Where to begin with Sofia Coppola

A beginner’s path through the glittering dramas of Sofia Coppola.

12 May 2017

By David Morrison

The Bling Ring (2013)

Why this might not seem so easy

Director, producer, Oscar-winning screenwriter, actor, model, fashion-label owner, photographer. Sofia Coppola is both the ultimate insider, born into the famous Coppola dynasty, muse to Marc Jacobs and married to a rock star (Phoenix’s Thomas Mars), yet frequently makes films critiquing the phony world of Hollywood. In fact, some see her as biting the hand that feeds, as a privileged filmmaker attacking celebrity culture while happily drawing on an extraordinary network of contacts.

Sofia Coppola filming Somewhere (2010) with cinematographer Harris Savides

Her films can be accused of style over substance and being mostly uninterested in plot. But such criticisms miss the point, suggesting that style is only ever shallow. Coppola has a command of film form that lends itself to recreating interior experience, to conjuring a tangible and affecting sense of mood and emotion through the everyday. Long takes, close-ups and languorous camera movements involve us in the moments of her characters’ lives, while still keeping some distance. Although postmodern in their mixing of styles and soundtracks, her films are never simply a collection of glossy images.

Coppola’s recurring themes of alienation and ennui, fame, fashion and a fascination with young female experience may lead to charges of superficiality, yet Coppola sees things differently. While discussing Marie Antoinette (2006), she stated: “I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.” In this respect her work fits the category of postfeminist. She reclaims feminine interests, ‘girlish’ spaces and activities as empowering and worthy of consideration, and her studies of outsider disaffection are rooted in a European arthouse tradition that is lauded when examined by an Antonioni, yet can be derided when attempted by the daughter of Hollywood royalty.

All this means that Coppola is something of a Marmite experience, capable of leading one Guardian reviewer to observe of The Bling Ring (2013) that it’s “a shallow film about shallow people”, while another saw it as “an intriguingly intuitive and atmospheric movie”.

The best place to start – Lost in Translation

Coppola’s most recent, 2017’s The Beguiled, an intriguing remake of a 1970s Clint Eastwood film, will give you a fair idea of the director’s characteristic approach, but the key Coppola title remains 2003’s Lost in Translation (2003) – her most personal film, and also her most accessible. Netting its director an Oscar for best original screenplay, it’s a platonic brief encounter tale of a pair of disillusioned characters bonding over insomnia and their respective fish-out-of-water experiences while staying in a Tokyo hotel. Bill Murray is hilarious as a resignedly jaded famous actor undergoing a midlife crisis, while Scarlett Johansson excels as an introspective young woman disappointed by marriage (a relationship reportedly inspired by Coppola’s own with Spike Jonze).

Lost in Translation (2003)

Beautifully shot by Lance Acord, Lost in Translation combines the Coppola strengths – evocative mood and tone, visually sumptuous design, a rapt attention to moments, considered use of hip, modern soundtrack – while still being narratively engaging and dryly humorous (an oft-overlooked quality of her work). It’s also genuinely touching: when Murray whispers in Johansson’s ear at the end of the film it would take a hard heart not to be moved.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

An alternative starting point might be Coppola’s feature-length directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel concerning the foreshortened lives of five sisters raised in a strict, middle-class suburban household in the 1970s. It’s Coppola’s most conventional film, yet is almost Lynchian in its depiction of the rottenness at the heart of small-town America. At the same time, it also remains a warm, pastel-tinted, dreamily romantic portrait of adolescent identity, awkwardness and desire.

What to watch next

Now that you’re familiar with the Coppola aesthetic, brace yourself for a film that was booed yet also received a standing ovation at its 2006 Cannes premiere. Seemingly tailormade to divide on the style versus substance debate, Marie Antoinette is a playful, pop-feminist imagining of the notorious queen’s life; those looking for historical accuracy will be sorely disappointed. Instead, immerse yourself in a cinematic sweetshop, a film that luxuriates in frippery – the montage of exotic fabrics, shoes, cakes and champagne, all set to Bow Wow Wow’s ‘I Want Candy’, is an orgy of editing indulgence; an emotional rather than historical truth is sought. Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette is a victim (and creation) of celebrity and patriarchy, and taken as a postmodern exercise in rethinking the past through the lens of the present, Coppola’s film provides an audacious yet touching account of a figure with all too human flaws.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

A fitting next step is The Bling Ring, a coolly observed and mostly non-judgemental interpretation of the true-life story of a gang of celebrity obsessed teenagers who robbed the houses of the Hollywood stars. It represents the logical, consumption-driven extension of self-obsession and a craving for fame. Coppola notably managed to secure location shooting at Paris Hilton’s home, and the wonderful shots of Hilton’s throw pillows adorned with her own face speak volumes on the film’s themes alone.

If all this excess proves too much try the Golden Lion-winning Somewhere (2010). True, it deals with the life (and excesses) of a successful actor (Stephen Dorff) holed up in the Chateau Marmont, but it’s altogether a more pensive film, concerned with a father-daughter relationship and an existential crisis. It takes Coppola’s predilection for depicting the moment to extremes, with nearly 15 minutes before any dialogue is spoken. Yet Somewhere is a film of remarkable surprises, whether that’s the sudden appearance of pole-dancing tennis twins or the more poignant scene of Dorff’s daughter, played by a young Elle Fanning, skating around an ice rink for three minutes. Coppola was reportedly influenced by Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) in the film’s attention to watching someone alone in their daily existence. The result is a slight, minimal, yet startlingly striking film.

Somewhere (2010)

Where not to start

It would seem churlish to dwell on Coppola’s main acting role, in The Godfather Part III, for which she earned “worst supporting actress” at the 11th Golden Raspberry Awards. But as a director Coppola’s touch hasn’t been entirely invincible either; even the most die-hard Bill Murray fans would admit that Netflix original A Very Murray Christmas (2015) isn’t among his or Coppola’s finest work. Murray does his best, but despite some effective musical numbers – and cameos from Chris Rock, George Clooney, Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, Michael Cera, Miley Cyrus and Phoenix among others – this festive vehicle never really takes off. For once, the accusations of relying on celebrity connections seem hard to refute. One for completists only.

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