Sofia Coppola is a visually stylish film director. Undoubtedly, her self-confessed predilection for æsthetically pleasing fashion, photography and art has largely contributed to the appealing form of her work. Indeed, one cannot overlook the self-conscious beauty of her films: sensuality becomes an all-important part of the viewing process and Coppola purposefully forces her viewers to feel and not merely passively watch her work. The plethora of pastel colours, languid camera movements and resolutely modern soundtracks has all become a recognisable and integral part of the director’s stylistic approach. However, the seductive manner of Coppola’s audio-visual style has led some to question whether there is any substance below this veneer or not; in fact, critics were polarised over this very issue in response to her most recent film, Marie Antoinette (2006) which purportedly demonstrated her flair for ostentation at the expense of a coolly analytical approach to history. Yet, a closer examination of the subject matter of her work reveals a fundamental link between form and content to the extent that one cannot be separated from the other. Hence, if Coppola’s subject matter is the social mores of an elite class, her approach demands that she match this extravagance in the film’s very construction. In this context, reprimanding the director for her seeming interest in mere frippery is, as Pam Cook recently put it, “to miss the point” (1). Whilst her considered approach to mise en scène (that always starts with a collection of visual images and a compilation soundtrack) creates an affecting and primarily visual style, often at the expense of extended dialogue, this same style also serves to cover, but only partially so, the spectre of something dark and insidious. Alongside a recognisable visual approach, Coppola has also demonstrated an interest in liminal situations, rites of passage and marginal groups of people. It is the person in transition, who is in between things and is undecided about what to do, that interests Coppola. Her protagonists are unformed characters in crisis at bifurcation points and open to the changeable flux of the world. As a filmmaker, then, her speciality is visually mapping the world of someone who is lost in his environment, who is alienated from those surrounding him and, for want of a better phrase, suffering an existential crisis. Critics have tended to delineate Coppola’s cinema as a specifically female one that is markedly concerned with the feminine rite of passage. Whilst this is not erroneous, it obscures the fact that The Virgin Suicides (1999) is actually a film about male adolescent desire whilst the crises addressed in Lost in Translation (2003) are equally a male mid-life one and that of a young female. Coppola’s careful observation of various forms of ritual, whether these acts are socially established ones or invented rites, belies the carefree veneer that seems so characteristic of her æsthetic approach. What often becomes apparent from this is the probing and often melancholic nature of her subject matter: the perennial human need to understand, to fit in and find an identity for oneself and the coping mechanisms invoked when the world remains indifferent to this need. Sometimes, these rituals are ineffective and impede the momentum of passage, as in The Virgin Suicides; sometimes the effect of established, cultural rituals exacerbates alienation to the point where one can only be open to the changing reality of the world and be forced to question the very coordinates with which one thinks, as in Lost In Translation; sometimes, the point is to demonstrate the brittle, hollow nature of ritual as a process that works for little purpose other than its own repetition, as in Marie Antoinette. Throughout her work, the effect of these rituals in the search for identity, which Coppola has repeatedly examined, does not appear as a purely female concern, but as a human one.
The director’s marked concern for moments of life-crisis or transition fruitfully lends itself to a Deleuzean interpretation of the ‘time-image’ (2), where crisis provides the main starting point for a predominantly visual approach in which time is no longer subordinated to movement and a predictable narrative trajectory. Through the use of dead time, liminal images that hang between dream and reality, a wandering and restless camera-eye that mirrors the gaze of the protagonists, and discrepancies between visual and sound tracks, crisis can be directly translated into the image. Suitably, Coppola is adept at showing rather than narrating these crises and liminal moments, and perhaps it is for this reason that this theoretical approach to her work seems so pertinent. The trajectory of Coppola’s films is far from predictable and smooth; they lack narrative arcs because they detail a world where the link between things has broken down and the protagonists are no longer able to react in an effective fashion. Her protagonists are pertinent examples of people who are incapacitated or overwhelmed by the situation with which they are presented, yet this does not have to be one of explicit danger. Rather, the protagonist’s crisis is often a case of trying to navigate a path for oneself in a world that is confusing and unresponsive to one’s needs. Reflecting this theme, a certain ‘European’ sensibility can be detected in Coppola’s films and she, in turn, has acknowledged her admiration for the cinema of the French New Wave and, in particular, Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni. Arguably, it is the sense of ennui that is apparent in many of Antonioni’s characters and the existential debates of the New Wave that have been translated into Coppola’s æsthetic. She has a decided predilection for showing empty moments in human lives and deals with characters who continually expose the void within themselves; one has only to think of the young boys in The Virgin Suicides who are stupefied by the beauty of the Lisbon girls, or Charlotte in Lost in Translation, constantly sitting by her hotel window in awe of the panoramic landscape spread out below her, in order to get a sense of this incapacitation where the protagonist is prone to think rather than act. Finally, perhaps it is her refusal to supply her spectator with any sense of definite conclusion that allies her most strongly with the long tradition of European filmmakers who have favoured the inchoate reality of the world over the fabricated, tidy endings of Hollywood. It is this ‘European’ style, coupled with her careful observation of particular, liminal, human moments that marks Coppola out as a filmmaker whose work is not of merely meretricious value; her ability to combine an edifying æsthetic with the themes of crisis and transition marks her out as a filmmaker of both style and substance.
Life Without Zoe (1989)
Co-written with her father, Francis Coppola (who also directed this short film), Life Without Zoe arguably shares similar themes and style with Coppola’s later work, in particular Marie Antoinette. Set in the privileged world of Upper-East Manhattan, the film relates the story of a young rich girl called Zoe (Heather McComb) who, through parental neglect, is left to fend for herself in an adult world. Whilst the film is a feast of ravishing colours and lush interior settings, it was largely maligned by the critics who saw the film as nothing more than a virtual presentation of the life of the then eighteen-year-old Sofia Coppola. Although the film is undoubtedly at its best when viewed as a comic piece, the themes of loneliness, isolation and being uncertain in one’s environment can all be attributed to Sofia Coppola. Furthermore, her contribution to the film’s æsthetic through costumes and props proves her deftness, even at this early stage, in creating a diegetic world that can tell its own story without the need of superfluous dialogue.
Lick The Star (1998)
Coppola’s short film is set in a suburban, American high school; the narrative centres on a clique of five female teenagers, the head of which is a girl called Chloe (Audrey Heaven) who looks older than the other girls. Inspired by V. C Andrew’s popular teenage novel, Flowers in the Attic, that relates the story of a wicked grandmother who tries to slowly poison her grandchildren; the girls devise a plan called “lick the star”, a code for “kill the rats”. Led by Chloe, they decide to start poisoning the boys in their school. However, Chloe’s imperious and self-righteous manner ends up alienating her from the group and a rumour is circulated that she is a racist prompting her friends to reveal the ‘lick the star’ plan to the school community. Chloe, who bullied the other students, is now the object of derision and she tries, unsuccessfully, to kill herself.
Released just one year before her first full-length film, Lick the Star is suggestive in both its form and content of what has become Coppola’s recognisable themes and style. Coppola’s deliberately attractive visual approach, characterised through long takes and superimpositions, and her abiding fascination with the young female’s rite of passage and body, is established here. As is the case with The Virgin Suicides, the film’s tenuous narrative frame merely sets up the possibility of exploring the construction of adolescent identity and desire, and the rituals established in the process of this. The film’s opening credits are superimposed over fragmented close-ups of the heavily made-up mouth and eyes of the female protagonist. These disjointed close-ups of her body follow a long shot of her walking in slow motion like a catwalk model. Here, her image is broken down through a series of rapid, sharp and increasingly close-up shots onto her face. Arguably, this introduction conforms to the tradition of the female as a still, passive object of desire. Yet, Coppola does not fragment the female form merely to provoke desire in the viewer, thus re-affirming an established cinematic tradition; rather, she draws the spectator’s awareness to the spurious nature of this beauty as an object of artifice: even Chloe’s walk is shown to be derivative of the stereotypical female beauty of catwalk models. Coppola is not merely interested in the surface and textures of the pro-filmic world and its subjects, she is more curious of what lies underneath this, a depth that is unfailingly darker than its tawdry exterior suggests. Lick the Star addresses the construction of adolescent identity in a cruel and ruthless world ruled by stereotypes, where one’s success is determined by the extent to which one can fulfil pre-determined roles. This opening sequence demonstrates that Chloe carries all the requisite signifiers to mark her out as “the queen of the seventh grade”. By wearing make-up and nonchalantly smoking a cigarette, she appears to be older than she really is, and it is this appearance that allows her to wield power over her peer group. To reinforce this point, she tells another student that she can do anything she wants, sprays ketchup on one girl and steals another student’s food. Although Chloe exudes confidence, Coppola’s careful deconstruction of her appearance at the very outset of the film promotes the idea that her stature is precarious. Identity, ‘coolness’ and popularity are things to be assumed and adopted through gestures and clothing but, importantly, they can just as easily be lost. The inherent cruelty of the adolescent community is made clear when the film’s narrator informs the audience that being absent from school is a “death wish”, elaborating that: “a lot can happen in a few days. When Sam was out with the flu, everyone decided that she was a big lesbian and she spent the rest of the month eating lunch in the library.” The implication is that these characters are initiated into this hostile community and, as its members, are obliged to assume pre-existing roles, but are left alone to deal with the consequences of this alone. When Chloe is finally cast out from the adolescent community, she tries to commit suicide by overdosing on aspirin, a fact that the audience understands only after the event as it is related through snide gossip in the school corridor. The attempted suicide is presented as though it were like a ritual ceremony: Chloe, wearing a white nightgown, extinguishes the flame of a candle before climbing into a bathtub filled with water and roses. As her body slowly sinks under the water’s surface, a heavy rock song is heard of which the lyrics, “feels so good not to be”, are repeated. This melodramatic episode is not only a pertinent reference to a general adolescent tendency to heighten emotion, but also to a type of ritual cleansing of identity. Just as popularity is established through the quasi-tribal markings of make-up and behaviour borrowed from popular iconography (such as that of the transgressive femme fatale who smokes), it must be also effaced through ceremonial form.
Ostracised by her peer group, Chloe can no longer assume the hierarchical position of authority she once had and must forfeit her station to someone else. The last shot of her shows her writing a typically melodramatic and adolescent poem that is heard in voice over: “everything changes. Nothing changes. The tables turn and life goes on.” A close-up reveals her placing it inside Jean Stein’s biography about Edie Sedgwick. Although the link with Sedgwick is implicit and tenuous, this final moment in the film promotes the idea that popularity and status are an effect of assuming certain superficial attributes, whilst the very community that creates and recognises the self is also the one responsible for its downfall and degradation.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides relates the story of five girls – Cecilia (Hanna Hall), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Mary (A. J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain) and Therese Lisbon (Leslie Hayman) – growing up in Michigan in the mid-1970s who commit suicide for no readily apparent reason. The film is related in retrospect by an anonymous male narrator who stands in for the brotherhood of boys who were and continue to be fascinated by the aura and mystery surrounding these girls. Yet, the overt narrative only serves as a pathway to the exploration of the film’s real message: the violence of the adolescent rite of passage and finally, the refusal to progress into the adult world. In the film, the rituals associated with established institutions such as the church and the medical profession are seen to fail due to the hollow and ineffective nature of their actions (3) whilst the various archetypal American ‘high school’ and adolescent rituals that are enacted throughout the film – e.g., the homecoming dance, a first party, the first kiss, and losing one’s virginity – are marked out as the site of disaster. The boys venerate the girls because they are seen as having already made the passage into adulthood and are thus believed to be wise beyond their years. This is made clear when the narrator states that the Lisbon girls “understood life and even death […] but we couldn’t fathom them at all”. In worshipping these girls, the boys are arguably looking for an initiation into adulthood, an initiation that is frustrated by the girls’ collective suicides. Ultimately, like the girls, the boys enact their own refusal of patriarchal society by remaining entombed in the past and refusing existence in the present moment.
Arguably, with its attractive, ‘white picket fence’ suburban setting, The Virgin Suicides fits well within a group of American films that have exposed the latent rottenness within lifestyles that seemingly fit the archetype of the ‘American Dream’ (4). In this film, the undefined disease that is wiping out all the perfectly-aligned elm trees along the Lisbons’ street is a symptom of this rottenness (5), whilst the inefficacy of certain well-worked institutional rituals is a further marker of this. The impotence of this initial level of ritual forces the boys to resort to their own invented forms of ceremony in order to try to understand the girls and their plight and, finally, to remember them. Their obsessive act of returning to the past and trying to find meaning within memory also signals a deeper need to understand their own childhood and to recapture the ineffable emotions of first love. Ultimately, though, the failure to find any token that would make sense of the mystery which the girls embody results in a profound inability to fully integrate with the present, modern-day world. This failure to progress is demonstrated by the fact that, although the film is narrated from the present day, the action is firmly rooted in the past. Only one scene exists as an actual, present moment. The rest is submerged in a virtual world of provisional, falsifying description.
The links between Coppola’s cinema and that of a European, Deleuzean æsthetic are more fully realised here than in her short film. There is a striking correspondence between the male characters in The Virgin Suicides and Gilles Deleuze’s definition of the ‘seer’ in modern cinema. According to Deleuze, the classical cinema’s character of action has been replaced by the protagonist who only sees and hears where he cannot act. He writes: “the character has become a kind of viewer…the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities […] he records rather than reacts. He is prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in action.” (6) Here, the male protagonists are in awe of the Lisbon girls and their generic blonde femininity to the extent that they are incapacitated by it. At the outset of the film, the boys are seen sitting on the pavement opposite the Lisbons’ home watching the girls get out of the family car; in this sequence, they are akin to the cinematic viewer who is placed in front of a phantasmagorical projection and whose movement is limited. The analogy with a shifting, virtual world is made stronger when the girls’ figures are freeze-framed with their names superimposed onto the frame in an adolescent scrawl. Whilst this short sequence promotes the idea that the girls are merely fantastic images of the boys’ imaginations (images that they create and control and are thus, inherently erroneous), it also is representative of Laura Mulvey’s famous characterisation of the passive female on film who stultifies narrative continuity (7): “(t)he presence of a woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of the story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” (8) Interestingly, although it is the female figure who is described as passive by Mulvey, in The Virgin Suicides it is the boys who feel the effect of this incapacitation. As representatives of the Playboy fantasy-girl of the 1970s era, the girls are objects of beauty that prompt contemplation and inhibit movement both within the narrative context and the central male protagonists. As a result of this lack of movement, the appearance of purely optical and sound situations that have little narrative justification proliferate. Where comprehension and action are prevented, a plethora of virtual, oneiric images tends to fill the screen, replacing a conventional narrative.
Such purely optical and sonic scenarios abound in The Virgin Suicides and can be seen as a way of exploring what Deleuze, taking his leave from Henri Bergson, calls the “sheets of the past” (9) in order to make sense of a crisis that has persisted into the present moment. The narrator reveals that the boys’ continuing love for the Lisbon girls has left them: “happier with dreams than with wives” in adulthood. It is their collection of ‘souvenirs’ from the Lisbon girls such as old bottles of nail polish, pastel-coloured items of clothing, photos and other random paraphernalia that act as catalysts for the exploration of a collective memory. In Cinema 2, Deleuze, taking his leave from Bergson, likens the journey into the virtual store of memory to that of attentive recognition (10):
the optical (and sound) image in attentive recognition does not extend into movement, but enters into relation with a ‘recollection-image’ that it calls up […] what would enter into relation would be the real and the imaginary, the physical and the mental, the objective and the subjective, description and narration, the actual and the virtual. (11)
However, in The Virgin Suicides, this process of recognition is frustrated in the film as there is no single image or sequence that can make sense of past events or the feminine remnants left behind after the girls’ passing into death. Thus, the entire body of the film becomes a journey through fantastic dream and memory scapes that render the more seemingly realistic and conventional sequences equally false and provisional. Related in retrospect, every scene is coloured by the romance of memory and fantasy that is a central theme of the film. For example, the first kiss between Lux Lisbon and Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the requisite school heartthrob, that takes place in his car, is arguably a scene of fantasy or false memory as much as it is an actual event. The setting is dark and Trip is seen resting his head back as though in reverie, and Lux does not appear to cross the threshold of the car door but simply materialises there. Furthermore, her furious and desperate mauling of Trip is incongruent with her behaviour up to this point.
In connection with this investigation of past events that is doomed to failure is the deliberate and audacious use of the cliché as both a photo and a universally recognised cultural image – a device that mirrors the impossibility of finding answers to the central narrative mystery. Deleuze writes pertinently of the cliché that “we have schemata for turning away when it [any given situation] is too unpleasant, for prompting resignation when it is terrible and for assimilating when it is too beautiful.” (12) As a way of making sense of things that defy explanation and understanding, the multiplicity of stereotypical images in The Virgin Suicides can be explained as a coping mechanism triggered to deal with a traumatic incident; however, their overtly false and hollow appearance is a manifestation of their impotence to yield any explanation or understanding. Rather than cover over the site of trauma or offer any sense of conclusion, they collectively act as a catalyst for further and deeper exploration into the realm of memory. In addition, the idea of the photograph as a momento mori has profound resonance here. The Lisbon family photographs which the boys collect over the years and treat as revered relics may be artefacts capable of re-opening the past but, as signifiers of death, they also suggest the impossibility of finding answers there. Thus, the photographs that are seen in the film act as nostalgic, romantic reminders of an impenetrable past. (13)
One section of the film demonstrates lucidly the collapse of the cliché. After Lux Lisbon’s breaking of a strict curfew, the girls are taken out of school by their parents and incarcerated inside the family home indefinitely. In order to entertain themselves, they order holiday brochures of exotic locations and journey there in their minds. The boys order the same catalogues so that they can experience these imaginary holidays with the girls. What proceeds from this is a photographic slideshow of overtly false, superimposed images of the boys and girls visiting famous foreign locations such as the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids. The fact that the boys are able to resurrect Cecilia Lisbon from the dead and place her as a bride in Calcutta wearing a traditional sari and bindhi emphasises the false nature of this scenario that lends the scene a degree of poignancy. Again, one is reminded of Deleuze’s words that the cliché helps us to cope with a situation that is ‘unbearable’ or ‘beautiful’ (14), and it is clear that this imaginary projection is a way of dealing with the growing distance between the boys and the girls and their impending demise. However, the impossibility of such a task is not only shown through the use of the photograph that reminds one of the closeness of death, but also by the fact that the images are seen literally to run out on themselves. At the very end of the slideshow, there is a repeated white screen that is then followed by an entirely black screen. The significance of this short sequence cannot be overstated. Deleuze states that something must be introduced in order to break through the cliché and show what is hidden beneath it. According to Deleuze, it is the breakdown of the sensory-motor capacities of the modern protagonist that allows for this: “if our sensory-motor schemata jam or break, then a different type of image can appear: a pure optical-sound image, the whole image without metaphor, brings out the thing in itself, literally in its excess of horror or beauty.” (15) The most pared-down image is one that has been stripped of all investment in other objects associated with it and may exist as a pure white or black screen that introduces a zone of possibility for new ways of thinking and perceiving. The purely white or black image here represents the impossibility of fathoming the girls’ mystery through rational thought. It propels the mind ever deeper into the realms of memory, sending it on creative flights of dream and fantasy. The impotence of the cliché as a coping mechanism is revealed here, whilst its very weakness forces the protagonist to resort to ever more fanciful ways of seeing, thinking and believing. Through these flights of fancy, it becomes clearer throughout the film that it is not merely the Lisbon girls that the boys are seeking to understand, but their own adolescence too. Yet the richness of this collective past, its openness to revision and creativity suggests that this is an infinite task.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Coppola’s third feature, made on a relatively small budget of $4 million, is the tale of two American tourists in Japan who are both experiencing a kind of life-crisis. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) has recently graduated from Yale with a degree in philosophy and has accompanied her fashion photographer husband on a business trip to Tokyo; she does not know what her role in life is and seems to be very unhappy in her two-year-old marriage. Bob (Bill Murray) is an ageing film actor who is past his prime; he is in Tokyo to star in a lucrative television advertisement endorsing Suntory Whisky. Like Charlotte, Bob seems to be having marital problems, conveyed through the subtle acrimony of his long distance phone calls to his wife. In addition to his marital crisis, he is dealing with a crisis of identity. He is no longer the successful film star he was in his youth and he is continually confronted with a plethora of images of himself, none of which he seems to fit with entirely. Both of these characters are undergoing a phase of transition in their lives that could be likened to a rite of passage. Charlotte is learning how to deal with adult life and find a niche for herself outside the submissive role she has unwittingly ended up with in her marriage whilst Bob is experiencing a sea change in both his career and his home life. Clearly he is no longer the actor who was famed for ‘doing his own stunts’ in ‘action movies’ and he is also no longer the man whom his wife, having become a full-time mother, needs (a fact which Bob admits to Charlotte rather ruefully).
Whilst ritual is a traditional device for aiding the passage from one state to another, its use in Lost in Translation only serves to alienate further the protagonists from their environment. Yet this sense of disconnection is merely an extension of the detachment that the characters already feel in their quotidian lives. Their status as foreigners in this strange, dreamlike landscape heightens pre-existing emotions and forces confrontation with their particular crises. The fact that the Japanese ritual ceremonies concretise the status of the outsider is shown most explicitly when Bob first arrives at the hotel. Here, he is met by the hotel staff and the Suntory personnel who give him gifts and bow their heads. This welcoming ceremony which is designed partially to integrate an outsider into the environment, clearly makes Bob very uncomfortable as he adopts a facetious tone and tries to show that he has some insight into their culture by resorting to hackneyed assumptions about the Japanese with statements such as: “short and sweet, very Japanese, I like that.” Coppola also employs a number of visual jokes to exacerbate Bob’s status as a foreigner: his tall stature when compared to a Japanese people or his inability to fit into the hotel shower cubicle, for example. Charlotte’s isolation is portrayed less directly. She frequently sits on her own in her hotel room where she stares out of her window at the cityscape below her; even when she is surrounded by other people she does not seem to engage with them. Arguably, as a philosophy graduate, she has been taught to think through abstraction from the real world by dealing in metaphysical concepts rather than direct and physical engagement. By presenting her as someone who literally sits above things, Coppola translates her cool aloofness into visual terms. Charlotte is a character who often judges things from a distance and her tone is mordant when she is forced to speak. Yet, for all of her distance, she is clearly craving some real role in the world as a mark of her identity. It is her chance encounter with Bob and her status as a foreigner that affords her this path into the world. By placing her protagonists in a foreign land, where they cannot speak the language and experience severe jetlag, Coppola ensures that these characters are entirely removed from their daily routine through changes in space and time. In this setting, Bob and Charlotte literally cannot find their way around their environment and standard scientific, chronological time must be subsumed in favour of the temporal mode of the sleepwalker. Coppola’s film is a foreign portrait of Japan because of this. She adopts an overtly stylised approach to her landscape through the use of heightened pastel colours and languorous panning shots. Echoing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s concept of ‘free indirect subjectivity’, the protagonists’ dreamlike viewpoints are also those of the filmmaker who is equally lost in this environment. (16)
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Coppola’s first foray into the genre of costume drama, which premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, was feverishly anticipated. Set in the 18th century, the film relates the story of the infamous last queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst); however, by focusing solely on Marie Antoinette’s arrival at Versailles through to her departure for Varennes and choosing to refer to the queen’s final beheading metaphorically rather than literally, Coppola courted controversy from the outset. Indeed, rumours that Coppola was planning to take a calculatedly anachronistic and irreverent approach to her regal subject matter abounded on internet sites before the film had even gone into production. Moreover, Coppola’s decision to use Antonia Fraser’s newly revisionist biography of Marie Antoinette as her source material (19), instead of Stefan Zweig’s detailed and coolly analytic assessment of the monarch, ensured that the project was shrouded in scandal from its inception. This was not to be the studied and historically accurate approach commonly expected of reputable costume dramas. Furthermore, by allowing the (mainly American cast) to speak in their own accents, sharply editing the film to a Punk and New Romantic soundtrack, taking an interpretive approach to costume (20) and, most audaciously, leaving the lives of the starving Parisian crowds and the court’s final ignominious demise out of the film’s narrative, the film was bound to enrage some critics. Agnès Poirier’s (21) invective was especially candid:
The film is shocking because it is empty, devoid of a point of view, because the person who has made it has no curiosity for the woman she is portraying and the time that her tragic life is set in. The film director seems as unconcerned by her subject as Marie-Antoinette was indifferent to the plight of her people and the world she lived in. (22)
Yet Poirier’s virulent dislike of the film was tempered by praise for the director’s deliberately colourful mise en scène and a narrative that did not purport to be historically accurate; notably, Jean-Michel Frodon, the editor in chief of Cahiers du Cinéma, wrote a very positive review of the film, viewing it as part of Coppola’s personal trajectory as a director and a further elaboration of her established style and concerns (the female figure as an outsider and the youthful rite of passage). Indeed, once one looks beyond the ostentatious pomp of the mise en scène, it is clear that Coppola is not content merely to champion the mores of the socially privileged. Although the film certainly tries to extenuate some of the mistakes of the young monarchs by focusing on their youthful naïveté, it is not wholly tendentious. The mixture of intimate close-ups and point-of-view shots that beckon the spectator into this gilded world are strongly contrasted with the use of montage, flamboyant music and tabloid-like slogans demonstrating that Coppola is all too aware of the often flippant and parochial nature of the aspects of this lifestyle which she has singled out. One of the ways in which she foregrounds the purely meretricious value of her protagonists’ lifestyles is by focusing on their quotidian rituals.
The presentation of certain ceremonies and their rites forms part of the ironic stance Coppola takes towards her subject matter. There is an abundance of ritual in this film, but those associated with the morning routine of waking and dressing the queen, as well as those surrounding scenes of worship and commensality, are shown as being the most overtly ridiculous and otiose. One of the film’s most comic moments comes when the queen is forced to stand naked in front of her courtly subjects whilst they decide who should dress her depending on the social rank of those present in the room. Marie Antoinette’s own protestation that this ceremony is “ridiculous” is met curtly by the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis) who says that this is simply the way things are done at Versailles. The brusque and repetitive rumble of baroque strings that accompanies this sequence as well as the rites surrounding the dining ceremonies undercut all pomp and circumstance. What is shown is the very pointlessness of these constantly repeated ceremonies that function for no other reason than the maintenance of tradition. An interesting cinematic device that further propounds the ineffectual nature of these acts is the way Coppola chooses to focus on items of food as artefacts rather than nourishment; these platters of food become abstract works of art, sometimes even grotesque spectacles (a large jelly containing strips of meat that wobbles when poked with a fork). The fact that these rather pointless rites continue even when the starving masses arrive at Versailles actually foregrounds their redundant nature; employed to maintain the tradition of the court, they merely highlight the court’s intransigence, making the need for change and insurgence all the more vital. In a number of ways, Coppola’s film shares similarities with Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), in that both films detail a hermetic society intent on maintaining its traditions but whose imperviousness to the outside world also ensures its decay.
Coppola’s approach to sound and image echoes Robert Altman’s separation of sonic and visual tracks. Typically, a film’s soundtrack will unite the person speaking and the words they utter. Like Altman, Coppola treats the whole crowd as her subject in a particular setting. Speech is then separated from its enunciator so as to create a soundscape of conversation that is not tied to any single entity. For example, in the dinner scene where Marie Antoinette meets many members of the court for the first time, the camera endlessly pans around the table so as to observe the minutiæ of gestures and surreptitious body language that make up the conniving, gossiping atmosphere of Versailles. The soundtrack is rendered as a seamless stream of gossip in hushed tones that effectively translates the force of rumour and propaganda that literally takes on a life of its own (a strong theme in the film). Furthermore, by separating word and image, Coppola tends to undermine what is said so that it lacks credibility. Whilst she may take a somewhat more personal approach by occasionally portraying this world through the main protagonist’s eyes, her attitude towards the other characters is much more severe. This is not to say that Coppola is wholly sympathetic to Marie Antoinette, either. Undoubtedly, Marie Antoinette is characterised as an outsider in a society that she cannot initially relate to. Her sense of awe and trepidation is pertinently shown through the travelling point-of-view shots that capture comically painted and grimacing faces that stare at her, whilst her introduction to her rooms at Versailles is given a dreamlike, sensual approach through the intricate music of Apex Twin and the use of close-ups on crystalline chandeliers and pastel fabrics. However, Coppola’s visually jarring use of montage in one particular scene where Marie Antoinette indulges in shoes and patisseries serves systematically to distance the viewer from the main subject. The scene is edited in the style of a music video to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy”, whilst images of silk shoes, cream cakes, poker chips and glasses of champagne filled with strawberries abound. Here, Coppola adopts the myths surrounding her notorious heroine to ironic effect. Indeed, by leaving out the Parisian crowds and the court’s final demise, Coppola uses dramatic irony by appealing to the viewer’s knowledge that this indulgence will lead to a revolution. Viewed this way, the film’s visual extravagance functions as a criticism rather than a celebration of the privileged lifestyle.
Coppola’s deliberately anachronistic approach to her source material, as well as its deconstruction of myth and modern-day celebrity culture contributes to the film’s visceral effect on the viewer. Through the use of a modern soundtrack, an interpretive approach to costume (23) and a strikingly modern vernacular spoken in a variety of accents, Coppola unites what Deleuze would term “the sheets of the past” and “the peaks of the present”. (24) When time is no longer shown through movement and plot resolution, the true character of time is revealed: as that which disrupts the traditional concepts of truth and exposes the body as, to use Heidegger’s term, a “being-towards-death” (25). Two criticisms of Marie Antoinette were commonly voiced. First, that Coppola portrayed disparate events that happened over several decades too fluidly through huge ellipses or extended periods of dead time so as to defy the common sense view of time; and, second, that the film contains long sequences where little happens and what is shown is rather ‘boring’. However, the film details a world in which one day is akin to the next and where people’s concerns do not change. Given that ritual is shown to be a pointless device for perpetuating the existence of something that itself serves little purpose, the long periods of waiting and dead time actually reflect the inevitable dissolution into decay and death that is the film’s governing theme. These episodes in the film are made to seem repetitious, languorous and impermeable to the passing of time because they describe a world that passes itself off as traditional, timeless and inflexible but is actually on the cusp of disintegration. All along, Coppola has hinted at the ephemeral nature of this pomp through sensory evocation, particularly during the bucolic scenes set in Le Petit Trianon. Memorable moments in the film are accompanied by sonic reminders of the fleeting nature of existence. For instance, after Marie Antoinette says goodbye to Count Fersen (Jamie Dornan) and walks back to Versailles, the sound of her dress in the grass creates an audibly recognisable and pleasurable sound but, just like her encounter with Fersen, this is a transitory delight, a metaphor for the inevitable decay of this decadent lifestyle. It also seems appropriate that the king’s and queen’s coronation be accompanied by The Cure’s “Plainsong” from their album Disintegration, hinting at the downfall that is to come. Further scenes that intimate demise are those surrounding Marie Antoinette’s 18th birthday party in which she is seen freely playing with her friends in the palace grounds. In this latter scene, natural light is used, whilst the film stock closely resembles that of 16mm, a material often used to evoke a sense of nostalgia and memory that lends bodies contained in the camera’s frame a grainy, luminous and ghostlike quality. In this way, Coppola manages to overlay scenes of jubilance and decadence with a melancholic, quietly foreboding quality.
Whilst she goes some way to try to dismantle a number of the myths surrounding her historical subject by juxtaposing the collective voices of rumour over images of Marie Antoinette as a moving, breathing, youthful individual who defies these criticisms by her gentle presence on screen (an effect created by the casting of popular young actress Kirsten Dunst in the lead role), she seems more interested in setting up her narrative as a commentary on contemporary celebrity culture. The film’s anachronistic, irreverent treatment of history is pertinent precisely because it is about the perennial theme of fame and how celebrities are simultaneously manufactured, revered and vilified by society. Many critics were astute enough to notice similarities between modern day frivolous American celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Coppola’s queen. Coppola shows us that we may be disgusted by the lives and choices of the famous and rich, but we also never cease to be fascinated by them. Reflecting Andy Warhol’s view of celebrity as that which is interesting because it is famous is Coppola’s cinematic exploration of the surface value of extravagance. Viewed in this context, Marie Antoinette is a serious film about our fascination with all things superficial and, as such, the very act of making the film serves this fascination well. Visually gratifying but often ironically so, the film manages to be both a critique and a post-modern celebration of surface value and fleeting emotion.
In direct contrast to the view that Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker whose work is æsthetically gratifying but ultimately callow, I have argued that she is a director who successfully matches her developing thematic concerns with a calculated stylistic approach. Her narrative worlds are frequently the locations of crisis and life-transition populated by liminal personæ, unsure of how to act in their environment. Reflecting this, Coppola has proved herself adroit at visually mapping states of melancholy, angst, boredom and despair through the use of a cinematic grammar that is more characteristic of European cinema and resonant of Deleuze’s delineation of the “time-image” cinema. Throughout her career to date, Coppola has maintained a marked fascination with the ritualistic environment of adolescence. However, Coppola’s career has now reached a turning point; she has recently become a mother and moved to Paris to live with her long-term partner. It will be interesting to see how these changes in lifestyle impact on her direction as a filmmaker. Undoubtedly, the social sphere and mores of youth have been an endless source of inspiration to her but one wonders if a shift in thematic content is now due. Speaking in an interview recently, she confirmed that her first three films could be viewed loosely as a trilogy but expressed her ambivalence on where her career would lead to next:
for me it feels like the three films fit together in something I was thinking about in that phase of my life. And, who knows? Maybe I’ll keep making the same movie. Some people do, but no, I feel like now I’d like to go in another direction – but I have no idea what that will be. (26)
However, regardless of whether her next feature will prove to be a continuation of similar themes or not, her ability as a filmmaker to weave form and content into a singularly visual style continues to mark her out as an important female artist in the world of cinema and as one who has a promising future.
Thanks to Martine Beugnet and Jean Duffy for taking the time to look at a draft of this article during a busy summer.
- Pam Cook, “Portrait of a Lady”, Sight and Sound, November 2006, p. 36.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005). Indeed, academics such as Felicity Colman have already noted that Deleuze’s cinematic theory of time may be a fecund approach to Coppola’s work.
- This is a common theme in the ‘teen’ film; Jon Lewis argues, in connection with this, that by excoriating these institutions, the teen film is implicitly arguing for the re-establishment of traditional institutions and their coterminous norms. Whilst this is true, The Virgin Suicides is an altogether darker example of the ‘teen’ film because there is an implication that even if these institutions were fully functioning, they would still be powerless to stop the crisis. Indeed, the crisis in this film extends beyond the merely temporary one of adolescence towards the situation of the adult in American society, amounting to no less than a crisis of masculinity and the ‘American Dream’ in this film.
- Examples of these films would be: Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997); Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999); Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Dr. (2001).
- Significantly, Lux Lisbon attributes this disease to the white settlers who brought the disease over in their ships when they came to America and colonised its land from the native Americans, a statement that intimates at a bloody and controversial history.
- Deleuze, p. 3.
- Coppola’s audacious foregrounding of the female object of desire as illusion can be seen as a development of her deconstruction of feminine subjectivity in Lick the Star. The undeniable scopophilic pleasure of these scenes, and by extension her films, is a veneer, partially masking the more intellectual and dark elements of her work.
- Laura Mulvey in Sue Thornham, Feminist Film Theory: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), p. 63.
- Deleuze, p. 98.
- A process by which an unrecognisable object gradually becomes recognisable by an exploration of images of the past.
- Deleuze, p. 44.
- Ibid, p. 19.
- Interestingly, the fashion photographer, Corrine Day is credited with having taken the film’s stills. Day became infamous in the early 1990s for her pictures of a young Kate Moss, originally published in the fashionable magazine, The Face. These pictures, which showed Moss in her underwear looking frail and emaciated, spurned a great deal of opprobrious journalism about Day, crediting her with inventing ‘heroin chic’. In The Virgin Suicides, Day’s recognisable style lends these pictures of the Lisbon girls a frailty that suits their ephemeral nature.
- Deleuze, p. 19.
- Ibid, p. 20.
- Homay King asserts that Coppola does not go to extreme enough lengths to demonstrate that this is an outsider’s point of view and thus the film often presents assumptions about the Japanese and their culture which could be seen as racist. However, I think this view overlooks the very premise of the film: two outsiders in a culture which they cannot understand form a fortuitous bond because of their very status as tourists. The romantic tone of the film is clearly a stylised and enhanced one, and thus Coppola eschews any association with realism.
- Deleuze, p. 166.
- Ibid, 182.
- In her biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (London: Phoenix, 2002), Fraser portrays Marie Antoinette as an innocent young girl who was ill prepared for her role as the French monarch, a characterisation that belies the perennial myths about her.
- The inclusion of a pale blue Converse trainer during a montage sequence made up of shoes and patisseries pertaining to the period puzzled a number of critics.
- Poirier is the film critic for the French newspaper, Libération.
- A. Poirier, “An Empty Hall Of Mirrors”, in The Guardian, 27 May 2006, accessed 5 May 2007.
- Count Fersen’s costume was based on the attire of 1980s New Romantic musician, Adam Ant, and the inclusion of a Converse trainer within the ‘shoe montage’ scene has been well-noted.
- Deleuze, p. 95.
- Heidegger characterises this being as the individual who anticipates death as his or her own possibility. In order to appreciate what death means for an individual, the concept must be abstracted from society’s tendency to generalise it and reduce it into an anodyne, palatable idea. Rather, in anticipating death as one’s own possibility (which is not tantamount to merely entertaining the idea of it), one’s life is thrown into authentic relief. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 296.
- http://uk.movies.ign.com/articles/739/739308p1.html, accessed 1 August 2007.
Bed, Bath and Beyond. 1996
Lick the Star. 1998.
The Virgin Suicides. 1999.
Lost in Translation. 2003.
Marie Antoinette. 2006.
Matt Bochenski, “The Marie Antoinette Issue”, Little White Lies: Truth & Movies, No. 8, October-November 2006.
Emmanuel Burdeau, “Sans destination Tokyo”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 586, January 2004, pp. 42-5.
Clélia Cohen, “L’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 550, October 2000, pp. 96-8.
Felicity Colman, “Hit Me Harder: The Transversality of Becoming-Adolescent”, Women: A Cultural Review, 16:3, November 2005, pp. 356-71.
Felicity Colman, “movement-image-recognition-time”, in Charles J. Stivale (Ed.), Gilles Deleuze, Key Concepts, (Stocksfield: Acumen, 2005), pp.141-56.
Pam Cook, “Portrait of a Lady”, Sight and Sound, November 2006, pp. 36-40
Sofia Coppola, Marie Antoinette, (New York: Rizzoli Press, 2006).
Jean-Michel Frodon, “La vive folie de l’étrangère”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 216, May 2006, pp. 37-8.
Graham Fuller, “Death and the Maidens”, Sight and Sound, April 2000, pp. 15-6.
Ryan Gilbey, “Lost In Translation”, Sight and Sound, January 2004, p. 52.
Marie-Anne Guerin, “The Virgin Suicides de Sofia Coppola“, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 536, June 1999, pp.34-5.
Jefferson Hack, “Keep Your Dreams”, Dazed and Confused, Vol.2, No. 43, pp. 82-101.
Sean O’ Hagan, “Sofia Coppola”, The Observer, 8 October 2006, pp.4-5.
Erwan Higuinen and Olivier Joyard, “Tous les garcons et les filles de leur âge. Portrait de Sofia Coppola”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 536, p. 36.
Homay King, “Lost in Translation”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 1, Fall 2005, pp. 45-8.
Jean-Marc Lalanne, “Où est le sang des vierges?”, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 550. October 2000, p. 97.
Nathan Lee, “Vacant”, Film Comment, Vol. 42, No. 5, September-October 2006, pp. 24-6.
Hannah McGill, “Marie Antoinette”, Sight and Sound, November 2006, pp.68-9.
Amy Murphy, “Traces of the Flâneuse. From Roman Holiday to Lost In Translation”, Journal of Architectural Education, 2006, pp. 33-42.
Mark Olsen, “Sofia Coppola. Cool and the Gang”, Sight and Sound, January 2004, p 15.
Evegenia Peretz, “Something About Sofia”, Vanity Fair, No. 533, September 2006, pp. 183-4, 236-9.
Paul Julian Smith, “Tokyo Drifters”, Sight and Sound, January 2004, pp.13-6.
Anne Thompson, “Tokyo Story”, Filmmaker Magazine, Fall 2003.
Jon Lewis, The Road to Romance and Ruin. Teen Films and Youth Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Wendy Haslem, “Neon Gothic: Lost In Translation”.
YouTube to access Lick The Star in two parts.
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