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sofia coppola: a story

“What we have here is a dreamer…”

Like her father before her, Sofia Coppola is a storyteller, but what sets this scion of Hollywood royalty apart from her peers is her penchant for beauty. Having grown up around sets like the 1979 war epic Apocalypse Now and the cinematic classic, The Godfather, Coppola doesn’t favour a masculine aesthetic, she nurtures a more feminine eye – a concept both alluring and criticised. But Sofia, it seems, doesn’t give a toss; she’s unabashedly stylish.

Born into Hollywood royalty, Sofia, like many of her privileged peers, could have gone in two directions – that of poor little rich girl, or someone who capitalised on her family’s connections. She chose the latter. In an interview with FFWD Weekly Sofia described her father as the main reason she got into the business. “I’ve spent my whole life on [my father’s] sets. I didn’t go to film school. I learned everything from him, plus I took acting classes to learn how to work with actors, and from taking photos I knew the technical aspects of the camera.” But, like many kids whose good fortune can be attributed to their parents, Sofia has had to contend with nepotism throughout her career; she’s even had some critics say her films were made by her father (when your pop’s celebrated director Francis Ford Coppola, the accusations come quickly).

Her first foray into Hollywood was acting; a career Coppola ruled out pretty early. “I never wanted to be an actress. The people who are great actors are people who want to be watched,” Sofia has said. From Michael Corleone’s infant nephew to his daughter, Mary (her most well-known role which was butchered by the press), Sofia is noticeably more comfortable behind the lens. As a girl, Sofia was encouraged by her set decorator mum, Eleanor, to explore different creative avenues, like painting and writing; endeavours the little Coppola took on with zeal. After attending art school and going through a faze of dawning career uncertainty (like Charlotte in Lost in Translation), Sofia dabbled in fashion design (co-founding the fashion line Milk Fed which is sold in Japan), tried painting at California Arts and took photographs professionally for high-end rags like Paris Vogue and Allure.

It’s these passionate visual aspects – music videos, art, design, and photography – that have added to her overall filmmaking style. Senses of Cinema writer Anna Rogers describes Coppola’s style as aesthetically pleasing. “Indeed, one cannot overlook the self-conscious beauty of her films: sensuality becomes an all-important part of the viewing process and Coppola purposefully forces her viewers to feel and not merely passively watch her work. The plethora of pastel colours, languid camera movements and resolutely modern soundtracks has all become a recognisable and integral part of the director’s stylistic approach.”

After helming High Octane on Comedy Central with best friend, Zoe Cassavetes (daughter of Greek director John Cassavetes) which showcased underground music from the likes of Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Beck, Coppola moved into directing her own films. Lick the Star was born in 1998 and followed a clique of pre-pubescent girls who hatch a plan called “lick the star,” a code for “kill the rats.” Rats, in this case, being the boys at school. Shot on 16mm black and white film, the 14-minute short showcases Coppola’s gift for telling stories of people going through life transitions, as well as her interest in themes of adolescence – a curiosity that inevitably led to The Virgin Suicides.

When Coppola was handed Jeffrey Eugenides’ book by good friend, Thurston Moore, she was drawn to the book’s captivating title as well as the faceless, shiny blonde hair enveloping the book’s jacket. After reading the tragic tale of the five highly-closeted Lisbon sisters, Coppola decided to write her own screenplay, having no idea who owned the rights to the book. She eventually got her way (with the assistance of the family’s trusty Roladex) and The Virgin Suicides was brought to life. “I remember the author describing the Lisbon girls as a fever dream of these boys. And I felt like it had this feeling of floating through the story, a dreamy atmosphere. And it’s a memory, so it’s not completely realistic,” she’s said.

Dreamy it was, with its pastel, fleshy shots of a 16-year-old Kristen Dunst as the second-youngest Lisbon, Lux and the hauntingly, beautiful scores from French band, Air. Coppola’s ethereal, dream-like memory of the Lisbon sisters doesn’t fail to captivate audiences who are swept up in the mystery of the girls’ collective suicides, just like the neighbourhood boys who are rooted in a past they cannot fully move on from. In her Senses of Cinema essay, Rogers states that “the entire body of the film becomes a journey through fantastic dream and memory scapes that render the more seemingly realistic and conventional sequences equally false and provisional. Every scene is coloured by the romance of memory and fantasy that is a central theme to the film.” Like Lick the Star, Coppola revels in capturing a person’s journey; documenting their growth physically or metaphorically.

With a cult following, Lost in Translation (2003) is Coppola’s most well-known work, and the one that scored her an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Like the rites of passage Coppola explored in Lick the Star and The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation is a snapshot of two people going through lonely episodes in their lives; Bob (Bill Murray) is an aging American actor who’s in town to film a Japanese whisky advert and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a Yale graduate who tagged along with her photographer husband on location to Tokyo. When asked if the scattered moments in Lost in Translation were based on her own experiences, Coppola told the UK’s The Guardian that, “I’ve definitely had the friendships and moments with people from different backgrounds and in different stages of their lives. To me that’s like the most comforting or best thing in life, when you have a little connection or you both find something funny, and it makes you feel not alone. And I like movies that just meander along, where it’s more about the feelings … I was just compiling all these different things that I liked and hoped that it would all add up to the feeling I wanted to give.”

As Bob and Charlotte’s friendship continues to blossom, the audience comes to realise that both are lost. Bob’s career as a movie star has faded and Charlotte is playing the good wife to a husband who’s too busy to realise she’s uncertain of what to do with her life. Ultimately, both find greater fulfillment because of their friendship, with Coppola showing us that discovering yourself is easier when you become open and adaptable to life’s little potshots. Lost in Translation’s critical acclaim (Roger Ebert game the flick four out of five stars, describing it as “sweet and sad at the same time as it is sardonic and funny”) continues to enchant audiences because of it’s tender pace and story, and its cinematography that transforms Tokyo’s bustling city into a magical playground.

Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s pretty costume drama was a whole different ball game. Arguably her most stylized to date, Coppola’s depiction of the young Queen of France was more frou-frou than accurate historical drama. Highly anticipated, the film courted scandal from the get-go. But Coppola didn’t make the films she’s known for by lying down and letting film bourgeois make the final decision – she made it her way. With over-the-top settings, delicious costume regalia and a soundtrack that followed the leadership of Kevin Shield’s remix of Bow Wow Wow’s hit, “I Want Candy,” the film wasn’t going to be a serious depiction of France’s last monarch. “When I read Antonia Fisher’s biography, what was interesting was to read about the real human being behind all of the myths and just the sort of icon that we’ve heard about as the frivolous, evil French queen. I wanted to show a portrait of the real person, based on the research and her letters, and do more of an intimate portrait of this woman. I wasn’t ever setting out to make a historical epic. I wanted to show the insulation of her life.”

Agnes Poirier, a French film critic for The Guardian disagreed. “The film is shocking because it is empty, devoid of a point of view, because the person who has made it has no curiosity for the woman she is portraying and the time that her tragic life is set in. The film director seems as unconcerned by her subject as Marie-Antoinette was indifferent to the plight of her people and the world she lived in.” Ouch. But Coppola didn’t care. “I think being mediocre and in the middle would be the worst. It’s more interesting to get strong reactions, and to have the mixture of people who get it and the people who don’t get it.” The French loved it; the Americans not so much. Like her previous two films, Marie Antoinette explores the cliché “fish out of water” theme of isolation and loneliness. As the new kid on the block, Marie not only had to learn palace protocol, but the role of being a good wife during years where girls are playing hopscotch and writing love letters. With the infamy surrounding the young Queen and her lush lifestyle, there was no one better suited to tackling the task of bringing back 18th century Versailles than Sofia Coppola’s delicious aesthetic.

Since Marie, Coppola has become older and wiser; now a mother she has relocated to Paris to live with her muso partner, Thomas Mars (lead singer of French bad, Phoenix). The champion of adolescent themes, reflecting states of boredom, melancholy, angst and loneliness, Coppola is back to her old tricks with her upcoming feature, Somewhere. On the same page as Lost in Translation, Somewhere is the tale of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a Hollywood bad-boy who re-evaluates his hedonistic lifestyle after his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) comes to stay with him at the Chateau Marmont (the infamous Hollywood hotel where John Belushi died of a drug overdose, along with a number of other celebrity-related dramas). In the same dreamy state as Lost, amid the lush and mysterious surrounds of one of the world’s most iconic hotels and with two talented actors, Somewhere is already garnering feverish hype from fans who’re drawn to her ethereal, melancholic way of telling stories.  But Rogers defines Coppola as more than just a dreamer: “She is a filmmaker whose work is not of merely meretricious value; her ability to combine an edifying aesthetic with the themes of crisis and transition marks her out as a filmmaker of both style and substance.”

Image credit: Paris Vogue.

By Danielle Hanrahan

2 thoughts on “sofia coppola: a story

  1. Pingback: Sofia Coppola « DANIELLE HANRAHAN

  2. Hi,

    Your article is really great.
    In which number of Vogue Paris did you take the photo of Sofia Coppola ? Do you know who is the photographer?

    Thanks in advance,

    Maelle

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