Coppola is a highly influential figure in the reclamation of femininity in cinema. – most characteristic of her films are delicate pink tones and largely female casts. Her films often confront the feelings of isolation and alienation, observing her female protagonists with a sympathetic, though somewhat voyeuristic eye. Two of her celebrated works, Marie Antoinette (2006) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) are quite faithful to the biography by Antonia Fraser and the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, respectively. The Beguiled (2017) is the newest edition to this list.
Marie Antoinette is arguably Sofia Coppola’s vision at its most feminine. The detail to beautiful costumes, colours, and décor indicate that the auteur and the aesthete are the same person. It’s Coppola distilled to her essence; the sympathetic view of the female experience, with no discrimination throughout the centuries.
Dunst is in perhaps her most appropriate role as the peaches and cream Antoinette: she is a hybrid of a royal and a teenage girl. We see Antoinette as though we were members of court at Versailles ourselves: Coppola doesn’t overdo it by making emotion explicit, but selects shots that highlight teenage uncertainty (for example, the wedding) and which give you food for thought – it wouldn’t have been easy to leave your family at age fourteen to get married to a guy you’ve never seen, would it?
That leads to an intimacy that gives the viewer a sense of symbiosis between the director and the actors (and indeed, Coppola is true to her muse, Kirsten). There are many awkward and amusing moments that pay tribute to being that certain age, but Coppola simultaneously tests the pliability of the historical drama in different ways.
For instance, she ignores Fraser’s view that Marie Antoinette never said the infamous ‘let them eat cake’, and briefly emphasises this image of the decadent queen by choosing Bordeaux lipstick for Dunst. This ambivalence is reminiscent of the contested reputations of rich kids born to famous parents: sometimes they are selfish; sometimes they are victims of circumstance. It is possible that Coppola lent some personal experience to this thought.
The Virgin Suicides shares the rosy loveliness of Marie Antoinette, with Dunst again in the leading role. Despite both films’ grim endings, neither ever shows morbidity: she gets it. It’s not really about death – it’s about life because it ends in death. And perhaps, come to think of it, that is where the subtly of her films lies. Like in Marie Antoinette, Coppola understands not only the atmosphere of the époque but also its effect on its women.
The Lisbon girls are not too dissimilar, in fact, to the encaged French dauphine. And it seems that nearly all of her films feature an inversion of the male gaze: there isn’t an outrageous declaration of respect. The selection process allows the viewer to draw his own conclusions and if not to approve, at least to understand. The Virgin Suicides emphasises this voyeuristic approach, and the presence of male narrators allows for a sense of duality that may stem from the collaboration between a male author and a female director.
Again, the aesthete merges with the auteur. A similar colour palette predominates, more bohemian and less gaudy in The Virgin Suicides than in Marie Antoinette. And like Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides is a testimony to the female craving for independent thought, which has been restricted throughout the ages in an array of varying social classes and situations.
Again, we have teenage girls who strive to identify their contours: nobody who has seen the film or read The Virgin Suicides forgets the famous exchange between the youngest Lisbon sister, Cecilia, and the doctor. ‘You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets’, he says. ‘Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl.’, she counters.
The exact casting and attention to detail that characterise Coppola’s work, including this film, indicates that she knows herself as a person very well, which may be the explanation for the cult following that her directing has gained. More, her focus on the dreamy quality of the 1970’s suburb and of the Lisbon sisters indicate a true understanding of Eugenides’ vision. Everything remains intentionally elusive, allowing the viewer to draw his own assumptions about the big ‘why?’.
These two films really illustrate the phenomenon quite unique to Sofia Coppola at the moment: a personal reimagining of iconic favourites. Yet, the fact that she rarely writes the script differentiates her from other auteurs. Although it’s undeniable that it is in fact easier to adapt a work than to invent one, it necessitates an element of love and admiration for other people’s work. Perhaps this might involve a renunciation of absolute egotism.
The complexity of these elements meeting brings some questions up about Coppola’s status as auteur: do we let ourselves be tricked by the lovely cinematography, or is there something real beneath the surface? I dare to suggest a tentative positive answer in favour of her work. Perhaps The Beguiled, which launches Coppola into the tougher territory of violence that her older films lack, may be the missing puzzle piece and answer to these questions.