Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous…and Isolated
“I think I’m always drawn to projects that help me understand something about myself.” – Sofia Coppola
“Write what you know.” That’s the advice novelists, screenwriters, or fiction writers receive when they experience a lapse of creative expression. What a better place to start than taking something so intimate, so authentic and transcribing their feelings, moments, and memories to paper? It becomes better advice with a unique perspective; say, having a father deemed one of the most prolific film directors and icons in the world. Sofia Coppola has never needed these words of encouragement because she embodies them in each work: portraits of luxury, loneliness, and disconnection. Experiencing her films is experiencing fragments of her soul.
Her latest film The Bling Ring has just arrived to theaters, and will be expanding this week, marking her fifth feature film and so I thought it appropriate to scan her long history through film, because that’s all she’s ever really known. You see, she was that little baby being baptized and christened in the hallmark scene of The Godfather, a chance for her father Francis Ford Coppola to at once fill a casting role and shoot a home video. In that moment she was christened as a woman of film too, birthed into a cinematic bubble, somehow destined to be part of the insular world of wealth and fame few rarely know. But, fortunately, her reputation has not plummeted to catastrophic Lohan levels, becoming a prolific, if not well-respected, female auteur.
Her now five films all share a thematic bond from her childhood to adult years though, an almost spiritual collection of stories and characters searching for meaning within a silver platter lifestyle. Her earliest memories are being on the film set with her father for Apocalypse Now, and she was often treated like the royalty her surname had acquired. She would go on to appear in more of his films, adopting small cameos highlighting pig tails and those premature buck teeth like in The Outsiders. Her harshest criticism however was playing Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III, panned by critics and fans alike. ‘The critics tore me apart,” Sofia told Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times. ”But I didn’t want to be an actress. If I had, then it would have been harder.” It’s the high price of being accused with nepotism. You better be good, because any flaw turns into a canyon of condemnation.
Sofia is built as someone with a range of passions. She interned with Chanel at 15 and has a small clothing line Milkfed sold exclusively in Japan. Her interest in music is also noted in her eclectic and iconic pop selections in each of her films, as well as in her second husband, Thomas Mars, the lead singer of the rock band Phoenix (She divorced filmmaker Spike Jonze in December 2003). Part of this may come from her extended family. Her grandmother was a composer, her brother Roman Coppola is a renowned film director and writer (he’s helped produce some of her films) and her cousins include actors Nicholas Cage, Jason Schwartzman, and Robert Schwartzman, lead singer of the band Rooney and the infamous sullen mop top in The Princess Diaries. Many of them have appeared in Sofia’s films, as have other Sofia connections. Nepotism may be the word for this family. But tight-knit talent is worth fostering, too.
“As an actress working with her, you have to be prepared for anything, because she likes capturing organic things, transcendent moments, changes in the wind and sun—which is awesome because you feel like you’re really part of creating something beautiful, but also very unnerving for me because I’m used to being inside a studio at Harry Potter and being incredibly controlled and sticking to a schedule.” – Emma Watson
If Sofia Coppola’s films are anything,
they are, like the wind and sun, ephemerally charged pictures of feeling and emotion, even when her characters are devoid of those qualities. Her first feature The Virgin Suicides, adapted from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, is a meditation on suburban adolescence and the cognizance of sexual awakening. It more literally is about the tragic suicides of the five Lisbon sisters, remembered by the 1970s nostalgia of a group of boys across the street, emotionally connected but physically separated from the sisters. The film is haunting in its rich portrayal of this sheltered group and equally seductive in Coppola’s framing of her main subject Lux, played by Kirsten Dunst. Coppola’s affinity with the actress- her lead in Marie Antoinette too- becomes evident in the mild gazes and expressions Dunst projects, the innocence of her half smile that slowly shifts into a persuasive sexual luring.
There’s a connection to be found in this vain with Coppola’s fourth film Somewhere, in which a solitary actor must take in his 11 year-old daughter. In one scene, he waits in the bleachers while she attends ice-skating practice under the reverberating pop of Gwen Stefani, a subtle, brilliant musical choice. He looks at her with a scopophilic sensibility, a girl suddenly pirouetting into a sexualized object in front of him. He is her father, and incestuous lust is not implied here, but the child to adult dynamic is shifting. Lux’s father and mother also must make this realization once boys begin knocking on their door for Lux. Coppola tackles young emerging adults with the same conviction she probably felt as one, desiring to break out of her acquired lifestyle, or those of her parents.
The more important thematic at work here is the Lisbon girls’ strict parents, implementing an ironclad discipline that keeps them locked within the home, their only freedom granted for school activities. But their ultimate deaths come from this prosaic domesticity, discovering an agonizing understanding that the boys across the street had become eager voyeurs of their windows. Any sense of their own feminine freedom was stifled under their mother’s critical, fearing eye. Discontent with what they have: the symptom that also inflicts Lux’s temporary boyfriend played by Josh Hartnett. The mystery, the unattainable presence of Lux as a girlfriend became forbidden fruit. Yet, when plucked, it wrinkles, and he leaves her in their fleeting bed of ecstasy, the football field, as she wakes alone, used and exposed.
Coppola has such a dreamy presence with this film, a gauzy lens recreating a beautiful static location. But maybe her most evident style of filming is in her objectivity. She never forces her audience into a feeling, like so many bad blockbusters and rom-coms utilize to aggravating degrees. In her latest film The Bling Ring, recounting the small group of girls, and one guy, who stole countless items of luxury and wealth from celebrities’ homes, she demonstrates this to considerable levels. Instead of easily condemning her subjects, or maybe less favorably, encouraging these acts of materialistic desires, she finds a passive middle ground. These are real people, no matter the affected Calabasas accents or flawed role models they seek to emulate. Coppola says look; feel; think. Then make up your mind.
“The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” – Bob, Bill Murray, Lost in Translation
I think it’s safe to say at this point
Sofia Coppola is grateful for her dad’s mentorship and production assistance on her films. She has spoken about her occasional willingness to hear his advice, his perspective on her work and ideas. She also has this kind of spontaneous frustration with his presence- extracted from an interview with the New York Times:
“He came on the set of The Virgin Suicides and told me, ‘You should say ”Action” louder, more from your diaphragm.’ I thought, O.K., you can go now.” She laughed. ”I’m not going to say it wasn’t intimidating, but when you direct is the only time you get to have the world exactly how you want it. My movies are very close to what I set out to do. And I’m superopinionated about what I do and don’t like.” She paused, and then she added, ”I may say it differently, but I still get what I want.”
She does. The above is a music video she directed for The White Stripes with Kate Moss erotically pole dancing in her underwear. Coppola seems an odd choice for a video of this voyeuristic nature. Women directors in general are few and far between, especially ones that have made major, critically acclaimed films. Kathryn Bigelow, Penny Marshall, and Lynn Ramsey are a few who have exceeded gender biases, but Coppola doesn’t tackle an overly masculine space like The Hurt Locker, she develops from within her feminine spirit. Her films aren’t loud or overtly topical. They’re soft, poignant reflections filled with an open-minded critique of the current excesses that celebrity-driven culture has cherished and made ideal.
“We must powder our wigs; that is why so many poor people have no bread.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau
Coppola’s middle three films
take place in three of the most populated cities in the world: Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles. And yet, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Somewhere have characters burdened with a heavy heart of entrapment, a luxury of loneliness. Each has a different stylistic palette but they share a similar tone, a slight melancholy in a world people think they’d be happiest.
Lost in Translation is still Coppola’s mind boggling amazing second film and won her the Oscar for best screenplay. It echoes these ruminations with a dual portrait of souls floating into a lonely abyss. Bill Murray is Bob, an actor abroad in Tokyo, shooting a whiskey commercial and Scarlett Johansen is Charlotte, the useless wife of a photographer, tagging along on his photo shoot. They meet at Tokyo’s Park Hyatt- another one of Sofia’s connections- and find themselves imprisoned, but enlightened at the other’s presence. Charlotte’s marriage is crumbling and Japan is the perfect place for this discovery as a different people and language surround her, heaping on layers to her career crisis. Bob meanwhile is here to escape his domestic life, only mentioned in his spontaneous phone calls home to his wife and kids. They have ostensibly good lives and foundations, but their happiness eludes them.
It’s a different world you occupy with fame and wealth. Coppola knows this lifestyle and infuses Charlotte’s isolation, Bob’s separation, with a dreariness often antithetically tied with opulence. How much stuff is too much stuff? She tethers these questions together most prominently in Marie Antoinette, realizing the emotive connective tissues that transcend the gilded age of France with postmodern 21st century stardom. She uses pop music and a modern dialect to express the teenage realities of France’s young Queen, managing to keep the palace interior splendidly ornate and clothing properly 18th century. The movie’s soundtrack includes Bow Wow Wow, Gang of Four, Air, New Order, the Cure and Phoenix and when Coppola would call action, the music was already blaring.
“I want it to be kind of irreverent, kind of how they were at the time,” she said in the same NYTimes interview. “I mean, they’re just doing what they want. They sort of have a little bit of a bratty attitude.”
In Somewhere, Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marko, a loner movie star in between projects living at the infamous Chateau Marmont (again a hotel). He lives in almost an unconscious reality, passing life by in silence, sedated by the pool, too apathetic to even find arousal in his twin pole dancers. He lives in this hotel and in his sports car, seen at the beginning of the film racing around a track in and out of the picture. Then there’s Coppola’s deeply reflective shot of Marko as he sits in silence with white gauze over his face, creating a head mold for his next movie. He sits there, as does the camera, watching his mached face dry in real time. His life finds abrupt awakening when his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) arrives after her mother leaves. She both admires and harshly learns her father’s characteristics, flying to Italy for a clunky award show, listening to him spend the night with nameless hookers. The time between projects is one of existential struggle, feverishly realized by the film’s end. So soft and subtle, Coppola weaves a man’s dull and luxuriously diseased life into an accessible aesthetic experience.
Here’s a test. Guess which of these three films above Ms. Coppola is referring to with this quote:
“It’s about misunderstandings between people and places, being disconnected and looking for moments of connection. There are so many moments in life when people don’t say what they mean, when they are just missing each other, waiting to run into each other in a hallway.”
She’s talking about Lost in Translation, but my clear point is that she could be referring to any of these three films. Looking at her characters’ relationships, a clear theme emerges based on improper expression. The Dauphin played by a timid Jason Schwartzman has no words for his new queen as she waits impatiently in bed for him to make the slightest effort. In Somewhere, Johnny Marko drops Cleo off for her summer camp via helicopter, inaudibly muttering, “I’m sorry I haven’t been there” to her under the propeller. Bob, in that infamous, highly Youtubed and Googled scene, leaves things ambiguously with Charlotte, but by luck reaps his second chance with her in a crowded Tokyo street by whispering something prophetic, prompting a small smile of hers to erupt.
These leading characters are trapped
within their bubbles, and yet each of them ends their reign of indifferent, empty wanderings and tastings by boldly leaving them behind. Charlotte submerges herself back into Tokyo’s hordes, Marie Antoinette glances out towards her Palace as she carriages away, and Johnny Marko speeds his car into the middle of the desert, slams the door, and proceeds to trek down open road. Their lives of security instantly change in this moment; they feel something again. Human, maybe.
Charlotte in LIT is most unhappy about her photographer husband and feels the void between them growing wider each day. Coppola’s first marriage to Spike Jonze may (or may not) have been going through something similar. I quote the New York Times interview one more time:
“The relationship of the fashion photographer and his young wife may or may not have shadings of Coppola’s own life and her relationship to Jonze. Giovanni Ribisi, who plays the photographer, speaks with Jonze’s mannerisms, and Scarlett Johansson, as Charlotte, is dressed and styled to seem a lot like Coppola. “I know,” Coppola says, “how narcissistic.”
In The Bling Ring, the opening credits roll over images of wealth. The last piece of text fades up Sofia Coppola’s name as the camera glides over gold jewelry and necklaces. How fitting is the timing of her directing credit, a name synonymous with movies, wealth, and (relatively speaking) wine. But like her latest film, Coppola isn’t blasting us with superficiality or telling us that these paper-thin girls and their Valley accents are role models. She’s giving us part of her story through both a knowing, appreciative, and critical lens. Film can be catharsis. Here’s to Sofia progressing with her self-expression and exploration- and continually being blessed by her cinematic baptismal water.