Sofia Coppola’s films are all slices of a larger whole, somewhat non-decodable without contextualizing them through their webs of harmony and counterpoint with her other films. Their best collective feature is that they all feel incomplete on their own, as though they are unable to get to the point or locate their center. Perhaps this is why no one can agree on a stable canonical ranking of films (which is for the best). With Lost in Translation having been somewhat dethroned from its “best of the aughts” high standing, her filmography is all the more embattled, liminal, unformed, and unable to coalesce today, and thus more exciting to ponder. With the release of her new film, The Beguiled, adopting a tone of diametric opposition to Don Siegel’s original Southern Gothic female-hysteria 1971 picture, let us take a retrospective look at the biggest “name” female director of the 21st century. The Beguiled maintains Coppola’s signature quality as a film that seems to erode, even vanish, before our eyes, as though thrumming with dazzling fits of impermanence, a sense very much alive in each of the films below. I won’t rank her features, largely due to my expectation that I’d change the ranking tomorrow. The benefits of a fascinatingly frustrating, liquid filmography keep on giving.
The Virgin Suicides
Thus begins Coppola’s now 19-year comingling of languorous directorial ambience and the perennial hiss of social displacement. Although it doesn’t do anything Coppola wouldn’t better with her second film, her debut The Virgin Suicides already introduces that wandering, ungrounded milieu Coppola has become so famous for, her films floating with ghostlike half-presence above the ground. Although Edward Lachman’s kaleidoscopic cinematography half-steps toward a mental world of internal signifiers, Coppola rebukes the impulse to crack open her characters’ minds. Her characters are not only un-placeable in the world but essentially unassured in their relationship to the camera. Coppola’s icy, displaced frigidity never presumes to tear open her characters’ brains, never disposes itself to the aesthetic hubris of understanding its subjects completely. The whole film is encased in a shroud, a deathly pall of uncertainty.
And Virgin Suicides is a first salvo in Coppola’s armament of concern for celebrity in all its facets. Here, she explores a more relative sense of celebrity than her next two films, which focus on a major movie star and one of the most important figures in Western history, respectively. Following the social calamity surrounding the fulfillment of a suicide-pact by five nubile young girls in a small town in the 1970s, Suicides already reflects Coppola’s eye for social decorum and the performative, ritualistic quality of life, especially for youths who act out of pantomime rather than desire sometimes. Simplistically understood as a more mournful and unguarded antidote to the rampant sugar-and-FM-coated plague of 1970s nostalgia during the 1990s, Suicides is best seen as universal reflection on regret and the inability to connect or even know oneself. View it as a presage of things to come, but view it nonetheless.
Lost in Translation
The cult around this film probably needs to die out, and I suspect it has in the past handful of years now that we’ve realized the real apex of ‘00s cinema is not this film, nor is it There Will be Blood, nor is it Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (great films all) but the 2000 trifecta of Yi Yi, Werckmeister Harmonies, and In the Mood for Love. With the film’s reputation now keeled-over from melts-in-your-mouth acme-of-all-cinema to comfortable minor classic, we can appreciate it for what it truly is: a tone poem to loneliness and personal isolation of the most atomized variety, a film that is itself a little too atomistically preoccupied with its rituals of the rich and famous to escape itself, but piquant nonetheless. Exploring a liminal budding relationship between an aging American movie star (Bill Murray) and a twenty-year-old girl (Scarlett Johansson) displaced to Japan, Lost in Translation turns, as all of Coppola’s films do, on a self-awareness about its own failures to truly comingle with the space it inhabits. Its attitude toward Japan is that of an unknowable Orientalist background, and the eternal question is whether this is a foible or an evocation of the film’s very sense of the Western world’s impotence at moving outside itself. The film, and writing about it, is a bramble of reservations, simultaneously close-minded and open-hearted.
Much as her two subjects feel perennially lost in a foreign land (Japan), Coppola is perpetually unable to connect with any world that is not her own, filming Japan as an aquarium, an aesthetic object for her to dissect and control. But the film’s aesthetic distance from Japan can suggest a kind of humbling aura, a nucleus of anomie that reveals Coppola is self-aware that she is a lost child, a rich person perpetually unable to free herself from her too-satisfied demeanor. A filmic litmus test for how willing a viewer is to plunge into auteurism, one’s appreciation for Lost in Translation turns on the fulcrum of how willing you are to believe her aesthetic is a criticism of herself and her characters.
It’s a paradox of a film, world-weary and exhausted yet buoyant and innocent, astoundingly naïve and unaware of the world and yet spellbindingly prescient about the relationship of self and society. It’s extremely self-assured to the point of being too-clean to truly expose its own misapprehensions about Japanese culture, to truly look outside itself, and yet extremely self-effacing and under-confident, shot-through with a sense of concern about its own lethargy and failure to inhabit the world. Those are the ingredients for either a remarkable cataclysm of accidental messiness or an astounding tornado of perfectly-plucked and thoughtfully-ruminative confusion, a film both self-loving and self-hating. Looking back on what I wrote, I feel that I’ve summed up nothing and everything, writing a tangled summary of a knotty film, making my brief analysis a mimetic for the experience of the film itself, provided the viewer isn’t simply swept away on the beaches of romance with the characters. Not to say I wrote it this way self-consciously or intentionally or that I’m even cunning enough to do that, but simply that the film cannot but be confronted indecisively and without complete statements. I’m in the minority in believing Coppola’s first two films are also her two worst, but that’s less a statement to this 2003 film’s lack of quality than to Coppola’s subtle evolutions (or improved utilizations of) her essentially and pointedly stagnant overall aesthetic.
An insouciant historical period piece that gleefully disabuses itself of historical pretensions or aspirations to resurrect the “real life” of Marie Antoinette, this critically reviled film spasms with oscillations of energy, elan, and zest, treating the cramped world of factual accuracy as a pestilence and a ponderous fetish in need of desperate wiping out. Instead, Coppola imprisons the aesthetic of naturalism in an excessive, gilded, deliciously garish cage of baroque, music-video artifice, recasting Antoinette as a lost and confused pop starlet of her era whose ennui is contrapuntally commented on by aural nuggets courtesy of The Cure and other similar cocksure-anomie cocktails. Throughout her career, Coppola has clamped onto limbo, but in many valences: suburban adolescence (Suicides), middle-age alienation (Lost in Translation). Marie Antoinette turns back time while lacquering the past in a sense of eternal presence to suggest that stunted social contact unites the entire tapestry of Western history in a fading fabric of not only an unknowable past but an unfathomable present.
Over time, the astonishingly misunderstood Marie Antoinette has exposed its true self to audiences and enthusiasts alike: an inquiry into both the foundational egotism of trying to recapture the past and, paradoxically, the necessity of understanding that essential truths about the relationship between the past and the present can only be grappled with through a plunge into performative artifice that unites all eras of life. Plus, it features Kirsten Dunst giving a deliriously good performance of knowing superficiality, a constructed pop-icon with a human being struggling to break out, ultimately neutralized by her plastic shell. There are many paths to truth, after-all, and some of them have Kirsten Dunst backed by Gang of Four. Who’s to argue?
From the looks of it, Sofia Coppola’s lone blockbuster film, Marie Antoinette, almost killed her, and if Somewhere is a retreat into her more comfortable milieu of modern celebrity lethargy, it also deepens her obviously ritualistic filmic style to purgatorial heights (or lows, I suppose). Another tale of a personal void, this time Stephen Dorff takes the lead in what is essentially Lost in Translation Round Two. However, Coppola’s insistence on essentially repeating herself with slight modification actually transforms her filmography into a mimetic for her thematic concerns: ostensible newness failing to change anything, left turns that only lead back to stasis. This is her most overt exploration of the soured-air of hopeless ritual and life’s essential circularity masquerading as a line to freedom, but Coppola has learned new tricks since 2003. Or, at least, she learned how to hire Harris Savides, who washes out the LA backdrop until it registers not as place but as an abstract void of disillusionment, or a collage of brittle surfaces hiding a penetrable hollowness.
The criticisms of the film are inarguable: it feels like an especially talented college student’s thesis project homage to Coppola. But it also breathes somewhat more freely than even Lost in Translation, being consumed by (and thus enhanced through) a malarial pace that reveals genuine observations about self, society, and the gap between them. (It also lacks Translation’s racism, so point given). Coppola’s most ethereal film, subjected to an evanescent aura. Even the obvious symbolism (Dorff circling around and around in a car, his life encapsulated in a scene) has a quality of hypnotic requiem due to the ghostly tone. Somewhere also cuts out all that bittersweet audience-baiting from Translation and sticks to the displacement, with Coppola no longer seeking her audience’s adoration. Probably the purest of her films, if not the best, although it is hampered somewhat by the daughter-saves-daddy-from-his-lifelessness thrust of the notional narrative. As with every single Coppola film, it is a better tone poem than a story, and if she just gave up on story completely, she’d be a true master of the art form. Still, though, what I’ve said elsewhere remains true here: her style doesn’t grow and she makes films about people who don’t grow, but she continues to find new ways to churn that particular bacteria-filled still-water into a raging river of existential concern and torrential anomie.
The Bling Ring
The obvious wringer in the perennial “all Sofia Coppola’s movies are about the catastrophe of fame and modern youth’s obsession with superficial surfaces” argument and the attendant belief that Coppola has largely been spinning her wheels since Lost in Translation. And again, that’s certainly a viable complaint, an essential faculty of her work whether you appreciate it or abhor it. Coppola is so obviously incapable of – or at least unwilling to – understand a life outside her own that most of her films all feel like covers of her prior efforts, but she’s a stellar cover-artist to say the least. The Bling Ring is an astonishingly constructed box, emphasis on the materiality. It feels like a fetish-object for anyone obsessed with the director, an uncontaminated distillation of Coppola on Coppola. It’s hermetically sealed in its own world, certainly, but it also feels like the tightest and most hermetic seal Coppola has yet fashioned, less a retreat into her own mind and more a full blossoming of her aesthetic fascinations and thematic concerns after years of dancing around artsy-fartsiness and back-peddling at the last moment. This is whole-hog Coppola, the spillover of a talented but too-tidy, too-timid young girl flowering into a full-blown, fully-committed woman with a vision. This film is the glossary to her mind, a sighing soul of a film where bubbly pink and fluorescent neon are distractions from a gray sky.
The energy-addicted, cotton-candy attitude of the films’ surfaces wilt into a portrait of abjection masked by immediate pleasure, a story of youths who rebel against their own wealth only to reify it and reveal how trapped they, like Coppola, are in their own aesthetic worlds. Ultimately, it is a form of auto-critique, extending Coppola’s vision to the point of inescapability, sucking all the air out until you’re left with a pulverizing pop-art slab of visual and aural toxic rock-candy. Coppola has never boasted the most fungible of aesthetics or artistic predilections, but like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel from the following year (his masterpiece, easily), The Bling Ring doubles-down on its style to the point of no return. As if dogged (exactly like Anderson) by her perpetual inability to be something other than herself, she radicalizes her style not by escaping it but by encasing herself in it, turning it into a form of personal self-destruction that doubles as a renewed directorial epiphany about the strengths and limits of her own aesthetic. She finds self-awareness in self-aggrandizement. The film’s obviousness, its outre version of Coppola’s usual schtick, is part of its essential spirit of self-critique, part of an experiment for Coppola to smack us in the face with her mind in digital. Stubbornness remains Coppola’s albatross and crowning achievement to this day, but seeing such a stubborn mule bucking and weaponizing its unfailing interests like this is seeing Coppola with all her synapses fully firing.
A Very Murray Christmas
Both a prissy, overly-affected mockery of Christmas yuletide cheer and an ode to the very melancholia that has become as essential to the holiday tradition as trees and presents, this mildly amusing special is obviously Coppola diluted, but it invites its own pleasures. It boasts minor joys – cheeky, stone-faced musical numbers starring Chris Rock and George Clooney in particular – but it sometimes leaps into cloying depressive-irony that feels like a parody of Coppola’s usual defeated vibe and taxidermied aesthetic, like a lesser artist doing a pastiche of Coppola without the magic touch. Bill Murray’s centrality only puts the nail in the coffin, since Murray is obviously mocking his modern career-resurgence as a model of aging-celebrity dispossession and misbegotten woe. The routine still works of course; Coppola and Wes Anderson are still the only directors to really harness the disaffected smartass cynic that was Murray’s attitude in the ‘80s and glimpse the self-hatred and clinical-depressive qualities lurking underneath. Coppola’s most minor effort by a landslide, but its hits cancel out its misses on balance. Feels like it should be watched with breakfast cereal in a bowl of tears and Bailey’s.