In praise of Sofia Coppola's intoxicating cinema

As Sofia Coppola's new film The Beguiled comes to the UK and GFT gears up to honour her in its CineMasters series, we look back at the dreamy filmmaking of this smart, compassionate director

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 06 Jul 2017
  • The Virgin Suicides

The films of Sofia Coppola are like long, hot, lazy afternoons. You want to drink them in, luxuriate in them. Coppola’s first feature, The Virgin Suicides, plays out in such heady summer afternoons, and Edward Lachman sun bleached cinematography adds to this blissed-out aesthetic. As debuts go, it’s extraordinary. Her celebrated director father, Francis Ford, had six film efforts before he made his mark on Hollywood with The Godfather. On her first attempt, Coppola Jr hits the ground running with a dreamy and intoxicating sensibility that arrives fully formed.

The Virgin Suicides centres on five wistful sisters, the Lisbons, who find themselves suffocated by their buttoned-up, evangelical upbringing in suburban Detroit in the 1970s. It’s a film about the unknowability of teenage girls as told from the point-of-view of teen boys in the neighbourhood who worship these young women from afar. On its release, one reviewer sharply observed that the film “doesn’t so much unfold as waft off the screen, leaving behind a vapor trail of swoony, mysterious sadness.” As a description of Coppola’s aesthetic, we can’t think of anything better. It might suggest a style that’s languorous, but Coppola's keen ear for music and eye for sharp editing (Sarah Flack is usually manning the Steenbeck) keeps the energy up and scenes crisp.


The Virgin Suicides trailer


Like all Coppola films, The Virgin Suicides is funny, but there’s none of the smirks or ironic winks we get from her bro peers (say Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach). Her films are earnest and swimming in ennui, and such is her camera’s empathy, you get the sense that the director is feeling every emotion her characters are going through. When Cecilia Lisbon, the youngest of the sisters, tries to commit suicide at the start of the film, her doctor says to her, quite unhelpfully, “What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

“Obviously, doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl,” is her tart reply, and we know Coppola concurs.

Disaffected teens living at a remove to reality are also the subject of Coppola’s zippiest film, The Bling Ring. It’s the giddy true-life tale about a group of LA teens who would burgle Hollywood mansions of the rich and famous. Other directors might have turned the film into a satire of millennials' obsession with celebrity culture, and there are hints of that in the form of Emma Watson’s TMZ-obsessed Nikki, a wannabe actor and the most cartoonish of the film’s valley girls. But such is Coppola’s innate compassion for teens in turmoil, she can’t bring herself to condemn their self-obsessed antics. “I realised that what they did really took some ingenuity,” she told the Guardian in 2013. “These young people actually figured out how to do this thing and they had the guts to go through with it. I don't know if an adult would have figured that out.”


Lost in Translation trailer


Coppola’s compassion stretches from haute couture crims to an even less sympathetic section of society: the sad celebrity. In the mid-00s she created a trio of knockout films on the 'fame is hell' theme, starting with her most celebrated and personal work, Lost in Translation. It follows Bill Murray as a sad-sack movie star in Tokyo shooting a whisky commercial, who befriends a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) who’s similarly at a loose end in the city. The story was inspired by Coppola’s own miserable trip to Japan with her husband at the time, fellow filmmaker Spike Jonze.

Despite being set in the world of the bored and wealthy, Lost in Translation really struck a chord, and confirmed Coppola as a major talent. “When I was writing it, I thought, nobody’s going to want to hear about an affluent girl who can’t find herself,” Coppola told Time recently. “It’s the most unrelatable thing ever… It’s always very surprising that other people connect to things that you find very small and specific.”

Coppola’s privileged upbringing as part of Hollywood royalty also gave her an interesting angle on her next subject: Marie Antoinette. Her vivid 2006 biopic ignores the politics of the French Revolution and concentrates instead on the parties and pomp of Versailles. It’s an unabashed celebration of the luxurious lifestyle of the young queen (played by Kirsten Dunst), but it also asks us to feel sympathy for this teen girl who was used as a bargaining chip between France and Austria. The French hated it on its premiere at Cannes, not least for Coppola’s flagrant historical inaccuracies and ironic use of music (Marie’s parties are soundtracked by the likes of The Strokes, Adam and the Ants, and Air). Looking back, it’s clearly a candy-coloured riot and sees Coppola at her most playful.


The Bling Ring trailer


Her 'fame is hell’ cycle rounds off in a more melancholy mood in her masterpiece Somewhere. Like Lost in Translation, it’s the story of a depressed actor (Stephen Dorff) finding solace in the company of a young woman, in this case his estranged daughter (Elle Fanning). Here Coppola swaps her trademark pop montages for long takes and enigmatic zooms that call to mind Michelangelo Antonioni – the master of movie alienation – but with none of the pretension. The result is her most heartfelt movie. Coppola may make films about the feckless and the dispossessed, but you’d be hard pressed to find a sharper, more emotionally astute filmmaker working in Hollywood. Coppola herself puts it best: “Making a movie about someone who’s cut off and out to lunch doesn’t make me out to lunch.” 


The Beguiled is released 14 Jul by Universal

GFT's Sofia Coppola: CineMaster series begins 8 Jul with The Virgin Suicides (on 35mm) and runs until 1 Aug, with Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring and Coppola's filmmed opera La Traviata all screening. For full details of the season and tickets, head to glasgowfilm.org/shows/cinemasters-sofia-coppola