Twenty years of Sofia Coppola

I will come clean: despite being a feminist woman filmmaker, I never got around to watching a Sofia Coppola movie. So when I signed up to her free interview with film historian Anne Insdorf, organised by 92Y Street via Zoom, I decided to power through her filmography over two days.

The result? I’m now dreaming about sad blonde women with holier-than-thou attitudes.

The Virgin Suicides drew me in immediately. It’s got my kind of aesthetic and stark contrast. There’s something eerie about the Lisbon sisters, their conservative family and their striking blonde hair that doesn’t usually belong in a coming of age tale. One could say the same thing about their tragic suicides, witnessed through the eyes of a group of young boys with crushes on the girls.

All through Coppola’s filmography, we witness the interior struggles of troubled somewhat-privileged women. “Witness” being the key word, because a particular signature of Coppola is her ability to craft characters that are carefully observed but never understood to their core.

With a background in painting and photography, her style is a very visual one. Exposition is rare, mood is everything. During the 92Y interview, she admits that she doesn’t story board before starting a project but prefers to share 20 or more pages of reference images with her whole team. As the writer and director of all her films, she always leaves freedom for improvisation and actors’ inputs.

Coppola has had plenty of criticism about her work too: privileged background, supposedly shallow and repetitive plots, anachronistic elements and the recent accusations about whitewashing in The Beguiled and Bling Ring.

While the latter is worth diving deeper into, most of the criticism of her style is a significant example of the gendered bias of film criticism. Considering Coppola is one of only five women to ever be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, are we really that surprised? Plenty of Hollywood directors are famous because their films all share similaritiesTarantino and Nolan to name only a couple. The dislike for Sofia Coppola’s style seems to be linked to her catering to a rather young female audience through her choice of characters and plots, which in turn seems to imply a shallowness in the themes to some viewers.

Coppola never shies away from showing just how attractive and overwhelming privilege can be. I think it’s rather brave on her part to question and dissect her own life experience so accurately and so openly

“I was always told that girls will go to see movies about boys, but boys won’t go see movies about girls,” she says to Annette Insdorf. But Coppola found her own way of breaking that rule. The women in her movies always have a deeper inner world than any man around them. The films are about the burden these women carry, the loneliness of feeling everything more intensely than those around them. And this is often seen through the point of view of men. When we struggle to understand the women in the film, we identify with the men. When we connect to that loneliness and hollowness, we identify with the women, regardless of what gender we actually identify as.

She’s stayed true to herself in her journey so far – the privileged background of all her characters is a reflection of her own. It’s both a criticism and a celebration of Hollywood’s extravagance. Marie Antoinette, as misunderstood as it might have been, was never meant to be an accurate account of the rise and fall of the French queen. It’s a metaphor for splendour, wealth and privilege and their ultimate emptiness. All these riches are unable to make up for emotional detachment. But Coppola never shies away from showing just how attractive and overwhelming this privilege can be. I think it’s rather brave on her part to question and dissect her own life experience so accurately and so openly.

So to me this raises the question: would Coppola actually be the best person to centre people of colour in her films? It’s certainly true that it would be better if she picked source material with white characters rather than substituting them, like her erasure of an African-American slave character in The Beguiled. But unlike others in Hollywood, she has always acknowledged and justified her actions as an attempt to not brush over complicated topics lightly. If a film is not about slavery, is it right to have the only African-American character present play a slave? Or does it feed into a set of stereotypes we’ve all had enough of? Should an extremely privileged white woman have a say in these experiences anyway? There is no easy answer to these questions and different people will have different takes. And while there are many excellent diverse filmmakers out there that deserve more acknowledgement, Coppola might finally be ready to tackle some of these issues in her next film, On The Rocks. Featuring Rashida Jones playing alongside Bill Murray, this is meant to be Coppola’s first film with a mixed ethnicity lead.

I respect that she’s never stepped away from what she does and knows best, though. She comes across as someone who holds her technique very dear: during the interview with Insdorf, she mentions she’ll always choose to shoot on film over digital and isn’t too eager to move to Netflix or any new streaming platform. But as the cinematic landscape evolves faster than ever, holding on to what used to be might not be beneficial in the long run. On the Rocks might be a sign of Coppola attempting to branch out from her comfort zone.

The 19 May will mark 20 years since Sofia Coppola’s debut feature The Virgin Suicides opened in the UK.

What will the next two decades hold for her?

Sofia Coppola’s interview with Annette Insdorf is available to watch on the 92Y website.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr. Film stills courtesy of iMDB.
Image description:
1. A portrait of Sofia Coppola looking into camera. The photo is repeated three times in different pastel colours.
2. A still from ‘The Virgin Suicides’. Two of the Lisbon sisters, Lux and Bonnie, are seen from the bottom up against a dreamy blue sky. They carry books and flowers and wear similar school uniforms.
3. A still from ‘Marie Antoinette’. The main character lies on the ground in a beautiful lush garden. She appears peaceful and sleepy. Behind her, a young child runs around. They both wear white period clothing.