secrecy while subtly placing the audience in the same space of physical remove and unknowable speculation experienced by the male narrators. Production designer Jasna Stefanovic rounds out Coppola and Lachmann’s approach with scene dressing, props and costumes that authentically evoke a vintage 70’s, yet timeless, feel.
While Coppola might embrace a subdued application of period iconography, she uses the opportunity afforded by the film’s soundtrack to indulge in some iconic 70’s-era jams. Whereas other 70’s-set films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) embraced the glitzier disco aspects of the era, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES explores rock-and-roll’s contributions to the musical landscape.
Well known tracks like Electronic Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic”, or Heart’s “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” round out a suite of needle drops sourced from artists like Todd Rundgren, Al Green, and The Bee Gees.
French electronica band Air crafts a laid-back and melancholy mix of xylophones, beat kits, and other synthesized elements into an original cue called “Playground Love”, serving as the film’s de facto theme song while evoking the feel of a languid summer afternoon.
Like her generational peer Quentin Tarantino, Coppola isn’t afraid to abruptly silence a moment of non-diegetic music when she transitions to the next scene with a hard cut. The soundtrack works in perfect harmony with Coppola’s dreamy aesthetic, establishing her reputation as a filmmaker with a strong ear for sublime music.
The feminine mystique is a common concept present through Coppola’s work, perhaps none more so than in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, which is literally drenched in it like humidity. The male narrators can’t seem to figure out what drives these enigmatic young women– their detached emotionality bears nothing in the way of clues or insight as to how they’re really feeling, which is why their dramatic group suicide comes as such a shock.
The artifacts of their lives– magazine clippings, records, hairbrushes, etc– become objects worthy of intense scrutiny and study. Their bedrooms become sacred shrines to girlhood. The process of puberty, of flowering into womanhood, is a magical, mysterious phenomenon to these boys.
The girls are fully aware of the mystery of their inner lives, evidenced early in the film by Cecilia’s response to a doctor who asks her why she would attempt something so drastic of suicide: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.”
The quiet, observational femininity that drives Coppola’s worldview dovetails nicely with THE VIRGIN SUICIDES’ themes of teenage suburban angst. Like her approach to her 1998 short LICK THE STAR, Coppola walks the fine line between empathy for her characters and a wider perspective.
The reasons for the girls’ group suicide are ultimately trivial– a permanent solution to a temporary problem– but she never discounts the sincerity of the personal stakes that the girls have staked to their situation.
When hormones are running rampant, emotions have a life-or-death immediacy– a notion that’s amplified in a privileged suburban setting, where there’s the time and the luxury to dwell on heartbreak and despair, and true love is the only thing that money can’t buy.
The punk flare that also ran through LICK THE STAR surfaces throughout the VIRGIN SUICIDES, most visibly in the hand-drawn title treatments, which resemble the daydreaming doodles of a teenage girl’s school notebook. Behind the camera, Coppola also adopts her father’s tendency to mix work and family– recruiting her brother Roman as the 2nd Unit Director and bringing on Francis Ford as a producer and on-set source of sage advice.
Many directors’ first features are plagued by a variety of production difficulties and challenges, especially on the independent level. By most accounts, Coppola’s experience on THE VIRGIN SUICIDES was a relatively smooth one– she proved herself a hard worker and a confident visionary.
The biggest challenge she reportedly faced was a shortage of film stock, often hitting the allotted daily maximum by lunch. Her name and American Zoetrope’s backing may have played a part in securing a coveted slot at Cannes and Sundance, but the warm critical reviews made it quickly apparent that the film’s strengths were entirely a product of her own.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES’ modest indie success proved that a talent for filmmaking ran in the family, establishing Coppola’s feature career with one of the best films of the 1990’s.
AIR MUSIC VIDEO, “PLAYGROUND LOVE” (2000)
With the 1999 debut of her first feature, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, director Sofia Coppola made a distinct splash in the world of independent longform narrative filmmaking. Like many of her generational peers, Coppola got her start in music videos, but unlike many of those some peers, she wouldn’t leave that world behind entirely once she’d made the big jump.
In 2000, Coppola released a promotional music video for THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, taking the film’s original theme song by French electronica band Air and turning it into a pop single in its own right. The resulting music video, “PLAYGROUND LOVE”, was easily integrated into the shooting schedule of THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by virtue of it simply re-using several prominent shots from the movie.
Presented in the square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, “PLAYGROUND LOVE” supplements the repurposed footage with new 35mm film shots that were captured on set, forming a vignette about a wad of gum being passed around the characters and locations seen in the film.
While the cue’s appearance in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is purely instrumental, the music video incorporates vocals that are sung on-screen by the aforementioned wad of gum using subtle animation techniques. As the video unspools, Coppola spins a larger meta-narrative that breaks the fourth wall to reveal the production itself, even going so far as to incorporate herself in a cameo as the production’s director.
“PLAYGROUND LOVE” is a simple, clever concept that’s executed very well. The usage of chewing gum as a narrative device reflects Coppola’s thematic fascination with the teenage feminine mystique, what with its cultural connotations of emotional detachment, aloofness, and seductive allure crashing up against the trappings of adolescence.
Under Coppola’s subtle guidance, “PLAYGROUND LOVE” becomes more than just a standard-issue promotional piece; it’s a piece of art in its own right, further reinforcing Coppola’s undeniable appropriateness in adapting THE VIRGIN SUICIDES to the screen.
LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
I first saw director Sofia Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) in college, and like several other films I saw at that time, the experience of watching had an immediate, profound effect on my own artistic development as a filmmaker.
I tried on certain aspects of the film’s stylistic sensibilities with my own work and found they suited me, but it wasn’t until my most recent viewing of the film for this essay that I became acutely aware of just how integral LOST IN TRANSLATION was to the backbone of my aesthetic.
As someone who spent a substantial portion of his early 20’s traveling back and forth across the country for college, the core of Coppola’s emotional message– the alienation of being a stranger in a strange land– resonated deeply with me.
Coppola too spent a great deal of her 20’s engaged in travel, although her status as the daughter of a wealthy film legend enabled her to voyage to farther-flung locales than people like me. She had a particular affection for the city of Tokyo, Japan, citing the city’s luxuriously labyrinthine Park Hyatt Hotel as one of her favorite places in the entire world (3).
That hotel would serve as the setting for LOST IN TRANSLATION, her second feature following 1999’s THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. Beginning with a series of short stories and personal impressions about the hotel and her experience in Tokyo, Coppola labored for six months to craft a screenplay about an understated love affair between a man nearing the end of his career and a woman just about to start hers– if she could only figure out what she actually wanted to do (4,5).
Coppola wrote the story with comedy icon Billy Murray in mind, even going so far as to leave hundreds of messages on the actor’s private voicemail box and enlisting her friend and fellow director Wes Anderson to make a personal overture (6).
Reportedly operating off of only a verbal agreement from Murray, Coppola and her producer Ross Katz risked $4 million in financing and untold professional humiliation, and moved to Tokyo to begin production without a firm contract from their lead actor. Much to their relief, Murray did show up on the first day of production, and as they say, the rest is history.
Much of LOST IN TRANSLATION may be predicated on the absurdities that arise from the culture clash between east and west, but in endeavoring to make a film about a brief moment of romantic connection rather than a conventional plot or story arc, Coppola had to create a sustained mood of subdued emotional tension.
The film’s storyline is the faintest of sketches: a quietly inquisitive newlywed named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) travels to Tokyo on a business trip with her husband, but spends most of the time brooding alone in her hotel room. She’s coaxed out to experience the magic of the city by Murray’s Bob Harris, an aging, downwardly mobile American movie star who’s there to shoot a whiskey commercial.
During their various misadventures across the city, Bob and Charlotte develop a unique bond that allows them respite from their individual marital troubles. It’s easy to dismiss the film as a story where “nothing happens”, but to do so misses the point entirely– Coppola’s narrative is about those fleeting moments that make us see the world in a different way.
A glance, a brush of fingers, a barely audible whisper in the middle of a crowded plaza. It’s a film where every subtle interaction contains emotional magnitudes; the performances are the events. The chemistry between the melancholic Murray and the contemplative Johansson (only seventeen years old at the time of shooting) is as sublime as it is unconventional– the marriage of an old soul and a young heart.
While Wes Anderson’s films RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) foreshadowed the “Sad Bill Murray” persona, LOST IN TRANSLATION is the film that cemented it, fueling a late-career resurgence that would yield several similarly-sensitive performances that continue to this day.
Johansson’s work here put her on the map, paving the way to A-List stardom by acting as a fictional avatar for Coppola herself. The supporting characters further point to the personal nature of Coppola’s story, with Giovanni Ribisi’s busy, disengaged performance as Charlotte’s husband, John, allegedly serving as a veiled reference to Coppola’s own husband, director Spike Jonze (they would ultimately split later that year).
Anna Faris’ bubbly turn as the aggravatingly ditzy actress, Kelly, is generally considered to be a swipe at Cameron Diaz, who had worked with Jonze in his 1999 feature, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. You’ll notice that all these familiar faces are almost exclusively white– a peculiar choice for a film set entirely in Tokyo.
While there are Japanese actors throughout, they exist almost exclusively in the periphery, confined by the bounds of their stereotype by The Anglo Gaze– a sore point of contention for the film’s many critics that lent ammunition to their argument for Coppola as an over-privileged rich kid with nothing meaningful to say.
While LOST IN TRANSLATION’s main cast may not be Japanese, the film’s approach to cinematography falls very much in line with the observational, interior nature of Japanese filmmaking espoused by such directors as Yasujiro Ozu. Lance Acord, who shot Coppola’s 1998 short LICK THE STAR, joined Coppola on her trek across the Pacific to serve as the film’s cinematographer.
LOST IN TRANSLATION’s visual style is simple, but deceptively so– every shot is deliberate and thoroughly considered, even in the haphazard-seeming documentary-style setups achieved via guerrilla filmmaking techniques in stolen, uncontrolled locations.
Because the cinematography is so minimal, every composition and the action contained within it has a specific narrative purpose. This begins with Coppola’s choice to shoot on 35mm film stock for its organic, romantic qualities– despite her father and executive producer Francis Ford Coppola’s insistence that she shoot on high definition video because it was “the future” (5).
Sofia and Acord draw a marked distinction between the tranquil, refined Tokyo contained within the Park Hyatt and the buzzing urban sprawl just beyond its walls. The hotel scenes are often locked off into wide, observational compositions with a shallow focus that throws the surrounding city lights into the shape of glowing incandescent orbs floating in a sea of black.
Bob and Charlotte’s forays into the city are rendered in the aforementioned handheld, documentary-style photography– partly as a directorial decision, but also because the modest budget precluded Coppola from obtaining permits for every exterior locale she wanted to shoot in.
This meant keeping the crew to a minimum (a challenge compounded by the predominantly-Japanese crew’s linguistic barriers), but the effort results in a film that properly captures the vitality, vibrancy and unpredictability of urban life.
Despite this bifurcated approach, Coppola and Acord maintain a visual continuity by establishing a few visual constants like color, light, and compositional framing devices. Coppola’s Tokyo is a megalopolis rendered in dusky blue skies, imposing grey monoliths, and garish neons.
She and Acord routinely shun artificial film lights, using the soft ambient light of the surrounding city as much as possible– an approach that gives the nocturnal exteriors in particular a distinctly textured immediacy.
Many shots, especially those of the up-close variety, use transparent or translucent framing devices and abstractions– glass, reflections, prisms, lens flares, etc– to break up the image’s natural lines into smaller segments, evoking the emotional barriers between the characters while reinforcing a subtle thematic undercurrent about the compartmentalization of modern urban society.
This idea arguably informs the evolution of a unique shot that Coppola would claim as a personal signature, akin to generational peer Quentin Tarantino’s iconic “trunk shot”. This particular composition, which also pops in her later films, is captured from the back seat of a moving car.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES contained an earlier iteration of this shot, assuming the characters’ POV looking out on the neighborhood as it rolled by. LOST IN TRANSLATION flips the angle by mounting the camera to the car’s exterior and peering in on her characters caught in a moment of lonely reverie.
They’re moving through the world, yet they are also removed from it– enclosed in an alienating bubble of glass and steel. Indeed, Bob and Charlotte can only truly connect with their surroundings once they engage it on foot.
LOST IN TRANSLATION’s musical landscape reflects the interior nature of Coppola’s story, sculpted by My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields using a variety of New Wave and Tokyo dream pop tracks. Just as Air had crafted an original song for use as the theme for THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, Shields contributes a downbeat shoegaze track named “City Girl” in addition to My Bloody Valentine’s iconic song “Sometimes”.
Also boasting contributions from Death In Vegas, Jesus and Mary Chain, and her current husband Thomas Mars’ band, Phoenix, the soundtrack is more reflective of Coppola’s personal tastes rather than the cultural setting of her story– nevertheless, the cumulative effect of the chosen tracks is a sublime experience that resonates in perfect harmony with the story’s emotional truths.
To this day, LOST IN TRANSLATION remains the prime example of Coppola’s distinct voice as an artist. The quiet, navel-gazing nature of her aesthetic is crystallized here in her treatment of a story that shows subtle growth through observation rather than direct conflict.
The air of detached emotionality and feminine mystique that pervades her filmography is embodied in Johansson’s performance as the disaffected and lonely Charlotte, often seen languishing in her hotel room in nothing but a t-shirt and panties.
The controversial opening shot is another example of this, imbuing the film with a lingering sensual charge as well as a youthful vulnerability by shooting Johansson’s butt in close-up while she sleeps– the contours of her shape just barely visible through her translucent underwear.
The emotionally distant protagonist (both Bob and Charlotte in this case) is a staple throughout Coppola’s filmography, but with LOST IN TRANSLATION she uses the archetype to begin another career-long thematic exploration: the malaise of privilege and the ennui of the entertainment industry.
Being a successful (albeit fading) movie star, Bob can have anything he wants. However, the materialism of his profession leaves him longing for a profound emotional connection that he can only find with a complete stranger in a foreign land.
Coppola’s upbringing as a member of one of Hollywood’s royal families gives her a unique “inside baseball” perspective that fundamentally informs LOST IN TRANSLATION, as well as later works like SOMEWHERE (2010), THE BLING RING (2013) and A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS (2015).
Just as much as it is about the cultural landscape of Tokyo, LOST IN TRANSLATION is also about the emptiness of commercial Hollywood. As such, the film is peppered with winking in-jokes to the film industry, like the aforementioned Anna Faris being a veiled jab at Cameron Diaz, or any one of Bob’s frustrating Suntory shoots.
The whirlwind shoot for LOST IN TRANSLATION spanned just 27 days– but in that short amount of time, Coppola managed to capture more emotional truth than three or four Hollywood films combined. This can be attributed in part to her encouragement of Murray and Johansson to deviate from her script and improvise– a technique that, funnily enough, would net her first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Coppola’s emphasis on improv would also result in perhaps the film’s most memorable and dissected moment– Bob’s inaudible whisper into Charlotte’s ear during their final embrace, just before a kiss that’s both anticlimactic and cathartic at the same time.
The dialogue is inaudible because it wasn’t planned for– it’s a fleeting, beautiful moment of improvisation on Murray’s part that fits perfectly into Coppola’s established tone while also conveying the novel idea that audiences aren’t always entitled to the complete bypassing of a character’s privacy.
While technically-oriented fans of the film have spent years analyzing the specific audio bite in a bid to parse out Bob’s exact words, we can’t know what he said with 100% certainty. That ambiguity, however, is the key to the film’s profound emotional resonance– occurring at a register just below our conscious awareness.
After premiering at Telluride, LOST IN TRANSLATION quickly accumulated a high regard amongst critics. Many felt the film’s sensitive, nonjudgmental approach to the otherwise-unsavory theme of infidelity represented a new wave in cinematic depictions of love.
Academic Marco Abel called it “postromance cinema”, a subgenre that offers up a negative view of love and sex while rejecting the romantic ideal of “soul mates” (2). The negative reviews (of which, admittedly, there were many), tended to fixate on Coppola’s treatment of Japanese culture from her “outside” (read: white) perspective, citing her depiction of Tokyo’s native inhabitants within stereotypical constructs as a patronizing choice that undermined her core message.
Ultimately, a film like LOST IN TRANSLATION is going to be polarizing– I personally know several people who hate it because “nothing happens”– and any given individual’s impression of the film is going to differ from the next.
By conventional metrics, however, LOST IN TRANSLATION was a success, scoring $120 million in worldwide box office receipts and four Oscar Nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Picture, and Coppola’s first nod for her direction.
With LOST IN TRANSLATION, Coppola fulfilled the promise she showed with THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, delivering an achingly beautiful portrait of longing and discovery while consolidating the formal aspects of her artistic aesthetic.
MUSIC VIDEOS (2003)
Shortly after the release of her second feature, 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION, director Sofia Coppola capitalized on her rising profile by directing two more music videos that would further reinforce her street cred as a tastemaking filmmaker associated with the “cool” of alternative musical acts.
KEVIN SHIELDS: “CITY GIRL” (2003)
Much like she did for “PLAYGROUND LOVE”, Air’s promotional single for THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999), Coppola repurposed the numerous reels of footage she shot on location in Tokyo for LOST IN TRANSLATION into a moody piece for Kevin Shield’s original contribution to the film’s soundtrack: “CITY GIRL”.
By mashing together outtakes, b-roll footage, and printed dailies, Coppola manages to shape the video into a loose narrative vignette about a young American woman (LOST IN TRANSLATION’s Scarlett Johansson) roaming the streets of Tokyo while caught up in an introspective reverie.
By nature, the video is inseparable from the feature it’s meant to accompany, but it nonetheless stands on its own as an effective example of Coppola’s artistic signature from the period. LOST IN TRANSLATION— and to a lesser extent, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES— boasts numerous documentary-style shots captured from (and looking in on) the back seat of a car, so it’s no surprise that “CITY GIRL” is comprised almost entirely of these setups.
As far as promotional music videos go, Coppola’s repurposing of filmed footage conveys the same kind of economical and minimalist approach that Coppola would cultivate in her later feature work.
THE WHITE STRIPES: “I JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF” (2003)
Throughout the 2000’s, alternative rock band The White Stripes managed to achieve a sizable cache in the minds of creative influencers, to the extent that frontman Jack White’s distinct approach to old-fashioned blues and garage rock came to define a large aspect of that decade’s particular character. Coppola directed the video for the band’s 2003 single, “I JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF”, turning an act of sexual objectification into a liberating rallying cry for third-wave feminism.
The concept for the video is very simple: supermodel Kate Moss aggressively pole dancing in lingerie for the entire length of the video. Coppola takes what would be an otherwise-leering and arguably misogynistic concept and executes it with the arresting flair of an edgy fashion film.
Her technical approach is as simple as the concept– she shoots on a square 1.33:1 canvas using high contrast monochromatic film, keeping the angles fairly static except for when she stylishly rocks the camera back and forth on its tripod hinges in sync with White’s percussive guitar riffs.
By juxtaposing Moss’ nearly-nude body in silhouette against a blank grey background, Coppola creates a look that focuses on the interplay between light and shadow. Whereas her previous explorations of the feminine mystique in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and LOST IN TRANSLATION broached the idea from the perspective of chaste, youthful innocence, “I JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF” finds Coppola conveying the same idea in the decidedly-sexualized syntax of stripping.
In the absence of the dreaded Male Gaze, however, the video instead becomes a punk-rock celebration of the female form in motion. These two videos would constitute the last of Coppola’s output for a number of years– her next major work, MARIE ANTOINETTE, wouldn’t arrive until 2006.
Despite their relatively short length, these two music videos show Coppola’s subtle, but continued, growth as a director while effectively acting as the close of the first chapter in her celebrated career.
MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006)
The timing of this essay on director Sofia Coppola’s third feature, MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006), is curiously coincidental, considering that I first saw the film in college during its theatrical release with my friend, Scott Nye. Nye is now a well-regarded film critic and writer, and just last week he posted his own thoughts on the film.
The timing of both these essays is of course a funny coincidence, but perhaps it’s more telling of the lingering impression the film has made upon us. Ten years later, the climactic sequence where the furious rabble threaten to storm Versailles still fills me with the same abject dread I felt in the theater, striking right into the heart of an emotional center that’s not usually moved by stuffy Victorian costume dramas.
This power and sense of immediacy, I think, stems from the one of the most contested aspects of Coppola’s vision: her re-contextualization of the past in the pop-cultural parlance of our present. MARIE ANTOINETTE is one of those rare films that challenges the most deeply-held preconceptions about period storytelling, proving that a filmmaker doesn’t have to be a slave to the tiny details if he or she is still able to tap directly into the story’s emotional truth.
As Wikipedia would tell it, Coppola initially wanted to make MARIE ANTOINETTE after the success of her 1999 debut, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. However, her relative inexperience as a filmmaker made for an unwieldy writing experience considering not just the sheer scope of the subject matter, but also all the various interpretations that 200+ years of historians have applied to the personal figure of the last Queen of France.
To overcome her writer’s block, Coppola set MARIE ANTOINETTE aside and started writing a small script about a love affair in Tokyo that would ultimately become 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION. The success of that film eventually gave Coppola both the inspiration and the artistic momentum to complete the script for MARIE ANTOINETTE, setting it up at father Francis Ford’s American Zoetrope studios as her third feature.
The third film in any given filmography typically finds most directors flexing their muscles and aiming high, and Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE is no different. Armed with the confidence gained from her two previous successes, Coppola set out to tell at once both her most epic and her most intimate story yet, rendered in a stunning blend of candy-coated colors and sumptuous scenery.
One of the most impressive aspects of MARIE ANTOINETTE is that Coppola and her producing partner Ross Katz managed to obtain special permission from the French government to shoot entirely within the hallowed halls of Versailles Palace– a masterful producing coup the likes of which we’re likely never to see again.
The gilded seat of the French monarchy hasn’t changed very much since 1768, which gives MARIE ANTOINETTE an unrivaled authenticity and sense of place. The plot chronicles Marie Antoinette’s development from her arrival at Versailles as a fresh-faced Austrian princess betrothed to the young French prince, Louis XVI, to her eventual fall from power as the despised symbol of royal excess on the eve of the French Revolution.
In her second collaboration with Coppola, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES’ Kirsten Dunst fully embodies the flirty, fun-loving teenager who would grow up to be a dignified (if misunderstood) Queen. Her nuanced, sympathetic performance reinforces Coppola’s attempts to humanize a historical figure we only know from old oil paintings hung in stuffy museums while drawing a direct line to contemporary socialites like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.
The first act of the film finds Marie Antoinette adjusting to life as a French royal, which apparently involves consuming an endless series of decadent luxuries. She fulfills her initial duties by marrying the meek, effete French prince, Louis XVI.
Played brilliantly by Coppola’s cousin, Jason Schwartzman, the young man seems utterly uninterested in his new bride– which understandably complicates her efforts to produce an heir. She ultimately prevails, becoming a beloved figure throughout France for her youthful rebelliousness (a trait that doesn’t quite go away even when she becomes Queen).
Unfortunately, the sun is not destined to shine on Louis and Marie Antoinette’s reign for long: the combination of her decadent spending and his unwavering insistence on helping the American Revolution along by sending funds overseas earns them nothing but violent contempt from the French working class.
The daily economic hardships suffered by their subjects seem a world away from the gilded halls of Versailles– that is, until the rabble show up on their doorstep to demand not only the end of the French monarchy, but Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s own heads.
The tragic story of France’s last King and Queen is told with the assistance of an inspired supporting cast, each portraying an actual historical figure with a similar postmodern flair. Rip Torn plays King Louis XV as a well-respected (if a little pervy) ruler, while Asia Argento slithers around the palace as his slinky mistress, Contesse du Barry.
SNL alum Molly Shannon is well-suited to her character, gossipy noblewoman Aunt Victoire, as is Steve Coogan in his role as Marie-Antoinette’s lifelong counselor, Ambassador Mercy. Jamie Dornan’s performance as the smoldering Count Axel Fersen– with whom Marie-Antoinette initiates a secret love affair– foreshadows his breakout in a similar role in 2015’s FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.
A few other familiar faces stand out, like Danny Huston as Marie-Antoinette’s reassuring older brother, Emperor Joseph II, and a baby-faced Tom Hardy as a stoic soldier named Raumont. And last but not least, no conversation of MARIE ANTOINETTE would be complete without mention of my personal favorite cast member: Mops the pug, whose masterful turn earned him the Palm Dog award for Best Canine Performance at the Cannes Film Festival.
MARIE ANTOINETTE owes a clear debt to the visual style of Terrence Malick, Milos Forman, and Stanley Kubrick, who’s 1975 masterpiece BARRY LYNDON haunts nearly every frame. LOST IN TRANSLATION’s cinematographer Lance Acord returns, shooting once again in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio on 35mm film.
As evidenced by his work in LOST IN TRANSLATION, Acord is quite adept at working with soft, natural light– a strength that pays dividends in MARIE ANTOINETTE by faithfully rendering a pre-industrial society. The use of lens flares, especially in the sequences where Marie-Antoinette retreats to her small villa in the country, infuses Coppola’s story with a modern, casual edge that helps bring out her heroine’s interior state.
The film’s camerawork leans into the regal flavor of their setting, highlighting Marie-Antoinette’s increasing alienation from the royal court with formal locked-off compositions, steady dolly shots, and slow zooms. Acord’s work is harmoniously complemented by Coppola’s own brother, Roman, who serves as the second unit director in charge of capturing select shots.
Coppola even manages to find an opportunity to incorporate her signature shot– mounted on the side of a car, looking in on a character sitting in the backseat. Since there were no cars in 18th century Versailles, Coppola simply swaps in a carriage. It’s a small substitute, but it nonetheless reinforces her attempts to humanize the figure of Marie-Antoinette in the cultural parlance of today.
The use of the real halls and ballrooms of Versailles injects every frame with a palpable sense of history and grandeur, but returning Production Designer KK Barrett ably conveys a postmodern pop edge by providing fabulously ornate costumes, furnishing, and food in searing pastel colors like baby blue, hot pink, and seafoam green.
A sense of decadence and luxury pervades every lingering closeup of Marie-Antoinette’s material riches– Coppola even goes so far as to personally enlist legendary fashion designer Manolo Blahnik to provide the Queen’s endless supply of heels (2).
Little attention is paid to ensuring a temporal authenticity– in fact, Coppola and Barrett lean heavily into the film’s anachronistic elements, to the point that Marie-Antoinette is even seen wearing a pair of Converse sneakers. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been surprising to also see her donning a pair of Apple earbuds.
This, perhaps more than any other aspect of Coppola’s approach, is the most controversial and contested factor in the entire film. Critics fixated on the audacity of including the aforementioned pair of Chucks, or Coppola’s use of 80’s pop, shoegaze and punk tracks on a soundtrack that would traditionally be comprised of baroque classical compositions by Vivaldi (which, admittedly, Coppola does include to great effect).
Tracks from well-known New Wave bands like New Order, The Radio Department, and Gang of Four routinely pierce the stuffy bubble of regality that threatens to smother the film, creating a unique energy that many critics simply could not wrap their heads around.
In decrying Coppola’s vision by fixating on her decision to include anachronistic elements and music, they unwittingly prove that they miss the point entirely– and not just of the film, but art itself. At the risk of going off on a larger tangent, cinema is an art, and art is about expressing some kind of an emotional truth about the human experience.
The world of 18th-century Versailles might seem totally alien to someone living in the 21st, but Coppola’s use of modern touches allows her to transcend the time barrier and give us a direct line of emotional access to her characters’ fundamental humanity.
We can see ourselves in Marie-Antoinette’s youthful misadventures, and as such, the film is exceedingly more vibrant and relevant to our time than others of its ilk (even more so now, after Wall Street’s similar decadence led to the 2008 collapse and the rise of the Occupy movement, who resemble the angry French mob in wanting to string up the bankers responsible).
The life story of Marie-Antoinette provides ample opportunity for Coppola to further explore her key thematic fascinations. Like the ill-fated Lisbon sisters in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, Marie-Antoinette has little agency of her own– she’s expected to adhere to a set of behavioral traits and customs that stifles her individuality.
She’s a kept woman, only coming into her own when she starts expresses herself and up-ending the court’s antiquated perception of how a Queen should act. The air of mystique that surrounds Coppola’s female protagonists reaches something of an apex in MARIE ANTOINETTE, finding a palpable charge in the eponymous Queen’s transgressive femininity.
She remains an elusive figure to those around her– even those as close as her own husband– and it’s precisely that unknowable quality that draws people to her like a magnet; they’re all trying to figure out the mystery of her inner life.
Dunst plays Marie-Antoinette with the same kind of emotional detachment that defines most of Coppola’s female protagonists. It’s a detachment rooted in loneliness– by virtue of her Austrian background, she is a stranger in a strange land. She’s eternally set apart from everyone else, exiled into her own interior state.
Roger Ebert perhaps said it best in his review: “This is Sofia Coppola’s third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you, but now how to value and understand you”. (3)
Just as much as MARIE ANTOINETTE is an inward-looking film on a historical figure, so too is it an intensely personal film on Coppola’s part. The film’s extreme attention to detail in its costumes (and the narrative purpose thereof) echoes Coppola’s own association with the fashion world, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
Her background as a child of privilege and status allows her to sympathize with her heroine’s plight. As such, MARIE ANTOINETTE marks something of a turning point in the artistic character of Coppola’s filmography. Beginning here, we see the director really begin to embrace her background as the daughter of a cinematic titan.
Growing up Coppola no doubt meant a childhood of frequent exposure to fine art (and fine wine), but it also meant being born with a pre-established air of pseudo-celebrity. Before she was a filmmaker, she was a globetrotting socialite– her peers were the offspring of other similarly influential and wealthy households.
She very easily could have become another Paris Hilton or a Kim Kardashian, but instead she exploits that familiarity with the world of empty celebrity (and our obsession thereof) to give her work an added layer of thoughtfulness and relevance– especially in the context of MARIE ANTOINETTE’s endless pageants of manners, customs, and decadence.
A vision as bold as Coppola’s is bound to beget equally bold reactions, and MARIE ANTOINETTE certainly received its fair share– on both sides of the aisle. Critics famously booed the film after its Cannes premiere, yet it also ran in contention for the festival’s highest honor: the Palm d’Or.
Domestic reviews were similarly mixed, with the audiences that made LOST IN TRANSLATION such a runaway success largely staying away; in the end, the film grossed only $60 million over its $40 million budget. $20 million is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but the bean counters at Columbia Pictures no doubt wrote it off as an underwhelming performance.
Still, MARIE ANTOINETTE’s inherent charms did not go unnoticed– many critics responded quite favorably to Coppola’s revisionist take on the French monarchy, placing lavish praise on its Oscar-winning costume designs in particular.
MARIE ANTOINETTE was released at the height of the aught’s prestige-picture bubble, shortly before it popped (along with the world economy) in 2008. In the years since, the film seems to have only grown in appreciation– time has made Coppola’s intentions more apparent, leading some critics to come around on their initial distaste for her usage of anachronistic elements and dub it one of the best American works of its decade.
To this author in particular, time has also made it apparent that MARIE ANTOINETTE marks Coppola’s emergence as a mature filmmaker (an ironic notion considering the story is about a youthfully immature heroine). Coppola’s pioneering vision remains as divisive as ever, but if you can manage to connect with MARIE ANTOINETTE on her own level, you just might find a beautiful and precious jewel of a film that’s as subversive as it is classic.
CHRISTIAN DIOR COMMERCIAL: MISS DIOR CHERIE (2008)
Of all the brands that director Sofia Coppola could have collaborated with on her first commercial, perhaps it’s appropriate that the honor went to the French fashion label Christian Dior. Coppola’s lifelong interest in haute-couture fundamentally informs her artistic aesthetic, to the point that any given frame from THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999), LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) or MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006) could be mistaken for a fashion shoot by the casual observer.
As her artistic profile has risen, so has the balance of influence– many prominent fashion designers now reference Coppola’s work for their look books and photo shoots. It was only a matter of time until commerce sought to appropriate her cultural “cool factor”, which leads us to her 2008 spot for Christian Dior, titled “MISS DIOR CHERIE”.
The spot follows the format we’ve come to expect from a modern fashion commercial: a glamorous young woman frolicking about in urban vignettes– in this case, Paris. The piece plays evokes MARIE ANTOINETTE in its baroque, Old World setting while the handheld, naturally-lit cinematography and Brigitte Bardot’s midcentury pop song “Moi Je Joue” suggests a considerable debt to the traditions of the French New Wave (and a dash of Fellini for good measure).
The muted color scheme– comprised primarily of fashionable pastel pinks– echoes the female mystique that runs through Coppola’s filmography, employed here as a kind of carefree femininity; the kind that arises when a girl is comfortable and confident in her sartorial choices.
Coppola’s work here is evidence that her particular talents are naturally harnessed in service to the advertising industry. Despite serving the overlords of commerce instead of her own artistic self-fulfillment, her vision remains as distinctive and immediately identifiable as ever, and makes for memorable ad that walks the runway with its head held high.
Growing up as a member of Hollywood royalty, director Sofia Coppola spent a large portion of her formative years in hotels, often accompanying her father, iconic 70’s auteur Francis Ford Coppola, on film shoots in various locations both near and far.
The lack of attachment to a singular house or place during her childhood appears to have a direct correlation with the dreamlike emotional detachment of her own film work as an adult– her protagonists are almost always adrift in a sea of malaise, simply occupying a space rather than living in it.
Watching her fourth feature effort, 2010’s SOMEWHERE, it becomes readily apparent that Coppola regards Los Angeles’ historic Chateau Marmont hotel as her own kind of home; a place in which she spent a great deal of her youth because of her father’s work.
Within these hallowed halls, Coppola feels a special kinship with the actors, rock stars, and fashionistas that have lived, laughed, and loved there. Over the years, Coppola has forged her own personal relationship with the hotel and its staff, to the extent that they would host one of her birthday parties and, like her all-access pass to Versailles Palace during 2006’s MARIE ANTOINETTE, allow her carte blanche use of the site for the shooting of SOMEWHERE.
After the extravagant period production of MARIE ANTOINETTE, Coppola was compelled to return to a simpler form of storytelling– a form that resembled her 2003 feature LOST IN TRANSLATION in that it served as more of a mood piece than a conventional narrative.
Indeed, SOMEWHERE plays like a close companion piece to her earlier film, dealing in the same feelings of alienation and uncertainty while effectively sealing off her protagonists from the outside world within the walls of a visually-distinctive hotel.
Coppola’s script drew inspiration from various aspects of her personal life (her own history with the Chateau Marmont and the birth of her second child) as well as a variety of other sources, from Bruce Weber’s Hollywood portraits, to Helmut Newton’s photos of models taken at the Chateau, and even Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (2).
SOMEWHERE— financed by Focus Features and produced by Coppola, her brother Roman, G. Mac Brown, and her father’s American Zoetrope studios– is especially unique within her filmography in that it is the first that follows a male protagonist: a burned-out film actor named Johnny Marco.
Played with effortless shabby-chic nuance by underrated character actor Stephen Dorff in a role written specifically for him, Marco is an artist who has lost sight of his art (1). He’s marooned within the Chateau, bogged down in the boring, everyday business of acting: being shuttled around to promo shoots and press conferences, attending vapid awards shows in glamorous locales like Italy and Las Vegas, and navigating the endless, snaking boulevards of Beverly Hills in his exotic (yet unreliable) sports car.
The only thing that seems to bring a sense of life into his eyes is the sight of his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning as an ephemeral and precocious little sprite who flits in and out of his life with little warning. SOMEWHERE’s key narrative turns hinge on this delicate relationship between a father and his daughter, observing how their limited time together helps the other mature into a more self-realized person.
This being a portrait of Hollywood, Coppola also peppers the film with several winking cameos by other famous faces, like THE OFFICE’s Ellie Kemper as Johnny’s eager publicist, Michelle Monaghan as his acid-tongued co-star, JACKASS crew-member Chris Pontius as his one-man entourage, and Benicio Del Toro as an incognito version of himself.
SOMEWHERE’s cinematography befits its simple narrative approach, adopting an observational, rough-edged aesthetic that makes inspired use of old lenses from Francis Ford Coppola’s RUMBLE FISH (1983) shoot to imbue the 1.85:1 35mm film frame with a timeless, vintage aura (1).
One of the last films lensed by the late cinematographer Harris Savides, SOMEWHERE revels in the long take, mixing and matching between the formalism of locked-off slow zooms and the immediacy of handheld shots. Savides was a master of harnessing soft and natural light, and SOMEWHERE stands as a testament to his abilities in that regard while reinforcing Coppola’s own established aesthetic.
SOMEWHERE contrasts MARIE ANTOINETTE’s vibrant palette of candy-coated hues with a muted color scheme that deals in creamy neutrals and rosy highlights. The film’s opening shot– a long static composition of Marco’s sports car speeding around a closed loop– establishes the elliptical nature of Coppola’s storyline, reinforced by returning editor Sarah Flack’s patient pacing and oblique assembly of key dramatic moments.
As in her previous films, Coppola uses music to striking effect, creating a soundscape where well-worn Top 40 hits are primarily heard as a diegetic element that reflects the cultural idea of what constitutes a “Hollywood Lifestyle”.
Coppola deviates from this approach only once, laying Julian Casablancas’ mellow track “I’ll Try Anything Once” over a sequence of Marco and his daughter enjoying a fleeting moment of happiness and connection in the hotel pool. The effect is a subtle, yet transcendent moment for the audience as well as the characters.
Coppola unifies her disparate musical elements with an ethereal electronic score by French pop band Phoenix (of which her husband, Thomas Mars, is the frontman; continuing the long Coppola family tradition of artistic collaboration with other members).
SOMEWHERE contains many of the surface elements of Coppola’s established thematic signatures– autobiography, the fashion world, celebrity lifestyles, and the feminine mystique– but it also expands on them in interesting and insightful ways that show Coppola’s growth as a mature artist.
Her decision to make her protagonist a man throws her longtime examination of womanhood into sharp relief, casting each female character on either side of the male gaze, assigned a corresponding value between sexual appeal and innocence.
SOMEWHERE predicates its main narrative thrust on the paper-thin conflict between Marco and his self-doubt, or the tension between himself and the expectations of others from both his professional and personal life. However, where Coppola’s film really resonates is in the dichotomy of the roles that women play in his life.
As a rich and successful movie star living in a glamorous Hollywood hotel, Marco is surrounded by beautiful women that serve as all-too-willing sexual playthings. The women of the Chateau are so sexually adventurous that he merely needs to flash a smile for them to jump into bed with him.
As a father to a young girl, however, he has to reconcile the carnal aspects of himself with the responsibilities of raising someone who will one day be a woman too, complete with a self-realized sexuality of her own. Marco’s interactions with his daughter are geared towards preserving the innocence of childhood amidst the wanton hedonism of his lifestyle, but in trying to protect her purity he also denies her a fundamental aspect of her emerging humanity.
The major breakthrough in their relationship comes when he directly acknowledges the complicated nature of adult life (signified by the failed relationship between him and her mother)– an act that requires him to view Cleo as not just his young daughter, but as an intellectual equal and a mini-adult in her own right.
SOMEWHERE’s secondary thematic exploration concerns the lifestyles of the rich and famous, a constant presence throughout Coppola’s work. Like LOST IN TRANSLATION, SOMEWHERE follows a once-successful actor on the downslope of his career, but whereas the former’s exotic Tokyo setting hinted at a vibrant, sprawling world just waiting to be discovered, the latter’s depiction of sunny LA feels confining– twisted into a kind of limbo that only resembles paradise; purgatory with a pool.
As suggested in the aforementioned opening shot, Marco’s life is something of a closed loop: he wakes up every morning late for some photo shoot or promo event he forgot about, spends the afternoon driving around aimlessly, and then drinks himself stupid to the lullaby of two blondes’ pole-dancing his hotel room… all so he can wake up the next day and do it all over again.
Even when he’s high up in the air, surveying the city below in one of Coppola’s signature backseat reverie shots, he’s still confined within a cramped helicopter cabin. Over the course of its running time, SOMEWHERE slowly shows how Marco’s connection to his daughter allows him to break out of his personal purgatory, evidenced via the closing shot that shows Marco abandoning his sports car (and thus the closed loop) altogether– setting out on foot towards an uncertain, but invigorating future.
After the gilded extravagance of MARIE ANTOINETTE, SOMEWHERE marks a return to the minimalistic form that defined LOST IN TRANSLATION. However, the film didn’t experience the same warm reception enjoyed by its predecessor.
Critics mostly responded to the film with a tempered positivity, but those with a negative reaction felt very strongly about its perceived failings. Those already predisposed to blast Coppola for her artistic indulgences were given even more fuel for the fire, citing SOMEWHERE as her most irrelevant and empty exercise to date.
Even its biggest critical win– the prestigious Golden Lion award for Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival– came under heavy criticism due to the fact that Quentin Tarantino, who once was romantically linked to Coppola, had championed the film in his capacity as the jury chairman.
This episode is a particularly unfortunate one in the annals of film criticism, in that it reinforces the deeply-entrenched marginalization of female directors by suggesting that her win only happened because of her relationship to a man, and not because of her own artistic abilities.
That being said, SOMEWHERE isn’t a particularly easy film to love; it refuses to traffick in digestible conflict or play into audience expectations. Scant as its story may be, the film is nonetheless a sublime love letter to a unique refuge within LA’s sprawling megalopolis, crafted with sensitivity and subtlety by a confident artistic voice without compromise.
Of all the films in Coppola’s career, SOMEWHERE provides the most profound and intimate insights into her unique character, allowing us to look past the glitz and glamor to find the complicated, brooding soul deep inside.
COMMERCIALS AND MUSIC VIDEOS (2010-2013)
Between the release of her 2010 feature SOMEWHERE and 2013’s THE BLING RING, director Sofia Coppola would keep her skills sharp by taking commission work that further established her influence in the commercial, music video, and fashion film realm.
Her previous advertising work hinted at the harmonious synergy that her aesthetic could bring to fashion and luxury brands in particular, but her output during this three period would cement her inherent appeal in that arena.
CHRISTIAN DIOR: CITY OF LIGHT (2010)
Thanks to her reputation as a filmmaker who can coax career-best work from her cast members, Coppola can command some serious star power whenever she steps behind the camera– even when said production is for the latest Christian Dior perfume.
Titled “CITY OF LIGHT”, her 2010 spot features established actress Natalie Portman and the up-and-coming Alden Ehrenreich slinking around the streets of Paris in elegant black-tie formalwear to the seductive strains of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus”.
Coppola’s distinct aesthetic is immediately identifiable– soft light, lens flares, and ephemeral handheld camerawork rendered in feminine hues like blush and cream. The piece makes significant use of the idea of “the little black dress”, a hallmark of cosmopolitan female sexuality and mystique, while shots of Portman donning oversized sunglasses in the bath echo Coppola’s career-long exploration of celebrity and glamor.
H&M MARNI (2012)
To promote their 2012 collaboration with Italian fashion brand Marni, H&M commissioned Coppola to shoot a distinctive spot featuring young actress Imogen Poots on a moody summer night at a desert retreat amongst other beautiful people.
Coppola recruits her SOMEWHERE cinematographer Harris Savides to lens the spot, once again incorporating lens flares, soft natural light and a lingering pace to imprint her distinct stamp. Several of her recurring thematic fascinations make an appearance here, wrapped up in the unmistakable iconography of California-cana: Palm trees, pools, and the back seats of cars.
“MARNI” had a high-profile rollout for a commercial, earning prominent placement and critical coverage that would position the spot as one of Coppola’s most iconic.
MARC JACOBS: “DAISY PERFUME” (2013)
In 2013, Marc Jacobs enlisted Coppola to direct a spot titled “DAISY PERFUME”, featuring a group of young blondes frolicking barefoot in a sun-kissed field. The idea isn’t exactly novel, but Coppola nevertheless manages to make it distinctive by harnessing the feminine mystique of Peter Weir’s 1975 classic PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (as well as her own 1999 debut, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) via the dressing of the girls in long white dresses that stand out against the pastoral scenery.
The bright cinematography flares with natural light and an airy looseness while electronic music courses underneath on the soundtrack. “DAISY PERFUME” isn’t the most memorable spot Coppola has made, but it still bears the undeniable mark of her hand.
CHRISTIAN DIOR: LA VIE EN ROSE PERFUME (2013)
Coppola delivered her third spot for Christian Dior in 2013, working once again with Natalie Portman to promote the brand’s La Vie En Rose line of perfume. Set to a new rendition of the eponymous track made famous by Edith Piaf, the style of “LA VIE EN ROSE PERFUME” recalls the pastel color palette of blues, pinks, and creams that Coppola applied to MARIE ANTOINETTE.
The natural sunlight flares into the frame, reflecting a casual and carefree approach to the camerawork, while a gauzy soft focus is employed to round off harsh edges. A fleeting reference to Federico Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960), wherein Portman happily splashes around inside a fountain, is a particularly nice touch.
The feminine mystique that enshrouds Coppola’s aesthetic is embodied in the glamorous allure of Portman as well as the unattainable air of her celebrity. However, the effect isn’t as potent as it tends to be in her feature work– the mystique tends to diminish when it can be commodified as a tangible quality inherent in an item of clothing.
With its seductive glimpses of the LA celebrity lifestyle– swimming pools, sunglasses, and classic cars– “LA VIE EN ROSE PERFUME” slides quite easily into place as yet another succinct example of her unique artistic signature.
PHOENIX: “CHLOROFORM” MUSIC VIDEO (2013)
For her first music video in nearly a decade, Coppola teamed up with her husband Thomas Mars to promote his band Phoenix’s new single “CHLOROFORM”. Like her video for The White Stripes’ “I JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF”, “CHLOROFORM” is built around a very simple concept stretched out along the track’s length.
Shooting in black and white with a slight rose tint, Coppola first shows the band performing in silhouette, the definition of their forms almost lost to the moody wells of shadow surrounding the edge of the frame. The bulk of the piece dedicates itself to a slow-motion dolly shot featuring young women watching from the audience.
Their faces– juxtaposed in shallow focus against the bokeh of fuzzy light orbs– are twisted into varying expressions of rapture, heartbreak and awe, projecting a nuanced and dignified beauty that could only be realized by someone as well versed in the inner life of femininity as Coppola is.
That being said, there’s something slightly odd (and maybe even amusing) about a director placing her husband on a pedestal for the worship and adoration of other young girls; a kind of winking in-joke to the nature of intimacy in the context of celebrity that could only come from the mind that devised SOMEWHERE.
Being the independently-minded auteur she is, Coppola isn’t necessarily the kind of filmmaker who can (or even should) stake her legacy on the box office performance of her feature work; her thematic interests and those of the megaplex crowd don’t exactly intersect.
Besides providing her with a steady stream of income, the advertising arena proves crucial to her development as an artist because it gives her an opportunity to experiment while maintaining her influence within pop culture.
Just as David Fincher helped to shape the distinct characteristics and conventions of the music video genre, so has Coppola’s unique style informed the legions of up-and-comers in the fashion film and branded content realm.
Having worked at a production company that produced a substantial amount of fashion films in particular, I can tell you from personal experience just how much Coppola’s style has influenced the next generation of directors– no matter the content, each piece bore some kind of creative debt to her aesthetic.
Her string of commercials and content during this three year period solidified her palpable influence, enabling her to weather the still-unfolding economic storm that would see the drastic drawdown of the mid-budget prestige pictures that enabled her rise.
THE BLING RING (2013)
The inherent superficiality of Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the greater cultural landscape that constitutes “SoCal” has been well-established over the past several decades. The Golden State’s wealth and fascination with celebrity has created a value system based on material goods and the pursuit of fame and leisure in all its forms.
Those who move here in their adult years tend to keep a sense of perspective, embracing SoCal’s myriad pleasures at arm’s length. But for those who are born and raised here, these material values can become their entire world– not having the latest BMW coupe or Chanel handbag is, quite literally, a matter of life and death for those more concerned with image over identity (or, more aptly, those who think the two are one in the same).
Frankly, I’m deeply anxious at the prospect of bringing up children of my own in this climate, where the biggest barometer of a person’s worth is how many Instagram followers one can accumulate. In this light, a film like director Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature, THE BLING RING (2013)– wherein a group of overprivileged LA teenagers steal from the homes of celebrities and socialites in an attempt to live like them– is my greatest nightmare writ large.
Based on Nancy Jo Sales’ 2011 Vanity Fair article, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins”, Coppola’s script slightly fictionalizes the real-life exploits of the titular Bling Ring during their short-lived reign of terror– or, considering the staggering wealth of their targets, reign of inconvenience.
The story takes place in the wealthy suburban enclave of Calabasas, which has gained a reputation for surface glamor and trashy materialism thanks to the small population of reality stars, pop divas, fame chasers, and any number of Kardashians that call its endless rows of gaudy McMansions home.
It’s an honest mistake for non-Angelenos to make, but it bears repeated mentioning that Calabasas is not LA– a fact that THE BLING RING’s fresh-faced kleptos are all-too-painfully aware of as they gaze out at LA’s twinkling lights from a distance.
With the exception of Emma Watson and Leslie Mann, Coppola’s cast is composed primarily of unknowns– anchored by newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard. Chang, who had never been in a film before and only scored the role off the strength of her self-tape, plays the crew’s ringleader, Rebecca.
Rebecca’s love for fashion combines with a reckless amorality to create a sociopathically nonchalant teenager that effortlessly convinces the introverted new kid, Mark– played with a nuanced sexual ambiguity by Broussard– to rob nearby homes with her.
What begins as a way to combat their everyday suburban boredom soon grows into an all-consuming compulsion that ropes in their friends: aloof bad girl Chloe (Claire Julien), playful Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and the frighteningly vapid Nicki, played by Watson in a scene-stealing performance that she watched a disturbing amount of reality television to prepare for.
Adults hold little influence over the Bling Ring’s self-contained world of shiny baubles and expensive trinkets, which is not to say that their guidance would even be particularly helpful in the first place. Mann’s Laurie, the only prominent adult in the film, is the kind of parent that would let kids get drunk at her house after prom; a self-styled “Cool Mom” whose utter ineffectiveness as an authority figure is rooted in her devotion to “The Secret” and its snake-oil “religious” message just as much as her obliviousness to what’s going on around her.
As the young criminals grow increasingly bolder in their exploits, they are seduced by the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle they think they’ve become a part of. They may be partying in the same clubs as Paris Hilton and Coppola-regular Kirsten Dunst (each making brief cameos as themselves), but they’ll never truly be in those social circles– no matter how many of Hilton’s shoes they have in their possession.
They believe they’ll never have to answer for their crimes, despite conducting their raids on fleeting whims and making no effort to disguise their identity from security cameras. Their perceived invincibility proves the Bling Ring’s ultimate downfall, and it’s only a matter of time until the authorities bust down their doors.
Where Coppola’s story really shines is its exploration of the fallout– within a year, these over-privileged suburbanites are back out on the streets and free to continue living their lives as if nothing ever happened. Some, like Watson’s Nicki character, even achieve a twisted semblance of the celebrity they so desperately aspire to, becoming D-list reality TV personalities.
At the risk of glorifying celebrity worship culture and robbery, THE BLING RING doesn’t take a damning view of its teenage subjects; instead, it channels their youthful energy in a bid to show how easy it can be to fall into this behavior in the absence of truly positive role models.
Coppola’s films have always boasted a punchy visual aesthetic, but THE BLING RING kicks it into overdrive with a high-energy, low-contrast look that almost resembles an Instagram filter. THE BLING RING’s cinematography within the context of Coppola’s filmography is notable– having been shot on a Red Epic camera, it marks her first feature-length effort in the digital space– but a more important distinction lies in the fact that it also marks the late cinematographer Harris Savides’ final film.
Having previously shot Coppola’s 2010 feature SOMEWHERE, Savides succumbed to brain cancer during THE BLING RING’s post-production process in 2012. Coppola dedicates THE BLING RING to Savides, who shares credit with Christopher Blauvelt. Her trademark aesthetic loses nothing in the switch to digital, ably replicating the soft lighting setups, wide compositions and lens flares that have come to shape her signature.
With its rosy highlights and gauzy shallow focus, the 1.85:1 digital image possesses a distinct “fashion film” veneer. Coppola makes a distinct visual differentiation between glitzy, colorful LA/Hollywood (here, they’re one in the same), and the bland beige of the San Fernando Valley suburban sprawl.
For scenes set in Calabasas, Coppola tends to lock off her camera (or employ controlled dolly movements) while overexposing the image to an almost-blinding degree. Hollywood, by contrast, is rendered in deep wells of shadow and handheld footage that injects a seductive immediacy and energy.
As appropriate for a film about robbing celebrity homes, THE BLING RING’s visual approach places a notable emphasis on architecture– a minor, yet fairly notable, thematic through-line across Coppola’s body of work. From LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), to MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006), and on through SOMEWHERE, Coppola’s narratives have resembled chamber dramas in their inextricability of story to setting.
Put simply, the chosen stage fundamentally informs the nature of Coppola’s storytelling– all three of the above mentioned films dwell on the irony that the endless hallways of Tokyo’s Park Plaza Hotel, the stately, sprawling grounds of Versailles Palace, or the bohemian coziness of LA’s Chateau Marmont can end up feeling confining or constricting.
THE BLING RING’s gaudy McMansions don’t quite possess this same energy, but they nevertheless continue Coppola’s sensitive attention to location and her amazing ability to shoot in the actual locales she’s depicting.
Just like they did for the aforementioned Park Plaza Hotel and Versailles Palace, Coppola and her producing team (here comprised of brother Roman and Youree Henley) were able to actually shoot in Paris Hilton’s real house– which, funnily enough, resembles a warped, miniature funhouse version of Versailles.
It’s unclear whether Paris’ labyrinth of shoes, handbags and throw pillows bearing her face were actually there to begin with, or if they were a product of returning production designer Anne Ross’ imagination, but the infamous socialite’s sanctuary nevertheless represents the pinnacle of everything the Bling Ring aspires to.
Another striking example of Coppola’s attention to architecture with this film is the famous “glass house” shot, which places the camera high up in the Hollywood Hills looking down on reality TV star Audrina Patridge’s ultra-modern residence while Mark and Rebecca rob it blind. The sequence is only ever presented from this observational angle, with the huge plate-grass windows that wrap around the house providing no cover for the small, silhouetted figures as they manically dart from room to room. It’s, quite frankly, a brilliant shot– and one that almost didn’t make the final cut had Savides not convinced Coppola to keep it in (1).
If SOMEWHERE’s pacing was languid and drawn-out, then returning editor Sarah Flack’s approach with THE BLING RING is the total opposite. Like a drunken night out, the film’s edit speeds by in a whirl of light, color, and music, in addition to other stylistic flourishes like slow motion, faux testimonials, and freeze frames.
In what was no doubt a veritable nightmare for Sarah’s assistant editor, Coppola’s approach also includes the use of various clips and found footage from a wide spectrum of sources: cable news, ripped YouTube videos, Facebook screengrabs, cellphone photos, and reality TV outtakes.
For what amounts to a digital mishmash of resolutions, codecs, and frame rates, Flack and Coppola are able to place it all in a cohesive and thematically-unified manner that reflects the hyperconnected ADD lifestyles of the characters.
An original score was composed by Brian Reitzell and Daniel Lopatin (who records under his stage name Oneohtrix Point Never), but the film’s true musical character stems from Coppola’s own eclectic ear. This takes shape as a suite of pop and rap tracks from artists both established and underground.
Indie outfit Sleigh Bells’ crashing, disruptive track “Crown On The Ground” opens the film, lending a high-energy youthfulness with a dash of garage punk over closeup shots of designer heels and jewelry. As he did for Coppola’s SOMEWHERE, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars contributes another track for his wife.
Hit singles from MIA and Kanye West seem almost incongruous with Coppola’s established musical tastes, but they hit the nail on the head in her efforts to realistically portray what her characters would be listening to.
Most teenagers’ musical palettes don’t evolve beyond what’s on the radio– it was certainly the case for me and essentially everyone else I knew– but the use of rap in particular brilliantly reflects that peculiar tendency of privileged white kids from the suburbs to listen to hip hop and “urban” artists in a bid to feel edgy or cool.
In this regard, a character’s repetition of the lyrics “live fast, die young, bad girls do it well” from M.I.A’s single “Bad Girls” zeroes in the allure of this lifestyle while simultaneously demonstrating their youthful ignorance and naïveté to its consequences.
THE BLING RING is Coppola’s fourth consecutive film to grapple with the idea of fame, this time approaching it from the angle of someone on the outside looking in; someone with misconceived aspirations to the lifestyle. In a way, the film serves as the logical endpoint for Coppola’s exploration of this particular milieu.
The hallmarks of SoCal celebrity life– luxury goods, velour tracksuits, BMWs, sunglasses, swimming pools, and palm trees– are present at almost every turn, beckoning the characters (and us) with a seductive pull.
The plot device of breaking into celebrity mansions also provides Coppola an opportunity to show that these people live on an entirely different plane of existence than us– they leave their expensive material goods in gigantic homes and fancy cars that are left entirely unlocked (or given a flaccid attempt at “protection” by leaving a key under the front doormat), secure in their ill-advised conviction that their homes will not be transgressed by anybody with their own set of wheels and an Internet connection.
The crime-free ideals of suburbia lead to this sort of blind, privileged trust, and when these ideals are inevitably violated, it’s admittedly hard to garner much sympathy for them. This notion that, somehow, maybe these celebrities deserved it is crucial to the likeability of Coppola’s brat thieves– in this context, they become narcissistic Robin Hoodies, stealing from the rich to give to themselves.
Despite the stylistic departure from Coppola’s previous work, THE BLING RING’s thematic conceits continue to follow the trajectory of her development as a filmmaker. The film’s high-stakes high school setting and focus on the vapidity of SoCal youth culture echoes the setup of her debut short, LICK THE STAR (1998), thus bringing her artistic growth full circle.
Her technical signatures remain present, most notably the car-based backseat traveling shot. An outward-looking shot detailing the cookie cutter McMansions strung along a suburban block recalls a similar shot in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, while its variation– the inward-looking shot that dwells on a character often caught in a moment of deep self-reflection– gets a fun twist by placing it within the context of a bus heading to prison.
All in all, THE BLING RING marks Coppola’s pivot towards a mainstream audience after a series of arthouse chamber dramas, yet she (thankfully) can’t shed her indie sensibilities entirely, resulting in a film where conventional story beats are handled in oblique and inspired ways.
After the film’s premiere in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes, upstart specialty distributor A24 snapped it up and gave it a well-strategized rollout that would result in Coppola’s best box office opening in nearly a decade.
Eventually earning $19 million in receipts against an $8 million budget, THE BLING RING restored some of Coppola’s lost luster after the disappointing performance of MARIE ANTOINETTE and SOMEWHERE. While her work has been, and continues to be, sharply divisive by its nature, THE BLING RING managed to score generally positive reviews from critics, which combined with its respectable ticket haul makes it a bonafide success from any angle.
It may end up as a relatively minor work in her filmography, but it nonetheless marks an important transition in Coppola’s artistic development, whereby she retreats from a self-indulgent style of filmmaking to meet her audience halfway, and is in turn rewarded with a renewed relevance to a new, very different cultural zeitgeist.
GAP: DRESS NORMAL CAMPAIGN (2014)
In 2014, the iconic clothing brand Gap released a new campaign called “Dress Normal”, embracing their cultural reputation as purveyors of tried-and-true, inoffensive “normcore” staples like jeans, t shirts, and sweaters. The campaign launched with a quartet of stylish monochromatic spots shot by David Fincher that channeled a midcentury avant-garde quality with cutting-edge digital cinematography techniques.
As the 2014 holiday season approached, Gap began to build another collection of spots with the intent of finding another high-profile director known for his or her own stylistic sensibilities.
The decision to go with director Sofia Coppola seems like a natural one in retrospect– just as natural as the low-key, grounded tone that her unique worldview brings to a suite of 4 spots that promote Gaps’ holiday sweaters and jackets.
Each spot tells a short, comical vignette set to music; “PINBALL” shows how a young woman uses a casual game of pinball as a seduction technique. “CROONER” finds a precocious little boy lip syncing into a microphone to a living room full of people who aren’t even listening.
“MISTLETOE” details an awkward young man’s bold attempt to steal a kiss from an older woman (probably his friend’s mother) under the eponymous Christmas staple. “GAUNTLET” features a young girl visiting home after being away at school and having to endure the touchy-feely reception of her family members.
This particular suite of “DRESS NORMAL” spots don’t hold much in the way of Coppola’s thematic signatures– in fact, they mark a departure from her portraits of privileged celebrity lifestyles in favor of naturalistic glimpses of young people from a comfortable middle-class background.
Indeed, after creating spots primarily for high-fashion brands like Christian Dior or H&M, Coppola’s taking on an assignment from Gap shows her widening her directorial reach to a wider audience with conservative tastes. Her light, observational touch is an inspired and appropriate choice for the cheery, upbeat nature of these spots, helping to make Gap’s holidays (and subsequent sales numbers) that much brighter.
A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS (2015)
The collapse of the prestige specialty sector in American studio filmmaking during the late 2000’s left several prominent filmmakers stranded on desert islands surrounded by a sea of big-budget mediocrity. Those who had thrived during this period, like director Sofia Coppola, found difficulty jumping to the onslaught of play-it-safe sequels and compound franchises that followed– their audience seemingly having disappeared overnight.
Those who had fueled the runaway box office success of 2003’s LOST IN TRANSLATION failed to turn out for Coppola’s similarly-themed 2010 effort, SOMEWHERE, prompting an extended foray into commercials and music videos.
It was quickly becoming apparent that there was no longer a demand for the kind of patiently observed, delicately minimalistic chamber dramas Coppola had made her name from, and even her return to features in 2013’s THE BLING RING evidenced a distinct (yet, not total) pivot towards a mainstream audience. Meanwhile, ascendant digital services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon were, via their original programming initiatives, asserting themselves as The New World for our forsaken auteurs– a veritable promised land where cinematic pilgrims could stake out their artistic freedom, far from the oppressive hand of the studio system.
For Netflix in particular, their rapid ascent to the top of the digital media heap was thanks in no small part to their sophisticated algorithms that chewed raw user data into easily-digestible chunks of trend analysis. Their breakthrough foray into original content, HOUSE OF CARDS, infamously came together by way of using subscriber viewing data and finding a significant overlap between users who liked David Fincher’s films and Kevin Spacey’s performances.
Whereas the conventional model of packaging looked to past successes as a solid (if not entirely reliable) indicator of future return, Netflix’s use of up-to-the-second statistics allowed them to pinpoint with much greater accuracy the degree of creative alchemy they could achieve with any given pairing of talent.
It might seem like an admittedly cynical business model– after all, some of the greatest films ever made were bold gambles based off only a gut feeling– but with a programming slate that includes HOUSE OF CARDS, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, BEASTS OF NO NATION, and MAKING OF A MURDERER, it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t lead to some groundbreaking new entertainment.
At just 56 minutes long, Netflix’s 2015 holiday special, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS, is a little too scant to be called a feature, and a little too long to be called a short, but it is undoubtedly one of their more interesting risks to date.
Despite Bill Murray’s widespread cult of internet fandom, a conventional studio or network might view the prospect of an old-fashioned holiday variety special directed by a polarizing arthouse auteur with a borderline-paralyzing trepidation.
But thanks to its treasure trove of user data and a decadently off-kilter script written by Coppola, Murray, and Mitch Glazer, Netflix would find the courage to forge ahead with a quirky one-off holiday special designed for the meme generation.
The story of A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS is as scant as its running time, featuring Murray as a thinly-fictionalized version of himself about to reluctantly perform a poorly-planned cabaret special when a major blizzard suddenly hits, trapping him inside the cavernous halls of New York City’s Hotel Carlyle on Christmas Eve.
Murray gamely plays the boozy ham we all would expect him to be, lampooning the “Sad Murray” archetype that propelled his career resurgence in the arthouse sector. Indeed, his depression over his isolation in the hotel and entrapment in a gig he hates plays like a loose sequel to LOST IN TRANSLATION, finding his Bob Harris character hitting rock bottom a decade later.
After a power outage abruptly cancels the show, Murray starts wandering the hotel; striking up conversations with the hotel staff and guzzling whiskey until he passes out and hallucinates the glitzy star-studded holiday musical he should have hosted.
The plot serves as a loose framework for Coppola and Murray to stage various vignettes that frame a series of musical performances– some, refreshingly, by singers who aren’t even terribly all that good. Coppola uses a wide mix of music, ranging from time-honored Christmas staples to unconventional tracks that have nothing do with the holidays, like Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw the Light”.
In the tradition of star-studded holiday specials past, the premise also serves as a convenient excuse for Coppola and company to parade several famous faces throughout, some playing fictional characters, while others, like Murray, send up their own celebrity images as “themselves”.
Paul Schaffer is one of these, proving himself the hardest working person in the film as he cheerfully accompanies every musical number on his trusty piano. Chris Rock also plays himself to hilarious effect, as do George Clooney and Miley Cyrus in Murray’s Busby Berkley-inspired dream sequence (Clooney’s goofy backup vocals in a rendition of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” are a particular highlight).
The roster of fictional characters boasts the likes of Michael Cera as Jackie, a sleazebag agent aggressively pursuing Murray despite his infamous refusal to take on representation; Amy Poehler as Liz, the cabaret’s chipper co-producer; Rashida Jones and MARIE ANTOINETTE’s Jason Schwartzman as a glum pair of lovebirds whose wedding day is ruined by the big blizzard; Maya Rudolph as a Diana Ross-style lounge singer; and finally Coppola’s own husband Thomas Mars leading his Phoenix bandmates as the hotel’s crew of cooks.
A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS looks to continue the migration that Coppola began with THE BLING RING towards digital acquisition for her long-form work, calling upon cinematographer John Tanzer to create an aesthetic that spit-polishes her signature style.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the old-fashioned “Hollywood musical dream sequence”, realized with sweeping crane moves and bright, colored lights that wash over the elaborate Busby Berkeley-style choreography. This sequence is effectively jarring when it arrives– a proper realization of the perfect “star-studded holiday musical” that contrasts with the dim, moody look of the film’s Hotel Carlyle setting.
For these waking narrative moments, which make up the bulk of the running time, Coppola returns to her familiar observational aesthetic. Overall, the visual presentation of A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS lacks the stylistic flourish of Coppola’s previous work, but it is nonetheless conveys a handsome image and unassuming tone.
Just as he did in LOST IN TRANSLATION, Murray proves an inspiring and effective canvas upon which Coppola can paint her musings about the ennui of celebrity. Like SOMEWHERE or LOST IN TRANSLATION, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS is structured as a behind-the-scenes portrait of show business as experienced by a melancholy and lonely soul lost within it.
In-jokes and winking references to the celebrity lifestyle are part of this conceit, albeit Coppola delivers them with much more of a comical flair here than in her previous work. The plot device of entrapping Murray with the confines of the Hotel Carlyle also bears Coppola’s signature, the latest iteration of a recurring trope that stages an emotionally-isolated character against the backdrop of a singular space.
Coppola’s thematic fascinations translate well to the digital streaming format, with the shorter runtime boasting the added benefit of her concise narrative focus hampering her tendency to indulge in the kind of meandering, thinly-sketched storylines that have become a flashpoint for her critics.
Coppola’s high-profile reunion with Murray mostly pays off, having created an off-kilter musical romp that is bound to be a hipster holiday favorite. Despite mixed reviews following its December 2015 release on Netflix, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS would find enough regard to earn a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
Its thinly-sketched narrative, while arguably not very satisfying to discerning cinephiles, oddly enough becomes an asset in what will most likely become its most routine exhibition context: as a background distraction at ugly Christmas sweater parties.
As of this writing, A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS is Coppola’s most recent completed work. She’s set to direct her next feature next year– a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 western thriller THE BEGUILED, which will undoubtedly serve as an interesting opportunity for Coppola to apply her signature aesthetic to not just a period piece set during the Civil War, but to a genre that she’s never touched before.
In the 18 years that have transpired since her first short film (1998’s LICK THE STAR), Coppola has built up an impressive body of work that stands totally apart from the monumental legacy of her father– a feat made all the more impressive considering the endless parade of nepotism charges leveled against her by critics since day one.
She’s proven herself a supremely gifted director whose strength lies in the arthouse realm, especially in subject matter that assumes a feminine, introspective worldview. Early works like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999) and LOST IN TRANSLATION have already grown into esteemed classics, possessing an ethereal essence and mystique that rewards repeat viewings.
Despite her clearly-defined aesthetic, Coppola has also shown she can move with the times, as evidenced by her pivot to commercials, mainstream-friendly long-form narrative and experiments in digital storytelling in response to the decline of the very prestige arthouse sector that made her early works possible.
Her trailblazing career as a female director has been inspiring to countless women aspiring to make their own films, to be sure, but to confine her accomplishments to the context of her gender does her a severe disservice.
In a cinematic landscape increasingly besieged by the smog of “connected universes” and flashy IP, Coppola’s films are a breath of fresh air– a reminder of film’s potential for profound emotional resonance in even the smallest of moments.
Coppola is only now just beginning to enter the years that constitute “middle-age”, meaning the multitude of works these essays have explored only constitute half of a celebrated filmography. It might be too early to talk about her “legacy” in concrete terms, but if the second half of her career is as striking as the first, then she won’t have just effectively carried the “Coppola” mantle into the twenty-first century; she’ll have redefined it on her own terms.
THE BEGUILED (2017)
First, a bit of personal sentiment if you’ll indulge me. I try not to editorialize too much or insert myself into these essays— after all, that’s what my original film work is for. That said, I can’t help but express an appreciation for this harmonious coincidence of a new essay on director Sofia Coppola with the (very) recent birth of my daughter, Maisie.
Needless to say, she’s going to have an exceedingly nerdy dad that will share every ounce of his love for cinema with her. I don’t expect her to follow in my occupational footsteps, but if she does, I want her to see her womanhood as a major asset in her storytelling perspective.
Female filmmakers like Coppola, Kelly Reinhardt, Ava DuVernay, Agnes Varda, and Kathryn Bigelow (amongst countless others) have made incredible strides within an industry that has traditionally suppressed their femininity as a liability, and I want Maisie to come to see them as role models (in addition to her mother, who’s already handily carving out quite a career for herself in children’s television).
Coppola in particular has been a formative influence in my own artistic development, and I’m beyond excited to someday share her work with this brand-new little lady.
The high-gloss productions of THE BLING RING (2013) and A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS (2015) showcased Coppola as an indie-minded director flirting with the commercial sensibilities of Hollywood filmmaking. Despite the lavish perks that such a move engenders, she couldn’t quite shake a deep-seated repulsion to the industry’s materialistic values— a repulsion no doubt inherited from her iconoclast father, Francis Ford. After THE BLING RING in particular, Coppola cited her wish to “cleanse herself” from what she described as a “tacky, ugly world”.
After washing out of her first attempt at moving on, an adaptation of the source text of THE LITTLE MERMAID she was developing to direct over at Universal, a friend suggested the rather surprising idea of remaking THE BEGUILED: a contained thriller from 1971, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood against wan antebellum backdrop.
Coppola initially needed some convincing; nothing in her filmography suggested she had the desire to make a thriller, let alone tackle a full-on remake of an existing work. The longer the idea marinated however, the more opportunity Coppola saw in the project.
Rather than remake the original film, she would execute a fresh adaptation of the source novel by Thomas Cullinan (1), and by shifting the story’s perspective to that of the female’s perspective, she could reframe it as an elegant character study with genre elements.
The resulting work, 2017’s THE BEGUILED, would arrive as an invigorating new direction in Coppola’s artistic trajectory, exhibiting a newer, darker side of the feminine mystique that has come to define her work.
Coppola’s script retains the core conceits and general structure of both the novel (originally titled “The Painted Devil”) and Siegel’s original film, but her desire to shift the storytelling perspective opens up new angles of attack, carving deeper grooves of meaning and insight below the surface.
Her vision transplants the action from Mississippi to Virginia, where the waning days of the Civil War have left the countryside ravished and weary. The students and faculty of a local girls’ seminary proudly languish in a once-grand (but now-decrepit) plantation mansion, patiently waiting for their boys in grey to return home.
They fill their days learning high-society disciplines like classical music or French, all while the ceaseless booms of distant cannon fire remind them of the conflagration outside their crumbling stone gates. Their ethereal beauty stands in stark contrast to the desolation around them; they’ve become ghostly reminders of an elegant antebellum lifestyle that seems already consigned to the limbo of history.
This waking purgatory abruptly ends when one of the girls comes across an injured Union soldier hiding out on their land. The women bring the soldier — the only man they’ve seen in quite some time — into their house as both prisoner and ward, becoming increasingly gripped by curiosity as they nurse him back from the brink of death.
As the injured soldier, Corporal McBurney, Colin Farrell delivers a manipulative, charismatic performance that divides the girls against each other in their desire for his affection. Farrell leverages his Irish heritage to add depth to the character’s smoldering darkness, playing McBurney as a recent immigrant who was immediately drafted up into the Union Army upon arrival, and thus holds no allegiance to his adopted country— only to himself.
He still bears traces of his accent, which highlights how conflicting the process of assimilation has been for him even as it imbues him with a European exoticism in the eyes of the young women. He thinks he’s hit the jackpot — a mansion full of beautiful women at his beck and call — but the toxic rage and entitlement that forms the bedrock of his true character proves no match for the united front put up by his female caretakers.
That their final stand is so quietly effective is a testament to the pragmatic clarity and bottomless strength of the school’s headmistress, Miss Martha. Played by Nicole Kidman in a career-best turn, Miss Martha is a strong and dignified matron, blessed with the social graces of her elite Southern pedigree.
Her age and experience enables her to resist McBurney’s charms while ferreting out his weaknesses. The same can’t be said of the school’s French teacher, Edwina, a fading southern belle who refuses to go quietly into spinster-hood.
Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst imbues the character with an assured, yet weary, elegance— a stark departure from the bubbliness that marked her performances in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999) or MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006), signaling surprising new avenues for the actress to explore as she matures out of the comparatively-youthful roles that made her name.
Last seen in Coppola’s filmography as a gangly adolescent in 2010’s SOMEWHERE, Elle Fanning appears all grown up here as Alicia, one of the older students caught in self-serving thrall to her teenage hormones. While Edwina’s attraction to McBurney is misguidedly romantic, hers is purely driven by sexual curiosity.
Together, they stand as critical faults in the armor that Miss Martha labors to project, giving THE BEGUILED an additional layer of nuanced tension and conflict.
$10.5 million dollars is not a lot of money when it comes to film production budgets, but Coppola’s experience in the independent realm as well as the artistic pedigree of her home studio, American Zoetrope, allows for ample creative resources that stretch the value of her dollar.
THE BEGUILED was shot in Louisiana over the scant span of 26 days (1), utilizing real-world locations like the historic Madewell Plantation and the private New Orleans residence of actress Jennifer Coolidge (3). Such a scenario doesn’t leave much room for things to go wrong, so it’s fortunate that Coppola has cultivated a crack team of collaborators that ensure a smooth shoot executed in unwavering allegiance to her vision.
This circle of trust begins at the top, with returning producing partner Youree Henley, as well as familial connections like her brother Roman Coppola and her father’s producing partner Fred Roos, who guide the project in an executive producer capacity.
Returning production designer Anne Ross and editor Sarah Flack continue to sculpt and hone Coppola’s distinct aesthetic— Ross’ understated recreation of plantation-era Virginia utilizes soft neutrals and desaturated pastels to underscore the story’s inherent feminine viewpoint, while Flack’s simplistic — but no less evocative — montage patiently evokes the observational nature of Coppola’s approach to coverage.
The band Phoenix, fronted by Coppola’s husband Thomas Mars, once again provides THE BEGUILED’s original score, albeit via atmospheric compositions that are so subtle and spare that one could argue that the word “music” no longer applies.
Coppola’s one wild card is cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, but thankfully, their first collaboration together yielding stunning results. After her brief foray into digital with THE BLING RING, Coppola returns to the organic beauty of 35mm celluloid film, utilizing the unconventional 1.66:1 aspect ratio so as to fulfill her desire for a vintage canvas without imposing the severity of the square 1.33:1 frame.
Le Sourd and Coppola pulled their exposure by one stop in the lab so as to achieve a low-contrast look that preserves detail in the shadows, resulting in an aesthetic that splits the difference between a fashion film and gothic haunted-house horror.
Apropos of THE BEGUILED’s pre-electric antebellum setting, Coppola and Le Sourd cultivate a “no-light” approach, favoring silhouettes framed against blown-out windows or the dim glow of candlelight. Even sequences shot in broad daylight employ a gauzy, soft quality. Coppola takes the opportunity afforded by her evocative backdrop to craft assertive compositions, oftentimes framing in the wide so as to emphasize landscape.
Her confidence in the narrative integrity of these compositions is reinforced by the camera’s distinct lack of movement; indeed, the static gaze of a locked-off camera projects something of painterly aura. She rejects the modern sensibility of conveying immediacy or danger through handheld photography, opting instead for elegant crane or dolly sweeps whenever the story motivates movement.
Small audiovisual flourishes like lens flares, black puffs of smoke on the horizon, and the distant sound of encroaching cannon fire further tease out the beauty of the environment while reflecting the growing tension that threatens to tear this fragile world asunder.
For all the narrative details that make THE BEGUILED a rather unconventional entry within Coppola’s filmography, its thematic undercurrents hew extremely close to her established characteristics as an artist. Almost every Coppola film to date can be described as a chamber piece that takes place within a confined setting, usually with some degree of architectural value or interest.
Oftentimes these backdrops are real-world locales playing themselves— Tokyo’s modern, monolithic Park Hyatt in LOST IN TRANSLATION or the old-world regality of NYC’s elegant Hotel Carlyle in A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS immediately come to mind.
She’s cultivated a reputation for responsible stewardship over delicate or sensitive locations, with successful shoots at Versailles Palace for MARIE ANTOINETTE or the Chateau Marmont for SOMEWHERE emboldening subsequent location caretakers to open their doors to Coppola and her crew, secure in the knowledge that they will leave the space better than they found it.
THE BEGUILED proudly continues this tradition, finding Coppola and her team utilizing the Madewood Plantation House, a National Historic Landmark that now operates as a rustic bed and breakfast. Far from a decaying, isolated mansion in real life, the Madewood kindly permitted the production to dirty up its pristine white facade to suggest years of neglect.
The encroaching squalor of the seminary affords Coppola some artistic wiggle room to maneuver around the story’s thornier prospects. Recent years have seen the commercial co-opting of the southern antebellum aesthetic, especially by brands and influencers that cater to an affluent, female, and predominantly-white audience.
The quaint beauty of southern architecture, culture, and fashion becomes problematic when fetishized, as it tends to focus entirely on surface aesthetics at the expense of the shameful history (i.e., slavery) that drove its proliferation.
Coppola risks critical exposure on two fronts here: on one hand, her privileged upbringing and personal taste for designer fashion makes her susceptible to similar accusations of cultural tourism, or passive tone-deafness of the kind that dogged the reception to LOST IN TRANSLATION.
On the other hand, Coppola does omit one notable detail that other versions of THE BEGUILED included: the slaves who lived and labored on the seminary grounds. Indeed, there is not a single person of color to be found throughout Coppola’s adaptation— an admittedly alarming choice for a story set on a Civil War-era plantation in rural Virginia.
For better or worse, this was a deliberate choice on Coppola’s part; when she was called out on the matter during press interviews, she was openly candid about her own struggles with the omission, citing her convictions that such an important topic shouldn’t be “brushed over” (4).
Whether or not her audience agrees with her conclusion is guaranteed to run the spectrum of reactions, but the conscious decision to de-glamorize the seminary allows for a kind of thematic distance where one can better judge THE BEGUILED’s story on its own merits as an insular thriller about sexual tension and manipulation.
Some may (rightfully) feel that the relatively-recent phenomenon of remakes constitutes a scourge on modern cinema. They are almost certainly a reaction to studios’ desire to hedge their bets with lucrative intellectual property over original ideas; indeed, every studio has some form of internal document that compiles all the titles in their back catalog that they feel are ripe for the remake treatment, which they frequently circulate to filmmakers for pitching purposes.
This environment leaves very little oxygen for well-intentioned artists to bring new insights into familiar stories, but every so often, one or two remakes manage to flare up with genuine inspiration. Think back to Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO (1998), which dared to quite literally re-make Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece shot for shot.
While this approach generally backfired with critics and audiences alike, there is nevertheless an intriguing artistic exploration unfolding at the conceptual level. By doing the “shot-for-shot remake” first, Van Sant was effectively demonstrating its fundamental emptiness as a commercial venture, undercutting future filmmakers who might have the same idea.
On the other hand, by copying Hitchcock’s approach, Van Sant evokes a larger conversation about the inscrutable, magical aspects of cinema, prompting a debate on how color impacts a film’s psychological impression versus black-and-white, or whether a given director’s artistic “essence” can be replicated by xeroxing their techniques.
Say what you will about the end product, but Van Sant effectively gave his remake of PSYCHO a valid artistic reason for existence— albeit one better suited to the forum of museums and academia instead of cinema. Coppola similarly imbues THE BEGUILED with a valid approach that justifies the story’s retelling, leveraging her perspective on the feminine experience to yield fascinating new insights.
The film’s atmosphere is heavy with her characteristic mystique, which presents the female perspective as both intimate and unknowable; a tangle of melancholy navel-gazing, passionate desire and calculating defensiveness.
These women — matronly Miss Martha included — are naturally curious about their masculine house guest, their stark physical and psychological differences in gender made all the more pronounced by their isolation. The code of Southern hospitality dictates they must greet this fox in their henhouse with a warm civility and a gentle grace: social expectations that splinter their tight-knit community with disharmonious drama.
It’s not until they realize that McBurney is using their very womanhood against them that they band back together, pulling from deep, untapped reserves of strength in order to rid their house of this charismatic monster.
Despite barely recouping its budget at the domestic box office (5), THE BEGUILED stands proudly as one of the most successful films of Coppola’s career. It would compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, ultimately winning the festival’s Best Director award— the first time a woman had won in fifty years (and only the second time overall) (1)).
Her first foray into genre territory resonated strongly with critics, who praised the film’s delicate balance of tone while singling out Kidman’s compelling performance. THE BEGUILED’s sophisticated portrait of womanhood under siege seems to mark an inflection point in Coppola’s own development, exhibiting the nuanced maturity and confident restraint of an artist settling into middle age.
There are no signs of crisis here; no frantic realization that time is beginning to run out. There is only the promise of creative rejuvenation, like a vibrant flower poised to bloom into new avenues of expression. This new era has already proved quite prolific: the same year that she released THE BEGUILED, Coppola also directed an imaginative retelling of the opera LA TRAVIATA for the stage, complete with costumes by Valentino.
She’s also preparing to shoot ON THE ROCKS, a movie for Apple’s upstart streaming service that will reunite her once more with Bill Murray as an aging playboy on an adventure through New York with his daughter, played by Rashida Jones.
Indeed, it seems there are so many opportunities that lay ahead for Coppola, it’s become outright impossible to forecast where her artistic development is headed. If THE BEGUILED’s brooding sophistication is any indication, however, then Coppola stands poised to recapture — and redefine — the elusive, melancholic ethereality that made her name.
ON THE ROCKS (2020)
For twenty years, director Sofia Coppola has endeavored to assert her artistic voice out from under the monolithic shadow cast by her father, revered New Hollywood figurehead Francis Ford Coppola. She has largely succeeded, crafting her own distinct legacy through a collection of assured and distinctive feature films. While she regularly drew inspiration from her own life — particularly, the pitfalls of fame and celebrity as experienced by an artist who spent her formative years as a glamorous socialite — she had yet to focus her lens on her relationship with the person who made her charmed life possible. The making of her seventh feature, 2020’s ON THE ROCKS, would prove a suitable opportunity as a kind of love letter to father Francis, structured as a comic caper with a light, elegant touch. Produced by Coppola and her creative partner Youree Henley as the first picture in an agreement between indie powerhouse A24 and tech titan Apple to produce a slate of original films for the latter’s upstart streaming service, ON THE ROCKS doesn’t evolve Coppola’s voice so much as refine it, giving us added insight into the director’s unique storytelling sensibilities.
Indeed, ON THE ROCKS positions itself as more of a refreshing confection than a nourishing meal — a cinematic amuse-bouche pursuant to its double-entendre title alluding to both boozy indulgence and relationships undergoing conflict. Coppola’s script centers on Laura, a busy woman whose glamorous Manhattan lifestyle is complicated by the need to balance her successful writing career with the unique and thankless demands of modern motherhood. Having previously appeared before Coppola’s cameras as a bummed-out bride in 2015’s A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS, Rashida Jones takes center stage with a lived-in and authentic performance as a woman on the verge of forty whose material success in life masks a nagging self-doubt. ON THE ROCKS initially finds Laura in a vulnerable position, her career momentum seemingly having slowed while her husband’s is rocketing to the stratosphere. With Dean (Marlon Wayons) frequently away on business, the day-to-day responsibilities of parenthood fall squarely on her, threatening to derail her delicate life/work balance entirely. The plot begins in earnest when Dean comes home drunk from a work party and initiates a midnight kiss as Laura lies sleeping, only to recoil when she turns to embrace him— almost as if he was expecting someone else. Despite a desire to stay above petty suspicion, Laura can’t help but grow consumed by doubts about Dean’s faithfulness, especially in light of long nights at the office spent in the company of his flirty young colleague, Fiona (Jessica Henwick).
Against her better judgment, Laura reveals her marital misgivings to her father, Felix, a shameless flirt and worldly connoisseur of life’s finer things. Though they enjoy a fairly warm back-and-forth, an undercurrent of strain keeps their relationship at arm’s length — lingering scars from Felix’s thinly-veiled infidelity to Laura’s mother during her youth. It takes a cheater to know one, judging by how quickly Felix assumes Dean’s strange behavior to be a byproduct of his own unfaithfulness. Though Laura is initially wary of Felix’s claims — a writer wanting to resist the oldest cliche in the book, perhaps — she can’t help but be swayed by the clues he pieces together. So begins Coppola’s caper, with father and daughter teaming up to get to the bottom of this mystery, first by rooting through Dean’s text history and then tailing him through crosstown traffic. They even go so far as to follow him to Mexico, where Dean’s beachside business trip threatens to blossom into a romantic rendezvous with Fiona… or so they feverishly speculate.
Though the light touch of Coppola’s plotting suggests a rather scant story, her characterization and the cast’s performances provide ON THE ROCKS with a great deal of nuance and depth. Jones has the unenviable task of standing in for Coppola herself — a fictionalized avatar through which to mount a meditation on the difficulties of asserting oneself against the intimidating legacy of one’s parents. Thankfully, Jones’ familiarity with Coppola is extensive; in addition to their aforementioned collaboration on A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS, Jones once played an important part in Coppola’s artistic development, preceding Scarlett Johansson in breathing life into the role of Charlotte while workshopping an early draft of the screenplay for LOST IN TRANSLATION during an acting class (1). For his part, Murray settles back quite effortlessly into his groove with Coppola, harnessing the easygoing charisma that gave LOST IN TRANSLATION and A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS their charm. His Felix isn’t a one-to-one replica of father Francis, but he does share the same sort of Continental, “Man Of The World” sophistication that distinguishes the elder Coppola. The source of Felix’s wealth is never revealed — indeed, he has or had no apparent profession to speak of — leaving “family money” as the most likely answer, which he clearly is enjoying holding on to until it inevitably passes to Laura. He dresses and flirts like a man without a care in the world precisely because he has yet to have one, but even his fine scarves can’t veil the growing regret he feels about the scars left behind by his inability to commit to being a family man.
Wayans’ performance as Dean suggests a similar fate, giving Laura and Felix’s investigation its urgency and the story its stakes. In contrast to Felix, Dean is a dyed-in-the-wool career man who’s earned every dollar he’s made through hard work. He’s emblematic of a certain type of guy that’s ubiquitous throughout the modern white-collar economy: the stylish, slim-suited and Peloton-framed Salesforce bro speaking entirely in corporate buzzwords. ON THE ROCKS finds his company undergoing a period of dramatic growth, requiring his constant presence both at the office and on the road. Though he effortlessly projects the image of the perfect husband and father, his inability to concentrate on the needs of his marriage for too long fixes his characterization — at least from Laura’s point of view — onto a very one-dimensional plane. As the story unfolds, however, Dean reveals himself to be quite sympathetic indeed; his ambitions stem from a place of profound inadequacy, having conflated happiness with material success. This aspect is where ON THE ROCKS reveals the heart of its story: in essence, a subversion of the “suspicious spouse” tropes that have long figured in Hollywood comedies to demonstrate how easily we can lose sight of the Big, Important Things in the confusing and complicated sweep of our day-to-day lives — and the sometimes-contrived, near-Herculean effort it takes to reaffirm those fundamental forces that shape and clarify our existence.
After their brilliant collaboration on THE BEGUILED, Coppola reteams with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd to pursue a natural elegance with an unadorned, simple aesthetic— “beautifully simple”, as Le Sourd would later articulate in an article with Moviemaker Magazine. “Deceptively simple” might be a better description of ON THE ROCKS’ 35mm 1.85:1 frame, which tends to emphasize functional coverage over conspicuously-artistic compositions. Befitting a story that’s largely conversational, Coppola and Le Sourd routinely employ medium two-shots that frame the top half of characters, saving closer setups for when nuance is critical. Production would occur in New York City throughout June of 2019, but the filmmakers’ focus on a human-oriented scale precludes a need for wide establishing shots of Manhattan landmarks. One could be forgiven for thinking this approach would fail in realizing a sense of place, but the actual result is that kind of daily grind, block-by-block-level impression of place that a local New Yorker would have. The shallow depth of field so characteristic of Coppola’s overarching aesthetic style facilitates this conceit, allowing her characters to meld into the very fabric of the city around them. Her quiet confidence echoes in the deliberate nature of the camerawork, which favors static setups and the occasional pan or tilt (if the characters deign to move beyond the bounds of the frame). There is one exception to the rule: a light-hearted car chase in Felix’s lipstick-red Alfa Romeo through the empty streets of after-hours SoHo. The sudden acceleration invigorates ON THE ROCKS at its midway point, capturing Laura and Felix’s breathless delight at an all-too-rare instance of mischief-making (2).
Though the palette cultivated by Coppola and Le Sourd favors cool hues and muted neutrals, color figures quite prominently as a visual storytelling device. A desaturated, low-contrast look establishes Laura’s status quo by minimizing the prevalence of shadows. With the spires of Manhattan greedily drinking up the direct sunlight, Laura moves through perpetual shade— the diffuse daylight eliminates shadows in a manner that suggests there’s no intrigue in Laura’s life anymore; nowhere to hide from the existential uncertainty that complicates her seemingly “perfect” life (2). In contrast, the image grows more dynamic when Laura and Felix venture to Mexico: the sunlight shines warm and free, stretching the shadows across the beach (2). The plum red of restaurant walls and the canary yellow of Laura’s cocktail dress offer a sharp rebuke to the slate and brick environs of New York, becoming the chromatic equivalent to the kineticism of the Alfa Romeo chase. It’s no accident that these bursts of concentrated color occur at key moments with Felix— they are deliberate signifiers that highlight the importance of this particular father-daughter relationship in Laura’s dramatic trajectory (2).
ON THE ROCKS continues Coppola’s commitment to photochemical film, with the medium once again asserting itself as the appropriate choice for her artistic intentions. Like THE BEGUILED before it, a great deal of the action occurs in the dark, necessitating additional layers of technical consideration when it comes to the relationship between lighting and camera. Where previously entire city blocks would have to be lit in order to achieve the desired exposure — a costly and time-consuming undertaking — the filmmakers found themselves benefitting from the city’s relatively-recent transition to LED street lamps, which served to raise the overall ambient light levels. Combined with the wide latitude and reduced grain field of Kodak’s 500T and 200T stocks, as well as the evergreen ability to push the film in the lab, Coppola and Le Sourd found they could achieve an ease of exposure comparable to digital cameras like the Sony Venice. A set of Panavision Super Speed MKII and Ultra Speed lenses complete ON THE ROCKS’ soft, low-contrast look, putting a sophisticated polish on Coppola’s well-established aesthetic.
Indeed, ON THE ROCKS demonstrates Coppola operating entirely in her comfort zone, enjoying the creative freedoms afforded by a streaming service leveraging the popularity of her artistic persona in a bid to turn her audience into active subscribers. The return of key creative partners is crucial in this regard, beginning with brother Roman serving as executive producer alongside Fred Roos, who actively produced most of father Francis’ work. Frequent production designer Anne Ross goes to great lengths to soften New York’s rough edges with a dim, romantic atmosphere — a prime example being the repeat appearance of Bemelmans Bar, the seductive and high-class watering hole in the lobby of the Hotel Carlyle, previously a main location in A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS. Editor Sarah Flack’s deliberate, unhurried pacing complements Ross’ use of leisure and culture as an anchoring force in these characters’ lives. The French rock band Phoenix, fronted by Coppola’s husband Thomas Mars, delivers their third score for the director: an upbeat, yet subdued, suite of cues that reach for an electric ambience in lieu of distinct melodies or themes. A wide-ranging mix of needledrops further reinforce the idea of Coppola’s narratives as manifestations of her own self— musical windows into the way she sees the world. Electronic and French pop songs are positioned against jazzy torch standards, classical piano arrangements, and even the melancholic whimsy of a Chet Baker ballad, suggesting a collision between youthful energy and the sedate sophistication of New York’s moneyed class. This is arguably where Laura and Coppola’s wavelengths overlap most completely, the pre-existing tracks further shading her story about asserting one’s identity out from under a smothering lineage and a domineering environment.
Befitting her own stage in life as a middle-aged artist, wife and mother, the ethereal mystique that defines Coppola’s leading ladies is manifest in Laura as a fading force, subsumed to the rigorous and thankless demands of motherhood and housekeeping. The effect is compounded by the sagging momentum of her writing career; more and more, she’s having to define herself in relation to the success of others instead of her own. As absurd as it is to team up with her father to stake out or investigate her husband’s shady whereabouts, the central mystery serves to rejuvenate her own enigmatic qualities. Though her rational side can never quite take the endeavor as seriously as Felix does, Laura can’t help but surprise herself along the way; she’s emboldened by this sudden dash of spice in her life, allowing herself to believe she can ultimately avoid conforming to the burned-out contours of middle-aged domesticity. A fun running joke with Jenny Slate as a fellow mom who can’t stop blabbing about her ill-advised conquests in the kindergarten drop-off line serves to contrast with Laura’s perceived lack of mystique, although we can’t help but join Laura in pitying the poor girl’s utter inability to mature into a responsible person.
Though she often catches flack for writing stories about cloistered worlds defined by luxury and privilege, there is surprisingly little discussion about Coppola’s onscreen exploration of architecture and how it shapes her silver-spooned protagonists’ lived experience. The homogenous suburban sprawl of THE VIRGIN SUICIDES alienates the Lisbon sisters from everyone except themselves, drawing them ever tighter into a kamikaze spiral of malaise and discontent. LOST IN TRANSLATION’s Park Hyatt Hotel serves as a cozy cocoon nurturing the blossoming love between a young married woman and a middle-aged has-been movie star just before they flutter back out into the world as self-realized butterflies. The ornate halls of Versailles Palace become nothing but a gilded cage for MARIE ANTOINETTE’s eponymous royal, while SOMEWHERE depicts LA’s storied Chateau Marmont hotel as both a refuge from and facilitator for a burned-out actor’s inherent vice. THE BLING RING juxtaposes stucco McMansions against glass hillside homes to demonstrate gradations of privilege and the all-consuming covetousness that can breed. A decrepit Antebellum mansion perverts the architecture of domesticity to stage THE BEGUILED’s battle of the sexes. With ON THE ROCKS, Coppola uses the backdrop of Manhattan’s SoHo and Tribeca neighborhoods — tony enclaves defined less and less by tastemaking artists and more by their patrons — to underscore a professional creative’s identity crisis.
Surrounded by the polished grit of this Basquiat Disneyland, invaded by gentrifiers and wealthy pretenders who want to live the Art Life without that pesky “starving” business, Laura’s creative stagnancy is the logical endpoint of her slow decline from producer to consumer. Candlelit booths in cozy bars, industrial lofts with designer finishes, and the burnished leather backseat of Felix’s town car are bubbles of privilege that further fuel Laura’s discontent, encouraging talk of Cartier watches and fancy private schools instead of anything truly substantial or creatively nourishing. Through it all, an interesting subtext reveals itself, putting a finer point on Coppola’s portraits of wealth and privilege as insightful critique. As ON THE ROCKS unfolds, one gets the distinct impression that financial security is growing ever more elusive — even for those we’d readily consider to be “well-off”. Be it inflation or widening wealth inequality, the dollar simply doesn’t travel as far as it used to. Laura clearly comes from money: she’s chauffeured around town by her father’s longtime driver, her work hours are her own, and she enjoys a sizable apartment with ample size within a city where space is the hottest of commodities. Conspicuously absent, however, is a nanny. One would expect a family of Laura’s financial strata to have one on hand, but the duties fall squarely on her. The strain also manifests itself in her marriage to Dean, whereby Dean’s insecurity about providing for a woman apparently accustomed to so much already compels him to put in long hours at the office so he can fortify their marriage with material goods instead of what she really wants: his simple presence as a husband and father. As absurd as Laura and Felix’s vigilante stakeouts are, the reasons for Laura and Dean’s malaise are arguably even more nonsensical, having fallen prey to the attendant insanities of life in the throes of late-stage capitalism.
Released in October of 2020 with a premiere at the New York Film Festival, ON THE ROCKS would join the handful of films experimenting with unconventional distribution models in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As A24’s first joint venture with Apple TV+, Coppola’s film was always bound for the tech giant’s nascent streaming service following a limited theatrical release, but the strategy couldn’t help but resemble the reactionary swings other studios were making in a bid to recoup their investments without the windfall of box office revenue. Interestingly enough, the minimization of the theatrical window might have spurred on the film’s modest success, encouraging audiences to take a chance on the film by lowering the cost of entry and boosting the ease of access. To wit, ON THE ROCKS would enjoy some of the warmest critical notices of Coppola’s career, arguably coasting off our collective desire for some lighthearted escapism during troubling times. While David Sims of The Atlantic would find himself wanting by Coppola’s threadbare plot, he was ultimately won over by its “rush of unintentional catharsis and pure diversion”. Critics mostly focused on Murray’s undeniable charm, but they also were quick to articulate the inherent charm of Coppola’s dreamy storytelling voice as applied to the form factor of the classic screwball comedy. Polygon’s Jesse Hassenger would put it most poignantly with his succinct takeaway: “for this lonely moment, ON THE ROCKS feels right”.
Indeed, ON THE ROCKS is the kind of film that Coppola could only make at this exact moment in her career, replete with mature insights into that nebulous phase of life we call “happily ever after”: keeping the spark of love & marriage alive amidst the long slog of business meetings, school drop-offs, and all the attendant uncertainties of middle age. Coppola’s ability to imbue the slightest of narratives with profound depth is a feature, not a bug; a key signifier of her voice that, much like Laura does with Felix, allows her to assert herself out from under the intimidating weight of the preceding generation’s achievements. ON THE ROCKS reads like the clearest window into the personal life of a fairly private artist, using Coppola’s evocative and enigmatic storytelling to convey, arguably, the thesis for her entire career: that the legacy of our parents doesn’t have to define our own.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To support Cameron’s work – Subscribe on Special.tv.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———