Back in 1999 praise for Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides heralded a budding young talent, an indie force to be reckoned with, a woman with an intuitive understanding of the nuance and structure to a scene. The issue here is not whether Coppola has talent, but what it is she does, or rather, doesn’t do with her films. Coppola’s reluctance to offer a credible female character onscreen has taxed my goodwill as an audience member. After enduring Coppola’s first three missed opportunities to expand the repertoire for women in film beyond the hooker/ victim/ doormat mainstays (as Shirley MacLaine famously cited), I’d have to be a masochist to line up at the theatre to watch another meditation on how hard life is for white dudes. I can’t help but watch her films and think: Why be a director just to play it safe and reiterate the status quo? Why not instead be bold and inventive in your storytelling when you have the background and support to craft an original voice?
My problem with Sofia Coppola isn’t that she’s used her father’s name or connections, or even that she stays rooted in scripts about affluent folks. The charge that you have to make films about the poor or suffering folks sounds like a lesson already served up as a master class in Sullivan’s Travels. Or you could say it’s as warrantless as the suggestion that one should never produce films about the poor because they’re a bummer. We need a variety of story and perspective in our movie diets. My beef with Coppola stems from the virulent strain of Stockholm Syndrome she carries, one which infects her work and bears responsibility for producing films that are overall conservative, derivative and entirely lacking in an integrated female perspective. I doubt there exists a woman in the director’s chair more estranged from the ability to render muliebrity on celluloid than Ms. Coppola.
Let’s be clear, I’m not of the taste for vanity projects such as Agora, those addendums to history which attempt to soothe over the erasure of women’s participation within intellectual inquiry and civic virtue in the first place. Nor do I seek out those plucky Dagenham-type films, which resemble the narrative structure in place during the 19th century, a facile ending with a so-called victory for women’s civil rights, just as once the story closed Austen-esque at the altar. Nope, those blips in an otherwise steady trajectory of dude-domination feel cheap and devoid of true consideration for women. We need a greater context available for women beyond getting men to marry or respect them. When I go to the cinema, I don’t even expect that a woman’s always a part of the onscreen narrative. (Take Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as an example of a woman’s ability to tell the story at hand, whether or not it includes a female character’s perspective). But holy crap if my arms won’t cross and my foot tap with impatience when a woman director fails to summon a compelling point of view for a woman to perform. I get the sense Coppola thinks women are just so alien, silly or not worth representing with veracity onscreen.
Even more of a puzzle is why Sofia Coppola fails to embody the female point of view onscreen when many men have done so, in singular projects which channelled women’s frame of reference, or those men who made an exploration of female point of view the enterprise of their careers. Directors such as George Cukor, William Wyler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, Pedro Almodovar, Quentin Tarantino and Alfonso Cuaron have established work rooted in interesting women characters and perspectives. And the best film of 2010, Black Swan, is the insightful vision of how women can be their own worst enemy, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Heck, champion misogynists such as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen can render convincing women onscreen, which demonstrates that you don’t have to have a vagina or even be a feminist to get inside the female point of view. You just have to believe in the integrity and interest of the story. Why all these men can tap into the affective complexities to be found in muliebrity while Coppola can’t, remains a mystery.
Despite the critical laurel leaves, I doubt I was the only one in the audience of The Virgin Suicides who thought Coppola’s premiere effort was too invested in portraying the Lisbon sisters through the male gaze, or that the girls are given little more affect than required of two-dimensional repositories of desire. More cipher than enigma, their corporeal existence itself rates as less compelling than the untimely demise which froze them in a pliable dimension of fantasy. I’ve written about this cinematic feature in the past, one that tells audiences how beauty must die, that the lovelier the woman, the more likely she will expire from the pressure generated of boundless male expectation and lust. All too often the narrative thrust implies that it’s preferable for women to be admired than to live, better to remain a blemish- free young hottie than endure the messy business of real life. In other words, dead girls are more interesting and romantic as screen fodder. Look pretty and fade out while you still get a favourable close-up, or else risk the fate of Norma Desmond’s pulled skin delusions. As a theme, tragic beauty has long preoccupied filmmakers in steady incarnations from Garbo’s Camille to Nicole Kidman’s Satine. While the convention of doomed allure is a cinematic fixture, one would still hope that a woman behind the camera would have something more to highlight about teenage girls than the fact that boys find them mesmerising or lustful.
A similar problem haunts Coppola’s sophomore effort. In what seems more like a mid-life crisis picture for Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson has little more to do in Lost in Translation than look bored and seek the attention of said middle aged dude. Plenty of women in the audience must find the proposal a bit distressing, one that argues the character needs a man around in order to feel happy, instead of pursuing independent work, study, art, anything. We’re actually not all looking for daddy’s approval. There has to be a better fiction at hand for Charlotte’s character than hanging out with a middle aged sad sack.
Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s first attempt to cut out the mediation through the male point of view ranks as a colossal disaster, with the titular character more flip-book assemblage of mood swings and unaccountable actions, so much so that she may be the least integrated, empathetic or interesting female character ever to appear onscreen. In the only scene when Dunst in the starring role seems three-dimensional, where she breaks down privately over the sexless marriage to Louis and courtly sneers over her childless state, Coppola takes a violent cut away to a scene scored to the petulant tune I Want Candy. The camera launches a greedy shoe-gasm that would make the folks behind Sex and the City roll eyes. Could we pause in a moment that might actually lend the character depth? Coppola’s film presents the character and female experience as shallow, empty and as saccharine as the sweets choking every set. In an interview, Coppola referred to the production as ‘girly,’ ‘frilly,’ and a ‘crazy macaroon world,’ revealing perhaps more than she cared to about her alignment of femininity with a lack of gravitas or serious consideration. It’s also far from sexist to point out how bad the film is (although don’t you love it when a guy tries to school you about what you should find sexist and offensive?)
Coppola’s problem with women seems calculated. It says the director thinks so little of muliebrity, that she thinks the only stories that are worthwhile, serious or contemplative reside in the male point of view. Rather than dismissing Coppola as a Lap Cat of Patriarchy (as I might be tempted from the dearth of complex women she can imagine) I’d say it’s more a case that she’s committed to being the Good Daughter, in the sense of family ties and public persona. She resigns muliebrity to the inscrutable or submerged under the desire for male approval or shallow fripperies. I’ll take a pass on her latest project, which by all accounts features a scene with twins designed to show us how ‘gross’ women are who are sexually available.
The trade-off for Coppola being ‘one of the guys’ is the subsequent alienation of women from the audience.