Concerning Coppola and her Critics

Kevin Long examines the controversy and charm of Sofia Coppola’s films.

Nepotism in Hollywood is never more scrutinised than in Sofia Coppola’s performance as Mary Corleone in The Godfather, Part Three. Her relatively minor role in her father’s film was universally slated by critics, and left many cynical towards her place in the film industry.  Sofia Coppola was undoubtedly aware of the need to discount this scepticism and she accomplished this by deciding to work from the other side of the camera rather than pursue acting. Within nine years of the release of the final Godfather film, Sofia Coppola had written and directed an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenide’s novel, The Virgin Suicides. The film, which follows the lives of the five Lisbon sisters in 1970s American suburbia, saw the industry sit up and take note of Sofia Coppola as a director. Her handling of The Virgin Suicides was impressive, especially considering it was her debut feature length film. The response to the film was very favourable. Moira McDonald, a critic for the Seattle Times, aptly surmised Coppola’s directing skill in her review of the film: “A disarmingly poetic – and specifically female – vision of adolescence that it belongs in a category of its own”.

Despite having The Virgin Suicides under her belt, Coppola still felt the need to prove herself. In 2003, that became realised with the release of Lost in Translation, a film that landed Coppola an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well as a Golden Globe for Best Picture. The overwhelming critical appreciation for Lost in Translation cemented Coppola’s place in Hollywood as well as launching its star, Scarlett Johansson, into the A-List. It certainly silenced the vast majority of Coppola’s critics, and anyone who still took offense to her were either steadfast in their prejudices or found her rather dreamlike approach to film jarring. Coppola’s following two films, Marie Antoinette in 2006 and Somewhere in 2010 failed to garner the same appreciation as Lost in Translation, and it was from this point that the critical divide regarding her as a director became more apparent. Ironically, Marie Antoinette is perhaps the most typical Coppola film in terms of theme and filmic style and flair.

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In this sense, she disobeys the convention of characters learning lessons, and this is certainly an issue with her critics?

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Her most recent film, The Bling Ring, based itself loosely on the Nancy Jo Sales article in Vanity Fair accounting for the real-life Hollywood Hills burglaries that occurred from 2008 to 2009. Unsurprisingly, it divided opinion upon its release. A main issue for many critics was what they felt to be a lack of moral judgement given towards the actions of the teenagers in the film. After all, these were real events that had happened to real people. Therein lies the problem with Coppola’s critics: their failure to grasp the ambitions of her films.

Take Marie Antoinette for example. Sofia Coppola had absolutely no intention of producing a rigid historical account of the life of Marie Antoinette, but rather an insight into the life of a young girl growing up as a foreigner in the eyes of the notorious court at Versailles. Surely, critics weren’t expecting a stuffy period piece from a marketing campaign that heavily alluded to post-punk culture (the soundtrack consists of New Order, The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees). It was very much intended to be frivolous.

With regard to The Bling Ring, the same issue crops up. It was blasted by some who felt that it was overwhelmingly shallow and a glamorisation of crime. However, it’s not Coppola’s intention to place her characters within a moral compass, but more to examine the obsession with celebrity culture that permeates the Western world, and the unrelenting desire of today’s youth to become famous. She didn’t set out to make a film scolding those involved in the burglaries, she wanted to capture what’s happening in our own culture today and not being addressed.  It’s quite typical of Sofia Coppola to take a more sympathetic tone with regard to her films’ characters and content. In this sense, she disobeys the convention of characters learning lessons, and this is certainly an issue with her critics. With The Bling Ring, as with all her films, Coppola hones in on her protagonists and surveys their human nature and behaviour while providing very little input as to her own opinion. She captures these moments, she doesn’t critique them. That she leaves up to her audience.