You either love her or hate her. Here's why.
Elsewhere in Slate: Read Dana Stevens' review of Sofia Coppola's latest, Somewhere.
In the past two decades, Sofia Coppola has been publicly laughed at, booed, and wept over by Quentin Tarantino —treatments that, in the ledger of Hollywood fame, add up to something slightly short of canonization. But her greatest talent may lie in inciting small-scale culture wars. Last week, the Los Angeles Times described her recent film, Somewhere, as "a kind of road movie of the soul, a delicate, meditative look at a particular state of mind in a particular time and place." The New York Post, that same day, wrote, "[I]magine a film called 'Wanna See Me Crack My Knuckles?' " Both are typical reactions. With their dreamy self-absorption, flickers of romantic transcendence, and fabulous indie-rock soundtracks, Coppola's movies seem to come as missives from some never-ending sophomore fall, a kingdom ruled by moody young folks who have read Rousseau but never seen the inside of a tax return. Their appeal is a question of taste, but rarely of negotiation. On God, lifestyle, and Coppola, we are a divided nation.
It doesn't help that Coppola's body of work often seems divided on itself. Her first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), was a braid of gauzy romanticism and Midwestern gothicthat, in pace and sensibility, followed the footsteps of Blue Velvet-era David Lynch. Lost in Translation, which earned Coppola the allegiance of Moleskine-toting aspirants across the land, moved toward ruminative transition shots and hand-held work that she and others said was inspired by early Wong Kar-wai—though Coppola's burnt-out deadpan shared little with Wong's high, ecstatic burnish. In 2006, she cast herself anew again with the pop-pomo bedizenment of Marie Antoinette. Coppola likes to say she makes films for her friends, not for the market (inner-circle vanitas or indie cred?), but given her wide-ranging style, it is fair to wonder whether those friends are more fickle than any box-office tastemakers ever could be.
What drives Coppola's work, beyond ambition and the vagaries of moody youth? Look closely at her movies and a surprising answer emerges: From The Virgin Suicides to Somewhere, Coppola's films are striking for their steadfast, targeted attack on the culture of Hollywood. And although this common thread at first looks incidental to her project, it runs to the heart of her divisive reputation. Coppola's insider criticism of Hollywood, her disdain for the industry that her own career relies on, leads her into a strange territory between hypocrisy and candor, privileged lament and fearless protest. This indeterminacy gives her work the back-and-forth flicker—and intrigue—of a lure in water. But it also leads her to a site of unusual cultural tension. As both a beneficiary of creative privilege and a critic of it, Coppola has become a lightning rod for authenticity questions more broadly haunting American culture since the last boom era. Her problematic attack on Hollywood is the reason why these quiet and parochially minded movies stick so sharply in the nervous system of their time.
In many ways, Coppola's films are strange vehicles to lay claim to this warpath. Yet a disposition against Hollywood was part of her creative education from the start. Coppola was born during the making of The Godfather, a process Francis Ford Coppola found so hellish and unpromising that as soon as it was done, he decamped for France and started taking writing jobs for cash, convinced that his career as a director was ruined. It wasn't, of course, but he never ceased to flee from the horrors of the movie business. Sofia grew up mostly in the Bay Area, where he'd landed during a previous escape from Hollywood. As a young girl, she traveled as his filming demanded, playing a few bit parts in his movies along the way. In this last capacity, she fell into her first and last substantial acting job, playing Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III.
That effort became notorious. The Chicago Tribune, in one of the least damning dismissals offered, described her as "an absolute blank." After a short foray into film school, Coppola distanced herself from movies, taking up modeling and fashion designing instead. And although her flaming wreckage of an acting career has since burned out in public consciousness, the idea of her unseriousness persists. When Coppola returned to moviemaking in the late '90s, it was along a path consistent with her reputation: Her early projects took stylistic cues from teensploitation flicks (the quintessential "unserious" Hollywood genre for someone of her generation), but they also carried a new, more aloof undertone. The question that appeared then is one that has lingered until this day: Is Coppola's outsider act, her tenor of detached idealism and quiet disdain, something she came to on her own? Or just a pose?
This is a doubly sticky question given Coppola's Hollywood privilege. Her father has executive-produced all of her features—a luxury, it is fair to say, that many aspiring writers and directors would trade their proprietary screenwriting software for. And yet her work is obsessed with the idea of creative constraint. Coppola's first feature, The Virgin Suicides,was based on the 1993 debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, and it traces the short lives of five doomed teenage sisters in the '70s through the eyes of neighborhood boys. Beneath the surface, though, the book is an elaborate metaphor about creative life: The girls are searching, through their dreamy creeds and rooftop trysts, for transcendence ("When she jumped, she probably thought she'd fly," a neighborhood kid says after studying the first suicide's diary, which contains a poem about trees).
In Coppola's hands, this creative flight becomes a path of escape. But what, exactly, are her characters running from? The Virgin Suicides hits all the major touch-points of the Hollywood high-school genre film—the locker scene, the classroom sequence, the football practice—but each one is shot more cynically than the last. It staggers toward its ending with a scene in bile-colored light at what appears to be a villa in the hills, where a smug mogul in a tux raises his glass to toast the partygoers' power-holding feats. Nothing in the movie's portrait of the beige, recessionary Michigan suburbs got us to this grim terminus, spun out of a few passing sentences in Eugenides' book. The scene gives viewers a taste of the creatively moribund future the suicidal girls avoided. With its moneymen and tuxedos that future looks, to an odd degree, like Hollywood.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.