Thursday, July 27, 2017

Directed by Sofia Coppola

A Retrospective of the Films of Sofia Coppola

It's the longing that does it for me. Sofia Coppola's films ooze it. From that first time Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon appears on screen, lollipop in her mouth, I myself crushing, longing along with the male protagonists of her first, and best, feature The Virgin Suicides to her stirring re-imagining of The Beguiled, she seems to understand the human, specifically female, desire for more, knowing that there will always be something we feel we need that is just beyond our grasp.

Even though there are through-lines (i.e., the punishment of Kirsten Dunst, the wonderfully ironic, soundtrack cuts, the downtrodden characters caught in some sort of limbo influenced by some new presence (a teen heartthrob, an aging movie star, an extravagant duchess, a young daughter, a hot klepto, a sworn enemy) in their lives, the obsessions and annoyances of, with, and by celebrity, etc. etc., it's hard to go full auteur theory with her work.

We often think of her work as decidedly female, yet half of her films are more attuned to the male experience, with one, Lost in Translation, an even split between the male and female experience.

Her camera is observant, oftentimes completely still, creating a rhythm, a pacing that is slow but distinctly her own, a truth that was easy to come by a few weeks ago, when I revisited all of her films in short succession (except The Bling Ring, which I had seen for the first time a couple months back). This allowing each shot to sit with the audience creating an intimacy that few filmmakers manage to capture. You know you are watching a Sofia Coppola film.

Which is what I hope to capture here with this list, a ranking of Sofia Coppola's filmography.

Six


★★★

Easily the most immediately forgettable of Coppola's films, "The Bling Ring" is a dramatized re-telling of a 2008 crime spree in which a group of Hollywood teenagers stole over $3 million worth of cash and merchandise from celebrities, including Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. A breakout vehicle (post-"Harry Potter") for Emma Watson, the film fails to dig in enough to have much to say about the celebrity-obsessed culture it wishes to satirize. Even so, it does find a solid emotional center in Marc, the one male member of the gang, played with brilliantly realized desire and angst by Israel Broussard.  

That the most engaging shot of this film is a still long shot of one of the robberies speaks to both Coppola's strength as a visual artist and weakness as a storyteller. Her work with the late Harris Savides' here provides just about the only thing to hold onto in this fleeting sexy klepto of a movie. And that performance by Israel Broussard. 

Five

★★★1/2

The first hour of this film is an absolute masterpiece, and the film as a whole is Sofia's best work visually. The anachronistic 80s New Wave soundtrack cuts work way better than they should, and Kirsten Dunst's performance as the young Dauphine (and eventual Queen) of France is her best. But the latter parts of the film lose too much of the humor and wit of the first. Jamie Dornan shows up to cuckold King Louis (Jason Schwartzman) and the movie just loses way too much steam, when, in fact, the opposite should be the case. I blame "50 Shades of Grey" for making me hate Dornan even more than I already did and thus destroying the end of this movie for me on re-watch. Also, Coppola's lack of interest in delineating the historical elements of Antoinette's downfall is a major missed opportunity. 

Antoinette's quite literal transition from Princess of Austria to Dauphine of France is one of my favorite sequences from any film. Dunst's ability to play so perfectly a girl so much younger than she at the time is great, especially when coupled with the fact that her character is being actually stripped of her identity. 

Four

★★★★

Now, here is the sweaty Southern gothic near bloodbath we never knew Sofia had in her (and that we needed this summer). Visually, she came close to outdoing herself with this one. Colin Farrell's take on Captain McBurney, the wounded Confederate soldier originally played by Clint Eastwood, is equal parts charming and calculated, almost shapeshifting as he plays just the right role needed for the three central women of the Farnsworth School, played in descending order (by age) by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst (in her best role in years), and Elle Fanning. Check out my full review. 

My one wish is that this movie took the dynamic created by the bottom two of the three images above and explored it a little bit deeper. Clearly, Coppola was interested in the inherent smallness of this story, but there is a betrayal within a betrayal at play here that could've been even more satisfying if lumped in with this thing's fast-building snowball of a final act.

Three

★★★★

Unlike the previous two on this list, the deliberate nature of "Somewhere" doesn't initially entertain. In fact, it took a few tries for me to find enough rhythm to keep at it. When I finally did though, I found perhaps Coppola's most rewarding picture, the story of the emotional redemption of downtrodden Hollywood action star, Johnny Marco, played with beautiful sincerity by Stephen Dorff. When his young daughter (Elle Fanning) comes more fully into his life, Johnny's change is less of a forced one and more of realization about where happiness actually comes from. 

You're likely to experience discomfort in the deliberate manner in which Coppola forces the sounds of silence in this film. Director of Photography Harris Savides' camera is, on the other hand, muted, calm, slow, even still. But each frame is gorgeous and each sound amplified without the noise of talking. Everything is on Dorff's face in this film. Everything. 

Two

★★★★1/2

"Lost in Translation" remains one of the most beautiful and personal films I've seen. There is just so much to these "lost" characters, the unhappy newlywed Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and the bored former action star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), both Americans suspended in states of loneliness and isolation and doubt in the most foreign of cities, Tokyo. This is all due to Coppola's casting of and full trust in Bill Murray as a dramatic (and comedic) actor. The way this film slowly builds to its deservingly guarded ending is so endlessly intimate...and watchable, a balancing act few filmmakers could pull off. 

"Let's never come here again because it would never be as much fun." 

Watching two lonely, isolated people collide in such an intimate way in such a massive place as Tokyo creates a type of irony that made this film such a hit with both critics and audiences. Coppola found ways to be daring on both small and large scales here, and every frame of this film has us feeling right along with the pathos in both characters, a nobody and a celebrity. 

One

★★★★★

For a film featuring the deathly angst of its five female protagonists, the Lisbon sisters of an idyllic 1970s suburban Michigan, it's simply amazing that it is also one of the very few films that accurately captures the wanting that lives inside a teenage boy. For that alone, "The Virgin Suicides" remains one of the most important films of my lifetime and one of the first to help me see the value in smaller, slower films. Perfection is attained in several avenues here, including the casting of James Woods and Kathleen Turner as the girls' parents as well as the work of the most sultry Kirsten Dunst ever, the painful narration by Giovanni Ribisi (taken straight from the prose of Jeffrey Eugenides' lovely novel), and the angsty-synth pop score by the French band Air. 

Visions of the past bathed in pastels, muted by dimmed houselights, dressed up 1970s pop culture, the soundtrack of idealistic remembered youth. Heartache, elation, lust, Todd Rundgren, pain, death, Air. This is an easy all-timer for me, a film I return to often and never tire of.  

Bonus

While the Directed by series is limited to a director's feature-length films, Coppola's first film, a 14-minute short called "Lick the Star" is worth a watch. There is so much of what we would eventually see from her work here. There are especially some rich parallels in "The Virgin Suicides," "The Bling Ring," and "The Beguiled." 



4 comments:

  1. Excellent post, man. (Speaking of Directed by, when are you going to do that Directed by David Fincher post you said you'd do after your Tarantino post? I'm just asking because I want to see where you'd put Zodiac on that list).

    I've only seen Lost in Translation & The Beguiled. Both of them are excellent. I own the rest of Sofia Coppola's movies except for Marie Antoinette.

    The one film I really want to watch of Sofia Coppola's films is The Virgin Suicides. The biggest reason I want to watch it is of what you stated in this post: idyllic 1970's suburban Michigan. Grosse Pointe, where the film is set, is one of the most beautiful areas in the Detroit area (along with Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Shores, & Grosse Pointe Park). Those cities are right on Lake St. Clair, with all of these big, beautiful, antique mansions with beautiful views of Lake St. Clair. It's amazing. I'll definitely watch The Virgin Suicides before the end of the summer.

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  2. Marie Antionette is the only one of hers I haven't seen. I need to change that. I flat out hated Somewhere, but I enjoyed all her other films.

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  3. Here's my list of her entire body of work so far as she remains my all-time favorite filmmaker as I think she's getting better at her craft as a filmmaker. I'm eager for what she does next.

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  4. You mention several times how Coppola missed an opportunity to explore something and it's also my issue with several of her films but I think that this is what makes her films so unique. She only explores the more subdued, calmer parts of the stories and truth be told I am not sure if she can handle anything beyond that. I think she makes unique stuff but as a director she is limited.

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