It seems somewhat expected to have an article on Sofia Coppola during Women Directors Week. To some, it may even seem unfair, especially since there are so many amazingly talented female directors who do not receive nearly as much, nor enough, recognition. Having not released a film since 2013’s based-on-a-true-story teen crime film The Bing Ring, the fact that she lingers in our minds is a true testament to her artistry and impact as a director. However, while being one of the most discussed women directors, it is hard to think of a female director who is under as much scrutiny as Sofia Coppola. This is especially true when it comes to her signature pretty and feminine filmic style.
When it comes to the critique of Coppola, her filmic style is too often described along the lines of being too pretty, too feminine, or as style over substance. Peter Travers from Rolling Stone enjoys her films yet felt the need to justify why he might enjoy such a feminine film: “With one critic calling it ‘frippery’ and the Internet buzz saying it’s only “for girls and gays,” Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette makes it challenging for a guy to do her a solid.” William Morris writes at The Boston Globe, “As art, the movie [Marie Antoinette] is neither shallow nor profound, just inconsequential.” For The Bling Ring, Ty Burr describes the film as “a beautiful zoo” with characters “beautiful to look at” but feels the film lacks sympathy. Amy Woolsey’s address of this supposed emptiness, published at Bitch Flicks, highlights the gendered nature of such a critique. Male directors, however, who exhibit the same attention to style and aesthetics, are not held to this same ideal. As explored in Rosalind Galt’s book Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image, prettiness in film is not exclusively female or feminine, and is thus unfair to use as a critique against women directors’ films.
With five feature films (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring) and with a sixth, The Beguiled, being released later this year, Sofia Coppola has firmly established herself as a modern-day auteur. All her films are about girls and young women. She emphasizes mood, atmosphere, and slow moving narratives. Her dreamy colors and aesthetics, soft tones, use of soundtracks, and undeniable presence of the female voice have become synonymous with her name.
In his essay, “Off with Hollywood’s Head: Sofia Coppola as Feminine Auteur,” Todd Kennedy addresses the harsh critique on Coppola in the reviews of her films. He postulates:
“…the implication that a unique visual style lacks meaning because it is, essentially, pretty speaks toward the manner in which the critics seem unprepared to evaluate Coppola’s films on her own terms. Choosing to develop her own, feminine film form, she causes critics (and often audiences) not to know what to do with her films…” (2010, 38).
I suppose this is where I mention that Sofia Coppola is the daughter of esteemed 20th-century auteur Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Trilogy, Apocalypse Now). Her lineage is part of the reason why her films are considered under so much scrutiny (not to mention the fact that women-directed films typically face more scrutiny). When seasoned cinephiles see the Coppola name on a film, I’m sure a soft, atmospheric film about five alienated sisters, or an 80s synth-pop, candy-colored romp at Versailles was not what they were expecting. In effect, Sofia Coppola as a director seems to be viewed as a little girl who was allowed to play with a film camera because of her father’s accomplishments and not necessarily as a talented director, in her own right.
Furthermore, Kennedy argues that “there is an implied, gendered language inherent of the attacks upon Sofia Coppola” (2010, 38). The implication of films being “too feminine,” as if masculinity is the default, is evidence of the sexist, masculine domination and nature of the film industry and film criticism.
Rosalind Galt outlines that prettiness in film has always been a critique, “defined by its apparently obvious worthlessness” (100, 7). But in modern cinema, it is something that is held against gender. Throughout time, film critics regard “pretty” as “merely pretty” and thus as films lacking “depth, seriousness or complexity of meaning” (2011, 6). Compared to other male directors with similar styles, this worthlessness is only ever present in regard to a women director like Sofia Coppola. Wes Anderson has cultivated a unique, decorative style for his films, but unlike Coppola, he is revered for it. Sofia Coppola’s distinctive filmic style has been parodied, but arguably not analyzed and celebrated to the extent of Wes Anderson’s films. Joe Wright’s period dramas are filled with just as much decadence and prettiness as Marie Antoinette, but he is instead praised for it.
There is a double standard in the way prettiness is regarded in cinema. “Pretty” is for female directors, but for male directors, prettiness isn’t ever uttered, and reverence is received in its place.
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land: both beautiful and visually stunning films, both pretty films. Each film was made while the respective directors were young, and both were in the early stages of their career. Both films received critical acclaim.
Sofia Coppola was the third woman (the first woman from the U.S.) to ever be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award for her sophomore feature, which she also wrote. The film received numerous nominations and awards throughout the season, and was nominated further for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Sofia Coppola lost both Best Film and Best Director to the fantasy epic (and male-dominated) Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and instead was awarded Best Screenplay — high praise for her work, but not for the film’s direction and visuals.
In contrast, Damien Chazelle’s third feature film, La La Land, a visual spectacle of music and colors that mimic glorious Technicolor—and so pretty, but almost no one utters the word (although this review does). Chazelle swept through awards season, taking the Best Director award at the Academy Awards, but it never became synonymous with a pretty film. While the film has become divisive amongst film critics, the criticisms tend to focus on its depiction of jazz, the lack of skill in the singing and dancing, the lack of LGBTQ characters, and the film’s “unbearable whiteness.” Its criticisms aren’t coded in gendered language.
Sofia Coppola’s films are regularly accused, of having style over substance, but so does La La Land. Hiding behind the spectacle and the Old Hollywood Musical revival, was an empty story which lacked the emotional impact needed to really pack a punch during the third act. What we saw of aspiring actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone, who carried the movie) and jazz purist Sebastian only skimmed the surface of what I believe could have been intensely complex characters. We as an audience saw so little of their relationship (a montage worth of love, essentially) that when the two broke apart, the film flatlined until the next musical number. The film is pretty, a love-letter to Hollywood, and Hollywood loves itself. While it won many awards and has received praise from film critics, many critics have denounced or criticized the film, they just haven’t done so in the same gendered way as Sofia Coppola’s films.
With the domination of male directors in the film industry, women too often see themselves represented on-screen through the male lens: Laura Mulvey’s term of the Male Gaze. Through the Male Gaze, women are seen on-screen as static and eroticized objects. In effect, it is rare to see women on-screen outside of the Male Gaze. Sofia Coppola emphasizes the female voice and representing the female experience and girlhood in an array of contexts — yet all quite similar, whether it be the loneliness and isolation of the Lisbon household, of Tokyo or the Palace of Versailles — it’s enlightening to see on-screen. The double standard in film criticism and film awards diminishes the importance and achievements of the female director and the female voice on-screen.
Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Beguiled is set to be released this year with a screening at the Cannes Film Festival. She is one of three women who have been selected to screen for competition at Cannes, a number which remains too low. Set in Civil War-era Virginia at a young women’s school, led by Nicole Kidman and (Coppola-favorite) Kirsten Dunst, the girls and women’s lives are disrupted when a wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) arrives at their house. A thriller, and a remake of the 1971 Western, this film looks to be much darker and less colorful as her previous films, and is a genre-change. While “her approach” on The Beguiled “was different,” Coppola told the Los Angeles Times that she “really wanted to emphasize that lacy, feminine world.” Perhaps this film is her response to previous critiques — that she can do substance and she is here to show it to you. A radical interpretation would be the “vengeful bitches” in the film represent Coppola herself, fighting back against patriarchal society, for a soldier is the very stereotypical depiction of masculinity. The film industry better watch out, Sofia Coppola is not going to take this standing down.
Kennedy, T 2010, ‘Off With Hollywood’s Head: Sofia Coppola as Feminine Auteur’, Film Criticism, vol 35, issue 1, pp 37-59
Galt, R 2011, Pretty: film and the aesthetic image, Columbia University Press, New York.
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Claire White is a Screen & Cultural Studies and Media & Communications graduate, bookseller, and production intern based in Melbourne, Australia. She is founder and writer of the all-female stage and screen blog Cause a Cine. You can follow her on Twitter @clairencew.