Sofia Coppola & Me: On Isolation, Aesthetics, and Problematic Faves

When I was in fifth grade, I decided I wanted to be a director. My parents bought me this little digital video camera marketed at tweens that came with its own editing software, and I spent my weekends making silly videos in the backyard with the neighborhood kids and my dog. I read books on Steven Spielberg and closely followed that year’s Oscar race, despite having seen none of the films. I even started my own “production company,” Wineglass Productions. My mother found the name alarming considering the fact that I was, you know, 11.

One of the stars of the 2003 award season was writer/director Sofia Coppola. Fresh off her critically-acclaimed film Lost in Translation, she was starting to step out of her famous father’s shadow and make a name for herself in the industry. I knew nothing about the film at the time, other than the fact that it starred Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. But when the film earned several Academy Award nominations, including two for Coppola herself, I started paying attention.

Here was a woman — a young woman — making films. Buzzy and beautiful films that people were paying attention to. She was the only woman nominated for Best Director that year, and at the time only the third ever to be nominated in that category. I cheered for her, but part of me secretly wanted her to lose. I wanted to be the first woman to win Best Director, and I’d do it before I turned 30. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait that long — Kathryn Bigelow earned her statue for The Hurt Locker in 2009. Coppola still walked away with Best Original Screenplay that year, and seeing her onstage at the Kodak that year was pretty powerful.

Coppola went on to make several films during the 2000s, films that I was always excited to hear about, but never sat down to watch. I was young and had an overpacked schedule and questionable taste. My interest in making films waxed and waned until I finally committed to going to college for screenwriting. I decided that I wanted to tell stories, but I didn’t want to be the one calling the shots. I wanted to create a world for the director to bring to life.

At some point during my sophomore year, I decided to sit down and watch Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst as the infamous young queen. I watched it in ten parts on YouTube (sorry, Sofia) sitting at the little wooden desk in my dorm. On first watch I was…honestly kind of disappointed. There wasn’t a ton of dialogue or overt character development, the performances were kind of flat, and the film didn’t really follow the three act structure my professors were hammering into my brain. I had built up this woman and her films in my mind over a decade, thinking her films were going to change my life. Reflecting on this, that’s probably why I waited so long to watch them.

I gave Coppola another shot with The Virgin Suicides. This story of cloistered suburban sisters and the boys who love them rang a bit truer for me. And yet, I didn’t know what to make of it, with its meandering story and cool girl aesthetics. My professors kind of had a formula of what makes a “good film,” and Coppola didn’t follow those rules. I still find myself drawn to The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette when they pop up in my Netflix recommendations.

Sometimes I just want to look at pretty things, and for a while, I thought that was the only reason I returned to Coppola’s films (particularly Marie Antoinette). It bothered me that, for all this time I’d spent studying storytelling, I would come back to a film just for its aesthetics. But film is a visual medium. The images filmmakers cut together are meant to evoke a certain feeling. Rob Bell touches on our spiritual need to seek out beautiful things in his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. “We are integrated beings, and aesthetics matter,” Bell writes. “…Color and layout and feel and landscape and furniture arrangement and shape and form and line and curve all matter because they affect us in powerful and sublime ways.” When life got a little too loud in college, I could escape to the pastel world of Versailles or into the glamorous life of The Bling Ring and remember that the world wasn’t limited to the four concrete walls of my dorm room.

Coppola seems drawn to these stories of lost souls. People tend to brand her characters as “poor little rich girls.” There’s truth in that, but this feeling of being trapped or just aimlessly drifting is something plenty of people experience. It’s something that Coppola experienced herself. As this gorgeous piece in Hazlitt explains, Coppola spent much of her youth facing criticisms of nepotism from the media and drifting from one artistic medium to another, trying to find her place in the creative world. Of course her path was a bit easier given her family name, but she was just as lost as the rest of us.

Reading that piece and considering Coppola’s filmography, I can see why I remain drawn to her work all these years later. While I didn’t grow up as Austrian royalty or an Evangelical Christian, my childhood was still kind of isolated. I was an only child with two working parents who had trouble connecting with kids my own age. Later, in elementary school, my afternoons were spent in doctor’s offices as my parents tried to make sense of my newly-diagnosed learning disability. On weekends, we’d spend hours in the car visiting family spread throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, and I’d daydream while staring out the window and listening to the Freaky Friday soundtrack. I saw much of my younger self in Kirsten Dunst, as she watches the Austrian countryside pass her by on the way to Versaille, unsure of what her new life will look like.

I still feel like that lost girl in a lot of ways. I’m still in that post-grad phase where I haven’t quite figured out my Thing and I’m trying everything just to see if it fits. I drift about in a city that’s still new to me, like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. It doesn’t make for the neatest of narratives, but it’s real. Not every female lead in a film or TV show needs to know exactly who she is and have some strong driving force guiding her every action. That’s not a real girl — that’s a superhero.

I realize that Coppola’s films represent a certain, very white experience. The lost girls that lead her films are more often than not white girls, and much has been written about Coppola’s avoidance of racial issues and use of racial stereotypes in her films. It’s frustrating to watch her continue to work with mostly white casts as someone who is very passionate about representation in media. It’s even more frustrating to realize that someone you idolized growing up has some problematic views. Still I continue to watch her films and follow her career and hope that she’ll do better in the future. Ultimately, Coppola understands what it means to be young and directionless, to feel isolated within yourself or in your situation. She captures that feeling and sprinkles it with the ambiguity it deserves. That’s why I find her films so challenging. And ultimately, why I keep coming back.