In 2003, Sofia Coppola released Lost in Translation. It was critically acclaimed, grossed 119 million dollars on a budget of four million, and made Coppola the first American woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. It’s about two Americans – Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson – in a luxury hotel in Japan, two lonely people who find some solace in each other, an almost-romcom where nothing happens and everyone wants to die. It’s a beautiful film – I often say that subtlety is overrated, but Lost in Translation is quiet and soft, a reminder that a film can be those things without for a moment being boring or pretentious.
It’s 2004, and Sofia Coppola might become one of the most important film directors of her generation. Not because she’ll be tokenised as a woman, and not because her dad made The Godfather, but because of her incredible talent.
It’s fourteen years later, and it hasn’t really worked out that way.
In those fourteen years, Sofia Coppola has directed four films: Marie Antoinette, an unorthodox retelling of the French Queen’s life, Somewhere, a film about a deeply unhappy actor and his young daughter, The Bling Ring, about rich teenagers who break into celebrities’ homes and steal from them, and The Beguiled, a remake of the 1971 film that justly received criticism for its erasing of slavery from a narrative about the American Civil War, and that for me, felt like Coppola’s first work that could have been made by somebody else. Each one, without fail, was met at least in part with the same cycle of hot takes: Coppola is a vapid filmmaker, myopically interested in rich people’s boredom and ennui, as if she doesn’t realise there’s a world of actual suffering out there. Coppola is unserious, and should not be taken seriously; a spoiled little girl over-indulged by her father, who gets to make films only because of the powerful Hollywood family she was born into.
Defenders of Sofia Coppola know our rebuttals by rote: that isn’t it strange how much less people mind when anyone from Wes Anderson to Alexander Payne make films about rich white people’s ennui, how few accusations of nepotism are targeted at Jason Reitman (whose dad is Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters), that male auteurs who make films from a highly personal, specific perspective are generally praised for their artistry.
I’ve said those things before, and I think they’re worth saying: Sofia Coppola is one of a handful of high-profile female directors, and she gets a disproportionate amount of shit. (You can’t even use the excuse of balancing out disproportionate praise, either: none of her films since Lost in Translation have been nominated in a major Oscar category.) But they’re shallow arguments, operating on the surface instead of pulling at the root. They’re what-abouts, engaging in the same sin as those who call Coppola vapid and substanceless: not taking her films seriously on their own terms.
Because the problem isn’t the double standard, not really. If people complained more about Wes Anderson’s sad rich people then their criticism of Coppola’s wouldn’t suddenly be retroactively valid. It’s not even how pointless it is to hold Sofia Coppola responsible for something that’s mostly only a problem in aggregate – that is, films about the problems of the rich would seem less suffocatingly tone-deaf if a much smaller proportion of films were about the problems of the rich – or how bizarre it is that liberal critics and commentators who freely mock anti-capitalists and write off class as a force in political life suddenly transform into Marxists at the mention of Coppola’s name. The problem is that Sofia Coppola’s films (most of them, at least) are beautiful and important, and complaining that they are about how hard the rich have it is missing the point.
Wealth and privilege are not incidental to Sofia Coppola’s films; not, as so often on-screen, an oblivious miscalculation of the ordinary person’s life. It is purposeful and self-conscious. It is what her films are about. Richard Rushfield complains that Lost in Translation and Somewhere lack “the tiniest nod, the barest glimmer that there might be, somewhere out there in the world, greater problems than this,” suggesting Coppola should have made use of shots of the servants’ quarters to highlight the Upstairs, Downstairs dichotomy. His reading is ungenerous, and his suggestion is asking Coppola to be an utterly different filmmaker. She’s interested in people who appear to have it all and are incredibly unhappy anyway, and she refuses to be moralising or judgmental, even when some viewers wish she would. “[Coppola] watches her characters from up close rather than at a safe distance,” IndieWire says, “more interested in seeing the world through their eyes than judging it through hers.”
I love a film about how the rich are monsters. John Carpenter’s They Live is literally about the rich being monsters and it’s one of my favourites ever. But I’m also absurdly wary of dehumanising literally anyone. Sofia Coppola, at her best, manages a tricky balancing act: she tells stories about the often opulently wealthy, and asks us to feel sorry for them. And at her best, she makes them so compellingly human that she succeeds.
The Catcher in the Rye is my favourite book, still, a decade-plus after reading it for the first time. The cover of my copy is red, but the spine is faded to white. It breaks my heart all over again anytime I pick it up and leaf through it to a random passage. “I hate fist fights. I don’t mind getting hit so much – although I’m not crazy about it, naturally – but what scares me most in a fist fight is the guy’s face. I can’t stand looking at the other guy’s face, is my trouble.” Holden Caulfield feels like a real person – “a human being created out of ink, paper, and the imagination” – and he speaks directly to you, like you’re a friend. He’s a sad, screwed-up kid, and all he really wants is someone to listen to him, and through the text of the book, you get to be that person. But lots of people think that Holden is whiny, and they “can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.” That strikes me as a tremendous failure of empathy, to have this kid who feels so real spill his guts to you, about his depression and his grief and his self-loathing, and say that he has nothing to complain about. As if pain is less worthy if it’s felt by the wrong people.
If I had to pick a currently working director who takes cues from JD Salinger, it would be Wes Anderson – The Royal Tenenbaums is basically a movie about the Glass family, the archetypical grown-up child prodigies – but his films are broader in scope, a whole world of quirky depressed rich people. Sofia Coppola has that same first-person focus that Catcher does, that desire to ask you to feel for this fully-realised person not because the problems of the privileged are more important, but because others’ suffering does not make their own pain less real. It’s all the more extraordinary that she can do that without narration, and frequently with sparse dialogue, managing to conjure up a first-person perspective with an inherently third-person camera.
Marie Antoinette takes one of the most reviled women in history, whose name is synonymous with decadence and ignorance, and makes her a Sofia Coppola protagonist – a sad, wealthy girl alienated from her surroundings. Its greatest strengths are the things people hated the most about it: it’s much more interested in feelings than history, and it uses anachronisms in props and the soundtrack in pursuit of conveying Marie’s feelings. It’s part-art film, part-teen movie: Marie is a teenage girl, so we get a makeover montage set to eighties pop; mean girls whisper in the hallways about how she hasn’t gone all the way yet; she speaks like a Valley girl and dyes her hair pink. Marie Antoinette is a film that understands that every historical moment was once somebody’s present, and it goes out of its way to make sure everything feels as real and immediate to a twenty-first century audience as it would have felt for Marie to live it, to force us to watch Marie as a teenage girl struggling to find her place in a world that “knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you.”
Marie Antoinette is probably the most egregious example of what Rushfield called Coppola’s refusal to show the barest glimmer that there might be greater problems in the world. Nowhere in the film do we see life outside of the court. There is no sense of the hardship of pre-revolutionary France; there is only the faintest implication of the Revolution, at the end of the film when Marie has to leave Versailles. But Marie Antoinette is also the most obvious example of how, just because something isn’t blatantly stated in a film, doesn’t mean it is absent from it. Everyone who watches Marie Antoinette knows the French Revolution happens. They know she’ll be executed. The film knows we know this, which is why it doesn’t show us Marie’s beheading (although it does foreshadow it).
Speaking about the ending to Get Out, Jordan Peele explained that he originally intended the police to show up and arrest Chris, the black protagonist, but then decided to change it to the filmed ending, where Chris’s friend shows up instead: “The audience does all the work of the original ending.” Watching Marie Antoinette, the audience does “the work” that showing peasants and revolutionaries would. And the not-showing constructs how Marie felt at Versailles: it was her world in its totality, shutting out all external reality, including politics, poverty and suffering. Roger Ebert compared Versailles as portrayed in Marie Antoinette to Xanadu in Citizen Kane – “a self-governing architectural island” designed to separate its inhabitants from the world.
These self-governing architectural islands are something Coppola returns to again and again: the family home in The Virgin Suicides, the hotels in Lost in Translation and Somewhere, the girls school in The Beguiled. The easy thing would be to call them gilded cages and to call her films stories about luxury without freedom. Gilded-cage stories are hard to tell right; too often, they forget the limits put on the freedom of ordinary people, and so don’t have high enough limits on the character’s freedom to make their life seem unpleasant. Roman Holiday is my favourite gilded-cage movie, because a wonderful script and an incredible performance by Audrey Hepburn manage to make royalty seem like a prison. But the protagonists of Coppola’s best films are less imprisoned than inert: the characters in Lost in Translation and Somewhere are as or more free than any person could hope to be, but like Charles Foster Kane, they retreat to their resorts, to places that should make them happy, but can’t.
Somewhere is a criminally underappreciated movie. Lost in Translation is my favourite of Sofia Coppola’s films, but it’s lightning in a bottle, a film where everything just works in a way that transcends any of its individual moving parts. Somewhere is, for my money, the best work Coppola has done, a terrifically ambitious film that feels like the culmination of something, that aches. It’s a small, quiet film, with very little dialogue and even less music. Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a Hollywood actor staying at the Chateau Marmont. In one of the first scenes in the film, a pair of twins pole-dance for him in his room, to ‘My Hero’ by the Foo Fighters, while he stares ahead blankly, slumped awkwardly against the pillows and drifting asleep. It’s profoundly unerotic, shot in a wide, flat angle to highlight the comical absurdity of it all. Like a lot of scenes in Somewhere, it’s both funny and really sad, another of Johnny’s attempts to make himself feel something that ends up leaving him empty.
Somewhere is about depression. I’m not sure if people realise that – if words like “ennui” and “boredom” are euphemisms or misrepresentations. Johnny, by his own admission, can’t feel anything. His life is full of meaningless relationships without real connection: Somewhere does as good a job as anything I’ve seen of making sleeping with every woman in California not just unfulfilling but actively depressing. We see him at work, but we never see him act: publicity photographs, or award shows, or long shots of him sitting with a plaster of Paris mould around his head, breathing audibly. Somewhere is less about how hard it is to be rich than about how depression doesn’t give a shit how outwardly successful your life is. Johnny has it all, but it can’t make him happy.
The core of the film is about his relationship with his eleven-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning), who visits him unexpectedly. She cooks for him, a child looking after her father like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. But over time, her presence helps him, if not get better, then get a little less numb. They’re spending time together by the pool when the film’s only non-diegetic song plays, ‘I’ll Do Anything Once’ by The Strokes, and even if you don’t consciously notice that, it captures how special this small moment is. It’s one of the many small ways Coppola creates a first-person narrative out of a third-person medium: the film transforms how it processes and presents the world right as Johnny’s mindset begins, ever so slightly, to improve. It’s not a dramatic cure: like everything in the film, it’s small and quiet and impermanent. But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful or beautiful.
The central thesis of Coppola’s films is not how hard it is to be rich, but that wealth and material success – the things our societies valorise above all else – are empty and shallow. In The Bling Ring, she satirises our obsession with opulence and celebrity, and while it doesn’t land all its punches, it should inform how we read wealth in Coppola’s other work. Somewhere and Lost in Translation show movie stardom, that most glamorous and revered of occupations, as either empty or isolating.
Sofia Coppola’s films don’t ask us to sympathise with “the rich” as a class. They ask us to empathise with personal pain. Making these stories about the rich puts that pain in sharper contrast: how much easier it is to sympathise with someone’s depression when they’re depressed about something, how much easier it is to care about someone’s social isolation when it wasn’t in part of their own making. The wealthy have no “reason” to feel so sad, and so her films force us to deal with the feelings themselves, not external causes.
Feelings are weird and messy and complicated, and Coppola’s films have no interest in untangling them. Instead, they burrow inside, asking us to imagine how it feels to be another person, not to analyse them from a distance.