Sofia Coppola: A Retrospective

Sofia Coppola

By Orla Smith.

Sofia Coppola is distinguishable for two seemingly conflicting qualities: each of her films focuses on a similar dreamy ennui, but each is also startlingly different from the one before.

Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette both centre on a girl out of place, passing the days by sprawling out on bedsheets and wandering around their variously sized accommodation. However, the anachronistic, playful opulence of Marie Antoinette is worlds away from Lost in Translation‘s calm, which was itself a step sideways from the pop stylings of The Virgin Suicides.

Each of her six features presents themselves in various shades of beige – and occasional dashes of millennial pink – but each also demonstrates Coppola’s desire to stretch herself: ‘I feel like when I finish one, the next one is always a reaction the one before’. The vapid gloss of The Bling Ring has spring-boarded into her latest feature, a completely different affair, this one richly toned and shot on 35mm film – in contrast to The Bling Ring, which was her first film to shoot on digital.

The Beguiled is released in UK cinemas today, and in honour of that, I have ranked all six of the features of one of our greatest living directors. Each one of them is excellent, and all in very different ways.

6. The Virgin Suicides (1999)


What is probably Coppola’s most entertaining film is also her least individual. The Virgin Suicides fits snugly into her filmography, both thematically and aesthetically, yet it’s the only one of her films that feels as if it could have come from someone else’s lens.

Make no mistake – the fact that this supremely accomplished debut is her worst work is simply a testament to Coppola’s genius. The story of the mysterious Lisbon sisters, seen through the eyes of a group of neighbourhood boys, was the start of an interesting toying with the male gaze that she has continued with The Beguiled. Based on a book by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides was always about the male gaze, but now it is also about the way that a woman sees that particular gaze.

I’m not sure if another filmmaker could have pulled off a better adaptation, but it lacks the feathery consistency that defines the rest of her work. The Virgin Suicides holds all the necessary insight, and its ideas have been extended by everything Coppola has done since. But those future efforts were also refinements in craft. The film’s voiceover is necessary to its identity, but it weighs it down. In contrast all five films that followed managed to glide along with an invisible structure.

5. Marie Antoinette (2006)


Thanks to Sofia Coppola, my first thoughts when someone mentions French Queen Marie Antoinette are champagne, Converses and Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy. Marie Antoinette is her most individual film, simply because nobody else could have dreamed it up.

The film has become known for its sprawling opulence, and Coppola has fun indulging in that, but she never loses sight of the story’s heart – reducing the infamous royal to what she truly was: a girl. Antoinette is still a teenager when the film begins – the first scene sees her moving from her home of Austria, to France, stripped of all her clothes and possessions to be fitted with new ones. She starts over, as much as a person possibly can. Coppola finds fascination in her isolation amidst crowds that wait on her hand and foot, as well as her child-like excitement at the sight of endless riches. She looks at Antoinette without an ounce of historical reverence. While the history books have hated and maligned Marie Antoinette, the conclusion here seems to be: ‘What’s a girl to do?’

4. The Beguiled (2017)


Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola have formed one of the most fascinating collaborative relationships in Hollywood. Besides the fact that they work beautifully in tandem, it’s also interesting to consider how Coppola has cast Dunst over the years. The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette allowed her to play young, vulnerable women who presented themselves with allure and vibrancy. Lux in The Virgin Suicides finds equivalency in The Beguiled with Elle Fanning’s promiscuous Alicia, but Dunst has sharply switched gears to play Edwina, a teacher at an all girls boarding school in Civil War era Virginia. Edwina holds just as much desire as Lux, but nowhere near the same capacity to express it.

Arguably Coppola’s most traditional and formally slick piece of filmmaking, The Beguiled has the familiar feel of a period piece in all the ways that Marie Antoinette does not, but it maintains the lack of historical reverency. These are merely people, and they are treated as individuals, each revealing new complexities as they react to the appearance of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). It is a sharp, efficient, beautifully rendered and acted film, and one I have difficulty placing within her filmography as of yet – it’s only been three days since I saw it, but give The Beguiled time and it’ll surely find its place.

3. The Bling Ring (2013)


Coppola is outstanding particularly for her unlimited empathy. Often, she will regard her characters with an arched eyebrow, but always maintain a warmth towards them, no matter how selfish and privileged they may be. The Bling Ring, her most maligned work, is the film that tested the limits of her empathy. The warmth is gone, but the understanding is not.

The Bling Ring feels like California breeze. At 90 minutes, it flies by at a faster pace than almost any film I’ve ever seen. It seems to lack any kind of structure, and while it maintains some of the formal distance of Somewhere, it feels far less deliberate. The group of central characters are acted with a very specific kind of vapidity by an excellent cast, headlined by Emma Watson giving a performance that she’s never topped – I’d be surprised if she ever did.

While other Sofia Coppola protagonists fill their boredom by lying about and wondering, these kids spend their spare time robbing celebrity homes. It is a satire that full-force demonstrates Coppola’s underrated comedic writing chops. Many number of reviews accused the film of being empty, but it is deceptively so. The substance is hiding underneath a surface of vacuity. There aren’t many other filmmakers who would care enough to paint such a perceptive portrait of the lives of a group of young people who the rest of us might dismiss as ‘stupid teenagers’. Coppola cares, whether her protagonists deserve it or not.

2. Somewhere (2010)


It seems, nobody really knew what to do with Somewhere. After winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, it was loved by some, but mostly forgotten in the wake of claims of boredom. Perhaps the reason that this snapshot of the life of movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) has stayed with me – and stayed with the others who have caught up with it over the years – is the place that it came from.

There was a four year gap inbetween Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, and in that time Sofia Coppola had a child. Those two films are the antithesis of each other within her filmography: one is about being a child, the other is about having one. One is full of detail and exuberance, the other is pared down within an inch of its life. Somewhere is so spare, that after a few viewings you’ll be able to recall at least half of the shots within it. The opening scenes depict Johnny Marco’s monotonous life, but somehow Coppola manages to make her stark minimalism entrancing, even when we’re only watching a car race around a track… over, and over, again.

The film really begins when Elle Fanning arrives as Johnny’s daughter Cleo. Devoid of much of the music that Coppola is known for, Somewhere contains very little score and only two significant diegetic music choices: uses of Gwen Stefani’s Cool and The Strokes’ I’ll Try Anything Once that you’ll never forget. Cleo breathes pockets of warmth into Johnny’s cold and empty life. It is as moving a testament to parenthood as you’ll ever see.

1. Lost in Translation (2003)


As much as it annoys me that some refuse to acknowledge Sofia Coppola’s success outside of Lost in Translation, I have a hard time disagreeing that she’s never topped it. The only film that has earned her major Oscar acclaim, it was inspired by Coppola’s own time in Japan, accompanying her then boyfriend Spike Jonze. Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte is in a similar situation, and her soft spoken uncertainty is beautifully conveyed. She arrives in Japan with her husband (Giovanni Ribisi), but she is alone in all the ways that it counts.

Bob (Bill Murray) is an aging actor shooting a whiskey commercial, and the two meet at a bar in the hotel they’re both staying at. Thus begins a hazy series of days that consists of running the streets, singing karaoke, sharing secrets – all culminating in a whisper. It’s hard to say whether Lost in Translation is a love story, but just like those elusive last words, it doesn’t really matter. It is at turns, happy, sad and happy-sad. Loneliness and fleeting connection have rarely been so lucidly captured.

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