Sofia Coppola was born into film royalty in 1971, and consequently was thrust into the arms of Micheal Corleone and starred in her first Academy Award-winning picture The Godfather in 1972 at the tender age of one. She was surrounded by beauty and film from birth. With her family tree breeding talents such as Nick Cage and Jason Schwartzmann and the ever-present, figurative shoes of her father, Francis Ford Coppola, to fill. She was always artistically inclined, having started a girlish clothing brand that embodied youthful feminine fashion in the 90s that is now exclusively sold in Japan. Her first experiences with the film industry were not exactly positive, having been bullied out of a film career after returning to film The Godfather III as (my namesake) Mary Corleone. However, storytelling would prove to be her true medium. Her first short film Lick the Star was released in 1998. Fourteen minutes long, on 65mm black and white film, her perspective was distinctly feminine. It followed a clique of four teenage girls and their navigations of life, and the “traumas of adolescence” that Coppola captures with such quiet intention. Coppola was beginning to form a lens, even while only being perceived in her father’s shadow. The next year, her debut feature film The Virgin Suicides premiered at the Sundance film festival. Continuing her exploration of adolescence, Coppola attempts to go against traditionally formalist and dominant Hollywood cinema styles, therefore categorizing The Virgin Suicides as counter-cinema. Adding to the list of cult cinema under Kirsten Dunst’s belt, the film opposes mainstream cinema by going in an alternative route with the characters and story-line.
The plot is fairly abstract; or rather, there really isn’t a set plot. The film is about feelings, emotions, and the repression of human, or particularly adolescent girls, suffering. The male perception in the film (AKA the neighborhood boys) idolize the girls, and the girls become objects of fantasy, angelic and mysterious. Mary G. Hurd speculates on Coppola’s attraction to Eugenides’ story in Women Directors and Their Films, and the attraction seems to be due to the sense of alienation between the audience and the story. When the girls commit suicide, the boys are “frozen in time with their adolescent perceptions of the girls” (Hurd, 132) Coppola characterized a feeling of isolation and identity, adding complexities to her character’s lives. Her way of portraying characters as inside their heads, especially in the concept of girlhood, creates loneliness that she wants us to feel in her films. She also does this exceptionally in her other films Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Coppola thrives with material involving sexuality, repression, resentment, and being in a state of limbo, so to speak.
After gaining some reputation as a well-rounded director after her release of comedy-drama Lost in Translation, Sofia’s feminine, blasé historical brain-child Marie Antoinette was released in 2006. Reviews were ultimately very polarized: Todd Kennedy described the critiques of Coppola as a constant battle of aesthetic over substance. Critics scathed over her artistic liberties and post-punk soundtrack, which were simply written off as “historical inaccuracies.”
The vapidness and opulence may have been too much for viewers that wanted a historical drama and could be misconstrued as a weakness of plot, but rather, it cleverly entreats the viewer into how mundane Antoinette’s life may have been, especially as Dauphine. Coppola succeeded in making Antoinette more human – more understandable. The decadence of aesthetics is almost overpowering, the film is overflowing with romantic mise en scéne. Supported by modern touches like The Cure and Dunst’s dazzling close-ups, there’s a measure of heart to the performance which will have you rooting for her rather than baying for blood. The sense of childlike amusement is reinforced by the backdrop of excess and glamour, Coppola’s forte, and the film feels suitably feminine, yet strong. Coppola’s leisurely, feminine shots countered greatly from the points of Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze Theory that a film cannot transform patriarchy and be visually pleasurable. Coppola does not sacrifice her or her character’s femininity for the acceptance of even feminist theorist, but rather let’s her characters live in it’s shameless bliss. I distinctly remember a shot when I first saw the film around ten or twelve years old , as Coppola was a pop culture icon for my older sister at the time, and it had always stuck with me. When the Dauphine goes on an emotion-fuelled shopping spree to “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow, trying on distinctively 18th century kitten heels when the camera pans to a pair of blue converse. I had only noticed after seeing the scene a few times, and eventually I came to believe they were in the scene as a surreal symbol for her innocence and being a teenager, something that is often overlooked in the scope of history’s remembrance of Marie Antoinette.
Sofia was never given the benefit of the doubt as up and coming director, but rather always seen in comparison to the suspected intellectual nepotism she had grown up with. Her father’s great works, her cousins’ acting careers – all independent identities as males in the industry- had weight on her career. However the genius of her auteur is more conspicuous than critics would have assumed of her, as she was destined to act beyond the male-dominated film traditions and raise many criticisms in the process. Famously quoted for saying “That’s the way I work: I try to imagine what I would like to see.” Coppola was making what she knew, from the perspective of a female that often found herself in a room full of male perspectives. She made her name known with her glorious aesthetics, distinctly feminine perspective, and emotionally restrictive pacing.
The Beguiled was viewed under close scrutiny as a remake of the Clint Eastwood film (in which he headlines over the seven female co-stars), but it would prove to be significant for all female filmmakers. Sofia became the second woman in eighty years to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. Critics of her films always reference perceived weaknesses such as “self-indulgent” and “fraught over aesthetics”, which almost brings one to ask, when do we consider these “weaknesses” signs of the auteur? It’s almost as if critics such as Dana Stevens from Slate, who had coined Coppola a “The Veruca Salt of American Filmmaking” are merely more willing to accept that her imagination pays all creative respects to her father before herself. If that be the case, will feminine voices only be seen in comparison to the accomplishments of men in an industry built by men? Sofia Coppola makes it quite clear, to audiences as well as to young women entering the film industry, that her femininity is at no compromise to how others perceive her auteurship.
By Mary Hemphill