Director Spotlight: Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola with her Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola is one of only four women ever nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, and was the first woman from the United States to achieve the honor. Her nomination was for Lost in Translation, for which she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. (The only woman to win the Directing Oscar is Kathryn Bigelow; other nominees have been Jane Campion for The Piano and Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties.)
In her four feature films, Coppola has maintained quite a bit of creative control by not only directing but writing each one. Her career began as an actress, and in 1999 she directed her first feature, The Virgin Suicides. Coppola has received a lot of criticism over the years, from her family wealth and industry connections (because no men in Hollywood got where they are today through connections, right?) to the subjects of her films. While I admit to personally thinking that emptiness is sometimes mistaken for profundity in her films, I admire her hard work, vision, and success in Hollywood–and find each of her films lovely and interesting.
Here are the feature-length films that Coppola has written and directed. She has also directed the short films Lick the Star and Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Somewhere (2010)

Coppola’s most recent film, Somewhere, is currently playing in theatres and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

From the official film website, here is the synopsis:
You have probably seen him in the tabloids; Johnny is living at the legendary Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood. He has a Ferrari to drive around in, and a constant stream of girls and pills to stay in with. Comfortably numbed, Johnny drifts along. Then, his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) from his failed marriage arrives unexpectedly at the Chateau. Their encounters encourage Johnny to face up to where he is in life and confront the question that we all must: which path in life will you take?

Dana Stevens, in her Slate review, “My Sophia Problem,” shares my frustrations with a director who doesn’t transcend “individual filmic moments that transport and transform both the characters and the viewer. She’s the queen of fleeting brilliance, little glimpses of beauty and sadness and truth.”
But I don’t think it’s revealing too much (no more than the elliptical trailer does) to say that this is a movie about a father and daughter who are learning, however haltingly and briefly, to connect. As they do, there are lovely moments along the way—I adored a casual, improvised-sounding scene in which Cleo and her dad play a video game while Johnny’s childhood friend Sammy (Chris Pontius) heckles them from the sidelines. But there’s no discernible trajectory that joins one epiphany to the next, making Johnny’s last-scene revelation—and his ambiguous final gesture—feel unearned and underwhelming.

Ann Hornaday, writing for The Washington Post, has a more positive take–and I think accurately calls Coppola’s films “tone poems” in her review, “A Hollywood daughter’s daddy issues”

As with every Coppola tone poem, “Somewhere” is laced with moments of pure loveliness — Cleo swirling on the ice in a dreamy pastel-colored cloud, or playing Guitar Hero with Johnny on an idle afternoon — and snippets of knowing humor. The inane questions Johnny entertains at a press junket, which range from his workout routine to post-global co­lo­ni­al­ism, are depressingly accurate (take it from someone who’s asked them). Later, when he sits with his head encased in goop for an hour to make a latex mold of his face, the scene is played both for its comic absurdity and, when he sees the results, intimations of mortality. 
 Watch the trailer for Somewhere:

Marie Antoinette (2006)
Most of us know the story of Marie Antoinette, though this film is less biopic than exploration of a life of wealth and teenage excess. Marie Antoinette won an Oscar for Costume Design. Here’s the synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:
Biopic of the beautiful Queen of France who became a symbol for the wanton extravagance of the 18th century monarchy, and was stripped of her riches and finery, imprisoned and beheaded by her own subjects during the French Revolution that began in 1789.

Carina Chocano, writing for the LA Times, nicely characterizes the theme at the heart of this (and other) Coppola films:
Coppola has a soft spot for characters who live their lives at once cut off from and exposed to the world. And she captures the gilded-cage experience, in all its romantic decadence, like nobody else. The movie is at its strongest when it focuses on Marie Antoinette’s private, sensual world, which — as she drifts into her much-mocked Rousseau-inspired pastoral phase, in which she attempts, in her inimitably artificial way, to connect with her natural self — becomes ever more abstract and cut off from reality. Dunst’s sleepy, detached quality is perfectly suited to the character. What Marie Antoinette wants is to lose herself in a dream.

Amy Biancolli’s review for the Houston Chronicle is less forgiving of Coppola’s chosen subject:
Oh — and that business about feudalism, ignoring the hunger of a nation, losing her head to the guillotine, etc., etc. All that bother. Who cares! It has no business in a movie about Marie Antoinette, queen of rock and sugar baby par excellence. Sofia Coppola‘s latest film doesn’t much care about the sociopolitical genesis of the French Revolution, choosing to zero in on M.A.’s Imelda Marcos-scale shoe collection and 80-foot hairdos rather than the scruffy masses who overthrew the monarchy.

Watch the trailer:

Lost in Translation (2003)
Lost in Translation earned Coppola the Best Director Oscar nomination and Best Original Screenplay win, and received dozens of other nominations and wins, including the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, and BAFTA Awards for Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:
Bob Harris and Charlotte are two Americans in Tokyo. Bob is a movie star in town to shoot a whiskey commercial, while Charlotte is a young woman tagging along with her workaholic photographer husband. Unable to sleep, Bob and Charlotte cross paths one night in the luxury hotel bar. This chance meeting soon becomes a surprising friendship. Charlotte and Bob venture through Tokyo, having often hilarious encounters with its citizens, and ultimately discover a new belief in life’s possibilities.

With its success on the film festival circuit and with the award attention it garnered, it’s no surprise that Lost in Translation is Coppola’s most critically-acclaimed film. Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum says:
But much of what’s astonishing about Sofia Coppola’s enthralling new movie is the precision, maturity, and originality with which the confident young writer-director communicates so clearly in a cinematic language all her own, conveying how it feels to find oneself temporarily unmoored from familiar surroundings and relationships. This is a movie about how bewilderingly, profoundly alive a traveler can feel far from home.

Speaking of the two main characters, played by Johansson and Murray, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie writes:
What follows is a non-affair to remember, which maintains a delicate balance between friends, lovers and something ineffably greater than either. They are made for each other in a million ways, with sex being one of the lesser ones (though that tension is ever-present). 

Their relationship — sometimes tender, sometimes hilarious — is the heart and soul of the movie.

Watch the trailer:

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ poetic novel of the same name, The Virgin Suicides was Coppola’s feature film debut, which received several nominations and an MTV Movie Award for Best New Filmmaker.

The synopsis, again from Rotten Tomatoes:

On the surface the Lisbons appear to be a healthy, successful 1970s family living in a middle-class Michigan suburb. Mr. Libson is a math teacher, his wife is a rigid religious mother of five attractive teenage daughters who catch the eyes of the neighborhood boys. However, when 13-year-old Cecilia commits suicide, the family spirals downward into a creepy state of isolation and the remaining girls are quarantined from social interaction (particularly from the opposite sex) by their zealously protective mother. But the strategy backfires, their seclusion makes the girls even more intriguing to the obsessed boys who will go to absurd lengths for a taste of the forbidden fruit.

In a review as interesting for its discussion of female filmmakers as for its actual commentary on Coppola’s film, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon writes:

What’s interesting in particular about “The Virgin Suicides” isn’t just that it was made by a woman, but that it’s a case of a woman’s adapting a novel about a group of young men’s nostalgia for the unattainable girls of their youth. In the old days, you might have said those girls were imprisoned in the male gaze. But Coppola’s picture is completely nonjudgmental about the narrators’ love for the Lisbon girls (although it should go without saying that love shouldn’t be subject to anyone’s judgment).

The picture has a feminine sensibility in terms of its dreamy languor, the pearlescent glow that hovers around it like a nimbus. (It’s beautifully shot by Edward Lachman and features a willowy score by Air.) But there’s also a clear-eyed precision at work here, almost as if Coppola subconsciously wanted to make sure she captured Eugenides’ vision, while also giving a sense of the Lisbon sisters as real live girls.

Watch the trailer:


  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I have a massive love/hate relationship with Sofia Coppola. At 14, The Virgin Suicides definitely stirred my interest in film, and I was obsessed with Lost in Translation when it came out, but I think with Marie Antoinnette the bloom was off the rose and looking back her films begin to look redundant. They’re pretty, but they rely on the pretty-ness of the images and (especially in Marie Antoinette’s case) the soundtrack. She, much like Spike Jonze, has this uber-hipster quality to their films that drives me batty.

    At the same time, Lost in Translation has the brilliant moment of a heterosexual man and a woman on a bed not having sex, which is a rarity in Hollywood. A relationship that isn’t sexual between a man and woman is a rarity in Hollywood, and of course, it takes a female director/writer to present it. That is where I do give her credit.

  • Posted February 3, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    I feel exactly the same way, Liz. The Virgin Suicides seems different from the other three–at least in theme–but her films do strike me as repetitive. However, many filmmakers study a subject again and again in their work, so I don’t think that’s a particularly strong criticism for me to make against her. There is definitely an attitude (hipsterism) that turns me off, as well. As I mentioned in the post, her obsession with surfaces and the concept of emptiness I think is sometimes mistaken for something profound and poetic, when often she’s looking at something very simple (money can buy people all kinds of things but not bring meaning, security, or happiness to their lives).

    Still, she’s a successful woman with creative control over her work. We don’t have to unequivocally love her work to respect her.

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