He Said/She Said Director Profile: Sofia Coppola

Following our discussion of John Carpenter, Michael Glover Smith (author of www.whitecitycinema.com) and I focus on Sofia Coppola for our second He Said/She Said Director Profile.

sofia

JM: This is being written just a few hours after seeing Sofia Coppola’s movie, The Bling Ring. Thinking back over those few hours and over her entire body of work, I am noticing recurring themes that thread throughout all of her films that draw me to her as a writer and director. These are namely the music, and the humanity and universal appeal of the stories and characters. I’d like to start off by discussing the latter. In all of Sofia’s films (see complete filmography at the end of this piece), she taps into experiences and emotions that are universal to everyone, even if the character may be more grandiose than the typical person. For example, in Marie Antoinette, you can identify with the queen’s feelings of separation, loneliness, and weight of responsibility. In The Bling Ring, she demonstrates how in American culture, there is a lust to be “known” and to do this, it is necessary to shroud yourself in tangible consumerism. Are there any films of hers that you feel any special kinship towards?

MGS: I think I feel more of a kinship to The Bling Ring than any of the others, for reasons I will elaborate on later. But first, I want to point out that I think it’s interesting you say Coppola’s films are “universal” while paradoxically also being about characters who may be “grandiose.” I generally agree with this but the most common complaint that I’ve heard about her work is that she only deals with the problems of people who are privileged. In other words, “Why should we care that a rich movie star staying at a five-star hotel in Tokyo feels ‘alienated’?” My response to this is “Why shouldn’t we be able to relate to characters just because they happen to be rich and famous?” The Virgin Suicides is, I believe, the only film she’s made that isn’t about upper class characters. But, as everyone knows, she grew up the daughter of a famous filmmaker, so I think she is depicting in her movies a world that she knows very well and I think her insider’s P.O.V is both knowing and, more importantly, critical. And you’re right — I think she bends over backwards in Marie Antoinette, for instance, to try and make the heroine seem like a “typical” teenage girl so that young people watching today can relate. That’s the whole point of that particular movie, no? The Bling Ring, on the other hand, is particularly interesting in that it features the least likable characters in any of her films. All of them are frighteningly shallow and vapid and yet I don’t feel as if she’s judging them too harshly: the desire for fame, status, wealth, facebook friends, etc. is everywhere in our society so we all should be able to relate on some level — even if you and I would never do anything as drastic as break into someone’s home. However, I can already hear my students complaining that they couldn’t “care about the characters,” which is my least favorite criticism to hear about any movie.

JM: I’ve never heard that critique, but I understand why people would say that. However, that judgement stems from a lack of understanding of her bigger picture, and only a cursory look at what it aims to express. With her films, you have to look at the entire world that she’s creating, and that world’s relation to our real world. As I previously said, if you look past the characters’ race and class, you see emotions and pressures that extend beyond the superficial and into our reality. In The Bling Ring, it’s easy to judge superficial, privileged white kids living in California, but then again, as you said, we are all living in a world where we can identify with their desire to acquire more privilege, power and material possessions. If we could take advantage of others who possess more than us, would we attempt to appropriate that wealth and power as well? I think a lot of people already do in smaller, more abstract ways that are particular to their own lives.

With concern to Marie Antoinette, I think that saying that the only point of the film is to make Antoinette’s character simply relevant to teenage girls may be oversimplifying a tad bit. I could understand an argument that her character’s experience may be geared towards women, but I could also argue that the character of her husband could be one that men could identify with, such as one about to get married. For both characters, what I take away from their plights is that they are overwhelmed by responsibility, and a desire to skirt that responsibility by essentially being irresponsible, which I think everyone can identify with at one point during their lives. Given that this film is on the surface about a European queen during the 1700s, I think it’s quite a feat to make a contemporary audience identify with her, even if the majority are only teenage girls. And in that same vein, I’d like to talk a little further about the specific conventions and techniques that she uses to do that in that film, and also in Lost in TranslationThe Virgin Suicides, and especially The Bling Ring. Specifically, the way she utilizes music, through the lyrics and instruments, to capture a feeling of a scene. When Marie Antoinette came out, there was some criticism about her use of the song “I Want Candy” by the 1980s band Bow Wow Wow. I thought using that song was ingenious for several reasons. First, it gave the scene a sense of whimsy and fun, almost a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” vibe. Second, it made the 18th century relatable to contemporary audiences. Finally, she also used it as an aid to the set design and costumes. At that point in the film, it was all about excess, fluff, pink and frosting, and she used the bubblegum-ness of the song to mirror that of the film.

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MGS: Good point about her use of music. I loved that “I Want Candy” montage. For me, Sofia Coppola’s greatest strength as a director is the way that she combines images and music to convey an incredible sense of energy. I think my favorite scene in The Bling Ring, for instance, was when Rebecca and Mark were driving and singing Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” What really made that sequence for me was the use of jump-cuts, which provided a visual correllary to the fact that the characters were high on cocaine. And you and I both could cite countless examples from her films to illustrate how she conveys a similar energy. How about her use of Heart’s “Barracuda” to accompany a tracking shot of Josh Hartnett’s bad-boy character strolling through a high-school hallway in The Virgin Suicides? Or the twin strippers’ dancing to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in Somewhere?

To address your other point, I don’t think it’s necessarily a “bad” thing to make audiences relate to characters in period-piece films. But I do think it might be more courageous to show viewers how different and strange the past was in comparison to the present — to make us understand without necessarily being able to “identify.” There is a very memorable scene in one of my favorite movies, Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power By Louis XIV, where you see the incredibly elaborate process of how food was prepared and served to the king. The scene goes on forever and the longer it goes on the more it feels like something out of science fiction — and it just becomes mesmerizing. The opposite of this approach is what you see in those Elizabethmovies with Cate Blanchett. In the second one, I remember a scene where the queen smokes tobacco (brought to her from the new world by Sir Walter Raleigh) for the first time, and inhaling it makes her break out into fits of laughter. The idea is that it seems like she’s smoking pot, which makes no literal sense; it’s just a cheap, shorthand way to communicate something to contemporary audiences. It’s like the filmmakers are collaborating with the viewers over the heads of the characters, and that strikes me as dishonest. I don’t think this is what Sofia Coppola does in Marie Antoinette at all. She’s much more honest in that she includes deliberate anachronisms — like 1980s New Wave pop music on the soundtrack — in order to call attention to her modern point-of-view.

I’d like to bring up now what I consider Coppola’s biggest flaw: I think she’s a much better director than writer. While I think she’s good with sound and image, and while I think she’s good at directing actors, I feel like her approach to characterization and plotting has occasionally been a bit trite. I think when she tries her hand at satire, especially, her scenes tend to fall flat. The way the Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris characters are written in Lost in Translation seems too broad to me in comparison to the other characters in the movie. Same thing with Leslie Mann in The Bling Ring: her clueless New Age-mommy character feels one-dimensional and like an attempt to explain why her daughters were seduced by a life of crime. I know you’re a bigger fan of Coppola than I am so I wonder if this criticism makes any sense to you and if you disagree.

JM: I agree that there is value in showing the past as it was, but let’s face it, a movie about the 1700s in Europe may turn a lot of people off, and Coppola makes history more accessible to those who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have an interest in that topic otherwise. In my last defense of Marie Antoinette, I once took a class in grad school while pursuing my Masters in Library Science that focused on the history of the printed book. During that course, we focused on a chapter on scribes in the Middle Ages and saw pictures of early tomes with doodles along the spines from 500 A.D. from bored scribes. Even in the Middle Ages, people got bored at work and in class, as we do now. Throughout the entire class, the professor kept repeating that there is no us and them, only us; that people from 1,000 years ago, and two weeks ago, face roughly the same issues. My point here is that by Coppola presenting Marie Antoinette as a normal person with palpable needs and problems, she allows us to make an emotional connection to an unlikely historical figure.

Regarding Coppola’s writing abilities, her stories can be described as simple, and a good vehicle for the “less is more” ideology. In comparison to most films now, which are extremely complicated and where there is more, more, more of everything, she takes a basic story or feeling and illuminates the story around that concept. When I watch Coppola’s films, I know they are her films because of how my gut feels. She doesn’t beat you over the head with what she’s expressing, she lets it wash over you.

To briefly address the role of the mother in The Bling Ring, I don’t necessarily see her character as a complete explanation of why her daughter stole from others, though I agree that we can gather that her lack of parental supervision may have made it easier for her daughter to act up. I think the “why” of why this group of people did what they did goes back to what we’ve been discussing all along, and it’s multifaceted. It’s the parents, it’s Facebook, it’s our collective experience as people living in the 2000s, capitalism, and we could go on and on.

To just change the subject slightly, I’ve been asking myself if Sofia Coppola is a feminist director, or if the question is even important. I ask because so few films are directed by women even in today’s film world, and I wonder what the women who are working are doing and saying. She’s a woman, sure, but that doesn’t make her a feminist. Men can be feminists, and women can be huge proponents of patriarchy (insert Serena Williams here, but that’s for another day). Given my own working knowledge and constant exploration of what feminism is, I’d say yes. She also does pass the Bechdel Test. If I were pressed to give my own ruling on you, I’d say that you would fall into the feminist camp, Mike, so I’d like to know your opinion on this.

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MGS: Great story about the scribes.

I should clarify that I like the simplicity of Coppola’s narratives. The “plot” of The Bling Ring is so lightweight that it’s barely there. But, for me, the film registers primarily as a sensual — and wholly cinematic — experience: it’s all about sound, color, light and movement and how these things register specifically to a group of people who are young, carefree and self-absorbed. In this respect, it’s like a pop song (as is Spring Breakers, with which it shares many similarities — more on that in a second). By contrast, I think the scenes with the parents feel a bit contrived and moralistic: Coppola makes it a point to illustrate that the parents are either absent or ignorant about what their kids are doing and Leslie Mann’s dialogue is pretty cartoonish. I agree that Coppola isn’t saying bad parenting is solely to blame but I think the film would’ve been more complex and troubling if we had seen that at least some of the parents were decent, smart, caring people.

The feminism question is a good one but also a thorny one: Coppola’s films aren’t explicitly about, say, gender inequality but if you can say that it is feminist for an artist to thoroughly explore the experiences and feelings of female characters (and I think you can), then I’d say Coppola’s a feminist by that criteria. I also think you could argue that she brings a female point-of-view to her sense of film aesthetics, and I don’t just mean in a simple “female gaze”-kind of way. The critic Kent Jones said something great about Coppola in his review of The Bling Ring. He wrote: “Sofia Coppola is uncommonly gifted at the articulation of something so fleeting and ephemeral that it seems to be on the verge of evaporating on contact with her hovering, deadpan, infinitely patient camera eye.” I know exactly what he means and I think this quality that he’s talking about arises from a specifically female touch (as opposed to say, the more masculine approach that Harmony Korine brings to Spring Breakers, which nonetheless also has a druggy/dreamy/poppy feel and similarly uses the exploits of shallow teenagers to critique capitalism).

Having said all that, my favorite aspect of The Bling Ring was the ending. I really admired the courage it took for Coppola to not only make a film about “unlikable” people but to end it with Nicki Moore (Emma Watson’s character) looking directly at the camera and pimping her website. To me, that said that this young woman had learned nothing and was, if anything, a worse person than before she went to prison. She was basically using her criminal activity to try and extend her 15-minutes of Z-list fame. That, to me, was a daringly truthful and unsettling ending and one that more than compensated for the reservations I had earlier about the depiction of the parents. Anything you’d like to add?

JM: Your description of The Bling Ring plot as “lightweight” is a distinct calling card of Coppola, but in her films, this airiness is expressed through the sound, the colors, the music, and so forth. For me, it’s the combination of all of those elements that I was previously describing that “wash over you,” and that includes the writing. What Kent Jones says is spot on with the “fleeting and ephemeral,” which I really get a sense of in The Virgin Suicides. The feeling that she leaves you with is difficult to describe in concrete terms, it’s almost an aura of the film. You make the point that it is an attribute of a female touch, and I would agree, but I would say that it’s a feminine touch, whereas visceral, blunt themes with heavy violence and explicit sex may lean more towards a masculine sensibility.

A quick note on the parents, I looked up the mother’s website, Andrea Arlington, and her online profile seems pretty matched up with how she was portrayed in the film. This seems like one of those cases where you can’t even “make this stuff up,” that reality in this case is sufficient for the film. To play devil’s advocate just a bit more, I think that one could make a slight argument that in The Bling Ring the mother of Nick did seem concerned and was not portrayed as a space cadet. However, I get that we aren’t given a lot of information on the other parents, so a more well-rounded argument is difficult to make.

Looking over her five films, I can’t wait to see Sofia Coppola’s filmography grow into a lengthy, full-bodied collection. When you and I first met, I remember gushing about The Virgin Suicides and singing Coppola’s praises, and you told me that you didn’t like her. Granted, when we first met I believe your film taste to be a little bourgeois and has definitely come down to earth a little more. That being said, how do you feel about her now?

MGS: At the time we met, I had only seen Lost in Translation, which I think is overrated but which seems to be her most beloved film. I do feel, however, that she has gotten better with each subsequent movie. I consider myself a fan and I look forward to her future work.

Jill’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films 
5. Somewhere
4. Lost in Translation
3. The Bling Ring
2. The Virgin Suicides
1. Marie Antoinette

Mike’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
5. The Virgin Suicides
4. Lost in Translation
3. Marie Antoinette
2. Somewhere
1. The Bling Ring

Five French Films Worth an Hour and a Half of Your Time

Amélie
French: Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain
dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001)

Arguably the most mainstream of the five films, Amélie is the epitome of quirky and whimsical.  The main character, Amélie, decides to dedicate herself to helping others find a glimpse of happiness, if only for a brief moment.  Amélie, the movie and the character, is reminiscent of an introvert’s Sex and the City; she lives alone in an extremely attractive apartment on a waitress’ salary in a small diner and galavants around an ideal France whilst spending most of her time playing reindeer games with her neighbors and a potential love interest.  It’s chock-full of bright colors, quick camera movements, and mischievous little surprises at every corner.

If you’ve never seen a foreign film or even a French film, I’d recommend this as a reliable primer.

Amelie

Heartbeats
French: Les amours imaginaires
dir. Xavier Dolan (2010)

It’s astounding that someone so young, at the tender age of 21, could have written, directed and starred in a movie so entertaining, beautiful and complete.  Heartbeats introduces us to two friends, Marie and Francis, and the introduction of  the blonde, Greek God lookalike, Nicolas.  The crux of the story is that Marie and Francis are friends, both are attracted to Nicolas, and it is ambiguous as to which one he is attracted to.  The ambiguity of his attraction, if at all, is relayed through subtle queues that just seem to linger a little longer than they should, i.e. a gaze, a kiss, a hug.  Not to mention sleeping in the same bed as both friends and inviting them away (and together) on romantic weekends.

Though this may seem like the typical Hollywood type of love triangle, it has the benefit of not being produced in Hollywood and therefore isn’t expected to follow the prescribed romantic comedy script that pervades American cinema.  The trifecta of the characters mirrors that of the film: wonderful cinematography, a solid story, and a perfect ending.

Heartbeats

17 Girls
French: 17 filles
dir. Delphine Coulin & Muriel Coulin (2011)

Based on the real life events that took place in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2008, directors Delphine and Muriel Coulin tell the story of 17 high school girls who all became pregnant during one year.  Though not a documentary, the directors hold true to interviews and news stories of the time.  The film begins with a group of tight knit high schools girls where the leader (she sits at the head of the table, she accepts or rejects others, has sex first, et al) becomes pregnant.  All we know about the male partner is that he is out of the picture, and a quiet slight is alluded to.  After she decides to carry to term, one by one, her friends and girls outside of their posse begin seeking out random guys to impregnate them.  The result is an ever-growing circle of pregnancy, social acceptance, comfort and inclusiveness.  The teenage angst genre has rarely been expressed so subtly.

This is definitely an onion of a film.  At the end, I was left with a faint aura of a Sofia Coppola film circa the Virgin Suicides.

17Girls

Paris-Manhattan
French: Paryz-Manhattan
dir. Sophie Lellouche (2012)

From the age of 15, Alice has not only been in love with the films of Woody Allen, but has also been corresponding with the poster of him in her bedroom.  Mostly taking place in her 30s, she is still being fed words of wisdom from God-like Allen who answers her questions about love, life and struggle through quotes from his films.  As the main character Alice grows into a woman, one can’t help but be drawn to her independence and confidence (yes, I do want to be best friends with her).  Whether that is a result of Allen’s guidance or not is for the viewer to decide.

Of course, the Woody Allen fan would adore this film, but its appeal spans that of his fan base.  The script is solid, the characters are well-developed and you end up caring for them at the finish line.

ParisManhattan

Queen of Hearts
French: La reine des pommes
dir. Valérie Donzelli (2009)

Queen of Hearts is about a woman who gets dumped by her boyfriend, and spends the subsequent weeks unable to financially support herself and basically makes horrible decisions in judgement by sleeping with unavailable men.  The character is basically an emotional mess and her actions left me screaming at the screen at how incredibly awful she was.  Definitely not a queen of hearts.

As the film came to a close, I was truly turned off.  So why spend an hour and a half of your time watching?  It’s because if you’ve ever gone through a break up, been single, or young, or made a bad decision, then this film is extremely uncomfortable to watch because it is a mirror into your own life.  The realism of the sex, nudity, lapses in good judgement and heartache are all so tangible that they require a level of introspection on the viewers’ part that may be off-putting, but it’s worth the experience.

QueenofHearts

Watch Your Women’s History!

Watch Your Women’s History

Let’s appreciate the varied feminisms of seven amazing female directors.

Daughters of Dust (Directed by Julie Dash)

Daughters of the Dust is told from the point of view of an unborn child, and draws in female family lines, displacement and the history of slavery in the United States and its effect on black women.  Daughters is one of those canonical feminist/black diaspora films that any feminist minded gal or guy needs to see.  Think film studies students not watching Citizen Kane–it’s just not done.

Antonia’s Line (Directed by Marleen Gorris)

This is the quintessential feminist film.  It’s egalitarian, woman centered, matriarchal, and there’s a lesbian sex scene not from a male’s perspective!  I get excited just thinking about it!

Eve’s Bayou (Directed by Kasi Lemmons)

Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Eve’s Bayou is about an affluent black southern family, the relationships within that unit and how the history of the family line, slavery and geography all intermingle.  Watching this film along with Daughters of the Dust is also a political act.  By using our renting/purchasing power in favor of these movies, we show our cultural institutions, whether they be the library, Netflix, or even Hollywood, that we support black female directors.

Fire (Directed by Deepa Mehta)

I was told recently that some people believe that Mehta makes Indian films for an American audience, and because of this her films are not taken seriously by Indian audiences.  Being an American gal, I can only speak from my point of view and will argue any day of the week that there is good stuff here.  Forbidden love between two women, arranged marriage, Indian food, and hope amongst all odds–all good stuff.  Maybe this film is geared towards Americans, but if it motivates more Americans to watch films directed by Indian women, then so be it.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (Directed by Agnes Varda)

This French flick details two hours in a Parisian woman’s life as she awaits what could be terminal results from her doctor.  We follow her as she walks the streets of France and with her we contemplate life, worry, and possibilities, and further, it shines a light on what we have in front of us.

Swept Away (Directed by Lina Wertmuller)

This is a true “exploring feminisms” film because of its divisive nature.  You could either love this film about a man and woman getting shipwrecked where sodomy, lust and coconuts ensue, or you can hate it.  What cannot be argued is it’s provocative depiction of how class affects men and women dissimilarity and will spark some great discussion.

Marie Antoinette (Directed by Sofia Coppola)

 Still considered by many to be an Indie director despite her famous director father and family, Coppola is one of my favorite contemporary female directors because she directs with the heart.  She also dabbles with a delicate touch that is so affective and yet has such an assertive voice.  Marie Antoinette is fun, whimsical and is so subversive for a period piece that you can’t help but become absorbed in the frosting and bubble gum that is this movie.  Celebrate Women’s History Month with one tough queen!