The Films of Sofia Coppola: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”
~Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country
When Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna Hall) jumps out of her bedroom window onto the metal gate that separates her home from the rest of the world to which she longs to escape, the big question that lingers in the air is “Why?” This question lies at the core of Sofia Coppola’s debut feature film, The Virgin Suicides (1999), based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. The omniscient narrator of the film searches for the answer, not only to Cecilia’s suicide, but to the subsequent suicides of her four older sisters. By the end of the film, Coppola’s unsettling response cannot be avoided: Why not?
Audiences don’t like to be confronted with this question. As human beings, we often want answers to things, and when they don’t come easily, we go out of our way to search for them. Coppola’s films exist to remind us that answers are arbitrary. They suggest that the most traumatic and important events in our lives are often the most irrational and unreasonable. It is certainly plausible to claim that Cecilia jumps onto the fence because she is depressed, or because her idyllic suburban lifestyle and conservative parents stifle her freedom and autonomy, but Coppola’s point is perhaps more existential.
For example, there is an early scene in The Virgin Suicides where Cecilia, after having attempted and failed to kill herself once, joins her older sisters for a party that her mother (Kathleen Turner) reluctantly throws for the girls in order to cheer them up. The young teens converse in the basement while Cecilia’s parents (also a terrific James Woods as the father) remain in the kitchen. One of the party’s guests, a mentally challenged neighborhood boy, arrives at the party and is shown to the basement by Cecilia’s mother. Cecilia’s sisters and the other guests at the party swarm the boy with attention, but it soon becomes clear that they are mocking him for their own amusement. The boy is oblivious to this fact, but Cecilia is not. She sees right through it. Displeased with the way the others are treating the boy, Cecilia returns upstairs. Moments later she jumps out of her bedroom window. But why?
Cecilia is thirteen years old, and as she observes the way everyone around her acts, with such obvious phoniness, she realizes that she wants out. She kills herself not necessarily because she is depressed or because she hates the suburbs, although that is a part of it, but because life in general seems pointless to her, and suicide in that moment feels like the best option. It is that simple, and, as a result, that complicated. Cecilia kills herself because, well, living just doesn’t cut it. So, why not?
I don’t think it is fair to say that one director is the best, or that one is the most important. I also don’t subscribe to the auteur theory that states that the director is the author of the film and that everyone who works with the director is only contributing to the director’s overall vision. I think it is important to make room for the reality of the production process, which allows for collaboration and co-authorship. Having said all of that, as Dana Polan reminds us in his insightful study of Jane Campion, it is possible to study a director’s work without claiming that the director is the sole author of a film.
With that, I will offer a study of one of the most misunderstood contemporary directors, Sofia Coppola. This study will highlight her body of work with a particular focus on thematic and aesthetic features.
More than any contemporary filmmaker besides Woody Allen, Coppola is interested in depicting the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Perhaps this is because Coppola is the daughter of Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola, and her childhood is arguably not unlike those of her characters. What most critics fail to realize, however, is that Coppola often turns her back on this existence, as if to suggest that it is not a fulfilling way of life. With each film, Coppola subverts the audience’s expectations, and as a result, her work is often misunderstood.
The Virgin Suicides, for example, illustrates the emptiness of suburban, middle-class life. Consider the scene below in which the neighborhood boys read Cecilia’s diary in an attempt to make sense of the Lisbon sisters’ suicides:
This scene is significant because it introduces the audience to Coppola’s thematic and aesthetic interests. On the one hand, the scene alludes to the meaninglessness of middle-class existence and alienation of modern life. This theme is present in all of Coppola’s films, in which wealthy or famous protagonists struggle to find their purpose in a perplexing world. On the other hand, Coppola’s stylistic incorporation of dream-like imagery suggests that her films are poetic mood pieces. Narrative often comes second to visual experimentation, and as a result, Coppola’s films are reminiscent of the great work of Wong Kar-Wai and Jean-Luc Godard.
Coppola’s first two feature films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation (2003), are arguably her most accepted films. If the IMDB and Metacritic scores are any indication, critics and audiences seem to appreciate Coppola’s work on these films, especially the latter. Lost in Translation garnered Coppola an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and it reintroduced the world to the brilliance of Bill Murray. What is surprising, however, is how unconventional the film is, and how daring it feels in its construction. Lost in Translation is a slow, meditative character study of angst and alienation, and although films about two strangers who meet in another country typically turn into tragic, unrequited romance, Coppola sidesteps these cliches to give us something more complex.
Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are lost. Bob is a middle-age actor in Tokyo shooting a whiskey commercial, but he is unfulfilled by his work. Charlotte is a twenty-something wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who recently graduated from college and doesn’t know what to do with her life. She joins her husband on his work trip because, like the Lisbon sisters who commit suicide, why not? The film revolves around the subtle, delicate friendship between the two that is born out of loneliness and a mutual need for companionship. Below is the final scene from the film, which highlights the themes of ennui and alienation, as well as Coppola’s formal construction of mood.
Like The Virgin Suicides, Coppola uses dream-like imagery to capture the characters’ feelings of confusion as they survive the chaos of modern life. The emphasis here is on visual and acoustic properties and how they evoke mood. In addition, there is the now classic exchange between Bob and Charlotte that the audience does not get to experience. Many suggest that this is because it is a moment of such profound intimacy that even the audience doesn’t deserve to hear what Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear. This may be true, but I also think it highlights the general meaninglessness that permeates all of Coppola’s work. Just as we will never truly know why the Lisbon girls kill themselves, we can only speculate as to what Bob says to Charlotte, what it means, and why Coppola decides to leave it ambiguous.
Could it be, perhaps, that Bob’s words are inaudible to the audience because in the big scheme of the world they hold no purpose? Throughout the film, we have followed Bob and Charlotte as they come to terms with their place in the world, and the final scene only illuminates how little they are. Sure, Bob stands out because he is a tall American, and we have watched him and Charlotte throughout the film so we recognize them as our characters, but Coppola implies that they are not unlike the strangers they walk next to on the crowded streets of Tokyo. Aren’t we all hopeless mortals trying to stand out in a crowd? Don’t we all realize at one point or another that we, like the man or woman next to us, and like Bob and Charlotte, inevitably get lost in the crowd?
This is why the ending to Lost in Translation is so heartbreaking. It is not because Bob and Charlotte are soul mates who cannot be together, but because Bob and Charlotte are people who have come to realize their place in the world. Despite Bob’s fame and Charlotte’s seemingly happy, wealthy existence as the wife of a photographer, neither of them can escape the fact that they do not stand out in the crowd. The consolation, then, is the kind of connection Bob and Charlotte form during their brief encounter. The rest of the world might not recognize them, but at least they recognize each other. And so Bob exits the taxi and runs after Charlotte, not to say, “Let’s spend the rest of our lives together,” but to acknowledge her presence, and to remind her that for as long as she lives, there will have been at least one other person who could point her out it a crowd.
Coppola’s next film, Marie Antoinette (2006), divided critics and audiences. This division, I think, stems from Coppola’s decision to sympathize with France’s iconic queen. Instead of portraying her as an evil, money-hungry ruler as most history books do, Coppola views Antoinette as a young girl who didn’t know any better. Below is perhaps the most telling scene in the film that highlights Coppola’s intentions.
This scene, in many ways, resembles Dazed and Confused (1993) in its depiction of youthful exuberance. Here, Antoinette is depicted as a young girl who just wants to have fun. Throughout the film, Coppola suggests that Antoinette wasn’t aware of the fact that most of France was starving to death under her rule, precisely because she was at that self-absorbed age where she only thought about herself. By treating Antoinette as she does the Lisbon girls or Charlotte, Coppola not surprisingly infuriated a lot of people with her portrait of the historical figure. Critics and fans found it difficult to watch a film that defends Antoinette and makes a case for her youthful naivety and ignorance.
The party scene also highlights two other aspects of Coppola’s filmography. One is her excellent use of music to convey the scene’s mood. In the case of Marie Antoinette, Coppola uses 1980s rock music, which removes the film from history and suggests that Antoinette is no different than, say, Paris Hilton. The other thing to notice is Kirsten Dunst, who is Coppola’s muse in two films (the other being The Virgin Suicides), and who contributes so much artistry to Coppola’s films that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Dunst conveys a certain mystery that adds to the ambiguity of both The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette.
Somewhere (2010), Coppola’s fourth feature film, is a minimalist work of art that finds Coppola turning her back on Hollywood. Like Lost in Translation, the film follows an actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), as he comes to terms with the emptiness of fame and wealth. His daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), reenters his life, and he is forced to confront the decisions that has led him to this moment, where his relationship with his daughter has been pushed aside by the celebrity lifestyle.
The opening scene of the film is arguably the best opening in the history of cinema, as Johnny circles his sports car around a track, an act that represents the boredom and emptiness that comes along with fame. Johnny is literally moving in circles with nowhere in particular to go.
Contrast this with the final scene of the film, and we can see how everything comes full circle. Johnny reexamines his life and realizes that his relationship with Cleo is more fulfilling and important than his wealth or fame, and so the final shot finds Johnny leaving his car, which symbolizes his materialistic lifestyle, behind.
Moreover, Somewhere, Coppola’s most artistically daring film, shows an artist turning her back on the superficiality of Hollywood that her father also turned his back on after the monumental success of films like The Godfather (1973) and Apocalypse Now (1979). It’s as if Coppola knows first-hand how crippling wealth and fame can be. Hollywood embraced Coppola’s first two feature films, but when she chose to experiment with Marie Antoinette, she was written off by critics and those within the industry. Instead of returning with a more Hollywood friendly film, Coppola’s Somewhere is a defiant statement against conformity and the pressures of the film business. It is a radical motion picture from a director who could be, if she wanted to, Hollywood royalty, but instead choose artistic integrity and innovation.
It is difficult to tell where Coppola will go next. Her most recent feature film, The Bling Ring (2013), is less artistically audacious than Somewhere, but it similarly portrays the emptiness and alienation of modern life. Like Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, critics are divided on this film. However, most of them don’t seem to understand what Coppola is trying to do. If one were to go on Metacritic or IMDB, they would see that a lot of the negative reactions to the film are that it is repetitive and inconsequential. Other critics complain that it is impossible to care for any of the main characters. But how can you criticize a film for doing what it intends to do? How can you say that a film is bad simply because it is not the kind of film that you wanted to see?
Most critics fail to recognize that their criticisms of The Bling Ring, in fact, illuminate the entire point of The Bling Ring. Coppola’s film is repetitive and inconsequential, and the characters in the film are unlikable, but there is a reason for that. The film, which is based on a true story of a group of California teenagers who broke into the houses of various celebrities like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan and stole $3 million worth of items, depicts the meaningless lifestyles of the rich and famous.
These teenagers rob because it provides them with something to do, and because it allows them, for a while, to experience what it feels like to be rich and famous (or, richer and more famous, as all of the burglars are relatively wealthy, if not famous). The film is repetitive because their lives are repetitive. They smoke marijuana, they go to clubs, they drive around in cars, and they rob. Robbing is just another thing that they can do, because, well, why not? The film is inconsequential because on the one hand none of the characters (and, for that matter, the celebrities that they rob) feel fulfilled. The pursuit of wealth and fame does not provide them with what they think it will, and, as a result, the point of their actions is put into question. On the other hand, anything that the rich and famous do, to put it simply, doesn’t matter. These kids are so rich that any consequence from their actions (including jail time) will not make a difference in their overall financial, mental, or physical well-being. The celebrities that they rob from are also so rich that the question begs to be asked: who cares if they get robbed? Obviously from a legal perspective it is wrong, but Coppola is not afraid to point out that Paris Hilton didn’t even notice that her house was robbed until other celebrities filed a complaint.
It is simple for many critics to condemn Coppola for the way she presents The Bling Ring, but it is poor criticism to attack a film for doing what it intends to do. Further, it may be true that the main characters are largely unsympathetic, but this does not mean that Coppola depicts them as villainous. The problem critics probably have, then, is that Coppola lets these kids off the hook by showing the larger picture. Sure, what they did is wrong, and sure, they deserve to be punished (or do they?), but the larger issue is our culture’s obsession with the rich and famous and the way this impacts contemporary youth. After all, if Paris Hilton has so much junk that she doesn’t even notice when it is stolen, then why shouldn’t the wealth be spread a little bit?
In real life, the teenagers involved in the burglaries were required to return the items they stole and pay restitution. A more fitting punishment, I think, is to let these kids keep what they stole, and to let them think that these material items--and the fame that comes with it--will provide them with happiness and fulfillment. Eventually, one hopes, they would realize, as Bob and Johnny do, that there is more to life than the pursuit of wealth and fame. By taking the items away from them, however, these kids will always believe that the lifestyles of the rich and famous are worthy of their envy and jealousy, and more superior to the lives they lead. They will always be searching and striving for more wealth and fame, and this, Coppola suggests, is the biggest crime of all. Perhaps Coppola’s point, then, is to give these kids their fame with her film, if only to have them learn at some point that it will not make their lives any better.
Sofia Coppola may not be the best or most consistent director, and she certainly isn’t the most popular or revered. But she is daring, artistic, innovative, and, like all radicals, deeply misunderstood.
What do you think? Leave a comment.