• Sofia Coppola: “I make the films I’d like to see.”

    Pradip Biswas

    December 6, 2017

                                                                                                                                                                                     Sofia Coppola | Image Courtesy: Pradip Biswas

    Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola (master filmmaker of Godfather) is not a lateral filmmaker of mix-character. Sofia Coppola believes film-makers are not, for the most part, paragons of cool temperament. But Sofia Coppola is a pleasant departure from this type. She’s a director whose sensible aesthetic extends beyond the screen into, what her close friend Marc Jacobs (the fashion designer) admiringly terms, an “art of living”. Stephen Dorff, actor of her 2010 film Somewhere, deems her coolness contagious. “When she casts me, everyone thinks I’m cool again,” he says. Even in the lowly ranks of film criticism, the habitual scepticism becomes tentative enthusiasm when I mention I’m about to interview her.

    Despite having made six feature films in her career, Coppola remains unique in a film industry that rarely makes celebrities of female directors! Born into the Hollywood firmament—daughter of powerful auteur Francis Ford Coppola—she found her way into film-making via acting, modelling, and fashion designing. She’s married to the French musician and lead singer of the alternative rock band Phoenix, Thomas Mars. The couple divides their time between Manhattan’s West Village and Paris.

                                                                                                                                                                                  A still from The Beguiled | Image Courtesy: Pradip Biswas 

    It is widely believed that Sophia Coppola remains principally cool because of her work. Gorgeous designs, sincere dreams, and a quaint sense of melancholy, all run parallel in her films, right from Lost in Translation to the historical reverie Marie Antoinette. The Bling Ring, spiky, morally ruthless, also carries Coppola’s signature style. My study shows that they seem to start from her own impeccable image, are structured on it. For instance, Scarlett Johansson’s pensive Tokyo drifter from Lost in Translation is sealed in our imagination, accurately or otherwise, as Coppola’s alter ego.

    Sofia Coppola says, “It’s just funny if people think [I’m cool]… I was watching some clips of myself on the red carpet from last night and I feel, like, so dorky on them. I’m really nerdy. And I live with a 10-year-old who thinks I’m very un-cool.” Sofia reveals that 10 year old Romy—the elder of the two daughters she has with Mars—is several thousand miles away from the vast, bay-view suite in Cannes’s Martinez hotel. Coppola, barefoot, in wide-legged jeans and an origami-crisp white shirt, black spectacles balanced a few degrees askew on her nose, is undergoing a makeover.

    Sofia Coppola’s sixth film, The Beguiled, premiered here at the Cannes Film Festival to colossal enthusiasm. It is not surprising, therefore, that when we meet her in the early evening, she’s exhausted; halfway through packing, restless to get home to her family in New York the next morning, “I have to get back to real life,” Sofia says. “Everything is so heightened here.” This confirms Sofia’s lonely style pf living miles away from the festival hoopla.

                                                                                                                                                                           A still from The Beguiled | Image Courtesy: Pradip Biswas

    According to the rumour mills, she wasn’t going to return for the Cannes’ closing ceremony. As it turned out, she ended up winning the best director prize, only the second woman in the festival’s 70 year history to do so! At this point, she was only concerned with audiences liking the film. It was a sensual, wickedly funny take on a novel by Thomas P Cullinan, set during the civil war; and quite a departure from Don Siegel’s lurid, macho, 1971 adaptation of the same text. Sofia was quoted saying, “I do not copycat Don Siegel. It is very stupid an auteur.”

    However, she had reason to be nervous, and not just because the film’s taut thriller trappings and cunning streak of high camp are something of a departure for her. It’s the first film she has presented to compete for the Palm d’Or since Marie Antoinette in 2006. The film’s proud teen-girl perspective and cutting anachronism had earned her a pelting of literal boos from the festival’s boorish critical patriarchy. “It’s always a lot of pressure showing anything you’ve made, and I knew that film was more obnoxious,” she admitted.

    Now, at 46, Sofia Coppola has both experience and critical changes on her side. A decade ago, after her Oscar win for Lost in Translation, many critics had their knives out for a film-maker who has always had to fight off accusations of rich privilege (and this from a male-dominated industry which is itself guilty of writing off the “girlier” aspects of Coppola’s film-making as mere frippery!). Years had been kind to Marie Antoinette, however. Its images had endured, its critical standing had strengthened. “People often came up to me and said how much they enjoyed it, so I felt like it’s settled in and found a place,” she said. “It’s gotten more of a life now than when it came out.”

                                                                                                                                                                                     A still from Marie Antoinette | Image Courtesy: Pradip Biswas

    We need to note that—the Cannes laurels notwithstanding—critics were also fiercely taking sides. These criticisms looked negative and manky. Following its US release, controversy had snowballed around allegations of Coppola “whitewashing” Cullinan’s text. The allegations followed her decision to remove the supporting character of a black female slave from the final version, and because she cast Kirsten Dunst in a character meant to be biracial. Another accusation that was levelled at her was that the film’s elegantly designed period trappings “…evinced a commitment to authenticity, but no interest in the people on whose backs that lavish lifestyle was built.” In subsequent interviews, Coppola had calmly asserted that she would not “…brush over such an important topic in a light way,” adding, “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them. There was no bias against a black woman as a real character in my films. In fact, she is never racial.”

    What some might see as deflection strikes many as a kind of humility, a director acknowledging the specificity of her own worldview. It’s not the first time Coppola’s films—many of which centred on the frustrations of white characters blessed with enviable wealth and/or celebrity—had been accused of betraying the social and cultural privileges of her own upbringing. In many ways, The Beguiled was a film tacitly haunted by suggestions of abuse and oppression, accusations and ridicule.

    The film’s depiction of gender politics is foremost. It’s the story of an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) grudgingly sheltered in a Mississippi ladies’ seminary, overseen by Nicole Kidman’s flinty school pits, his presence causing social and sexual discord among its young inhabitants. In the film, each immaculate frame is suffused with female desire, tucking the audience’s sympathies from character to character, resting eventually with the quiet, lonely yearning of Kirsten Dunst’s junior schoolmistress.

    The film had a feminist perspective. From its female gaze to its dusty-rose palette, the film is certainly feminized – but did Sofia Coppola intend it as a feminist work, as some critics claim it is? “I don’t love that label myself,” she said. “I’m happy if other people see it that way, but I just see it as having a female perspective, which isn’t always the same thing to me.”

    Pradip Biswas is a film enthusiast and a film critic who has been involved in film journalism for over fifty two years. He is a member of the film script committee, NFDS, Govt of India and a board member of the selection committee at SRFTI, Kolkata.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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