You either love her or hate her. Here's why.
Elsewhere in Slate: Read Dana Stevens' review of Sofia Coppola's latest, Somewhere.
To watch these final minutes of The Virgin Suicides is to feel a little sick inside, and not just due to the Veblenesque tableau of the party. There's something smug about an effortlessly realized mainstream movie by a debut director (Coppola had just turned 28 when it premiered at Cannes) dumping on insider privilege. And there's something haughty in so generously nurtured a filmmaker suggesting that young, dreamy girls are having their creative impulses smothered by public expectation. Is she wrong to raise these complaints? Turn one way, and Coppola looks like a self-indulgent hypocrite and trader in fashionable angst. Turn in the other, and she's a refugee from Hollywood's creative strictures and humiliations, a patron saint of sensitive ambitious types who's fighting, from the perch she has, for less industry and more art. The experience of watching The Virgin Suicides is the experience of commuting back and forth between these two views.
That feeling has gotten more plangent and daring in each of her ensuing features, starting with Lost in Translation, the 2003 story of a tensely platonic encounter between a creative young woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), and a jaded actor (Bill Murray). Lost in Translation is set in Tokyo, mostly in a swank hotel. But with its meandering and big-windowed interiors, constant car travel, trendy Pacific Rim cuisine, and flux of groupies and yes-men, the world it conjures looks like someone's nightmare vision of L.A. Several of Charlotte's movements through the movie (movements here being a relative term) are efforts to escape a citizen of Hollywood, an actress and soi-disant fan of "Mexican food and yoga." Charlotte is also put off by a hip-hop artist who goes on about "involving the beat so it, like, sounds hella large on the track." These are not rueful complaints about commercial culture. They are regionalisms, skewered. And although Charlotte's young husband is sometimes described as Coppola's take on Spike Jonze (the fremde Kind director she was briefly married to), the character, with his polo shirt and blazer, ass-clown shades, and I'm-not-listening-but-we're-chill niceties, seems more archetypal than that. "I moved to Los Angeles when John and I got married, but it's so different there," Charlotte laments at what's supposed to be an introspective climax. This isn't so much a story of self-discovery as a tale of loss, and, in such moments, a specific one: Charlotte had what she wanted. Then she moved to Screenland, and it floated away.
Without this specificity, Coppola's complaints dissolve into general malaise. With it, we know just what she's fighting for. Like The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation is obsessed with the idea of creative integrity—"I tried taking pictures, but they're so mediocre, you know?" Charlotte laments—in an environment where everyone is constantly onstage, or trying to be. It's not an accident that the movie's most vivid, moving scene takes place in a glass-encased karaoke pod. This is a film in the tradition of Nathanael West and David Lynch—artists whose work is animated by a fear of giving in to Hollywood, of getting lost in the jungle of groupthink, illusion, and schlock that honks and buzzes south of the Ventura Freeway.
Coppola's awkward perch on the boundary of this jungle gives her films their outsize relevance. The late-boom period in which Coppola rose as a filmmaker was the era of the hipster, Jonathan Franzen, and snark—styles of upper-middle-class invective that grew out of prosperity, social irony, and the vast proliferation of gourmet olive oil. What they shared was a mode of self-criticism so unstable that, in certain lights, it flickered into arrogance and self-indulgence. Coppola's criticism of Hollywood mirrored this phenomenon. When she gives us, in Marie Antoinette, the allegory of a young queen claimed, blinded, and ultimately discharged by forces of celebrity and parochial culture, she is mounting an attack against all-devouring Hollywood. When we identify her with that queen, we see a complainer who perfectly distills the compromised critical style of our era.
Coppola has described her current film, Somewhere, the story of an 11-year-old girl (Elle Fanning) and her dissipated movie-star dad, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), as "a portrait of today's L.A." She does not seem to mean this flatteringly. The movie starts with a long shot of Marco grinding his sports coupe in circles through the desert, less a metaphor for L.A. life than an autopsy of it: Strip away the miles of man-made greenery, the lifestyle vanities, the celebrity thrills—in short, the deep-seated illusions of the place—and this is what you're left with, Coppola suggests. Her camera pores unsqueamishly over the grim, smoggy expanse of western Sunset Boulevard; the wash of mindless parties; the over-rehearsed pole dancers who stand in for the looming specter of the porn industry. Marco's only reprieve is his daughter, through whose youthful creativity he can start to enjoy the town's illusions once again. To an extent, this is the movie Coppola has been striving to make through her whole career, a showdown between a smog-and-agent-addled moviemaking machine and the dreamy creativity she's worked up to confound it. But whose side is she on, really? It is not giving away too much to say the movie ends as all Coppola movies end: The character packs his things into a fancy car. Then he gets out of there.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.