A Response to The New Yorker's Richard Brody, on Sofia Coppola

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 5 2011 9:06 PM

A Response to The New Yorker's Richard Brody, on Sofia Coppola

Last week, I published a profile of Sofia Coppola in Slate . I noted a strange undertone of Hollywood criticism in her movies and explained how this played into her unusual public reputation. This week, The  New Yorker 's excellent film blogger, Richard Brody, took issue with my premise . In a post yesterday, he argued that Coppola is in fact deeply in love with Hollywood and its potential; her movies, he wrote, are divisive "because they're made by an heiress who doesn't apologize for her pleasure in luxury—including in the luxury that Hollywood offers." In Brody's eyes, Coppola's work is different from crasser celebrations of luxury because she works to distinguish herself from Hollywood's more "frivolous and cavalier heirs."

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Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

Well, yes and no. I completely agree with Brody on this last point: Much of Coppola's sensibility rests on a pose of self-differentiation and aloofness. (That pose is resonant, I argued, because it echoes a critical mode running more broadly through boom-era culture.) And I concur that Coppola has gone a long way to prove her seriousness and creative independence in a field of less ambitious "heirs." But although Brody's idea of Coppola as a joyful poet of luxury, of "sumptuous pleasure and beauty," is appealing—or might be to some people—I don't see it borne out in her movies past a superficial level. A close look, in fact, suggests the opposite.

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It's true that Coppola is preoccupied with luxury and decadence. Those themes have cropped up increasingly in her movies. With its modest stock interiors and palate of '70s browns and beiges, The Virgin Suicides , Coppola's first feature, is the opposite of luxuriant—until its final sequence. That scene, as I discussed in my article, is a bizarre portrait of extreme wealth and high taste, and it feels strangely out of sync with the rest of the movie. (You can watch a clip here .) Few people, I think, would regard it as a celebration of luxury. In Lost in Translation , meanwhile, luxury is precisely the trap that Bill Murray's and Scarlett Johansson's characters are trying to escape: Note that their crucial, transcendent scenes all take place outside the lavish hotel—running through the Tokyo streets, singing along to trash pop at an unglamorous karaoke bar, or sharing a tête-à-tête outside during a fire alarm (perhaps the ultimate violation of "sumptuous pleasure").

Marie Antoinette offers a fantastic masked ball early in the film, as the title character is being seduced by the decadence all around her. But within a few scenes, Coppola has hoisted a blade of indictment over that world. "I love the country!" one of Marie Antoinette's best friends exclaims on seeing her phony, costly hamlet. Later, at a garden party among court celebrities: "Everybody, lick your finger, and now rub it around the rim of the glass!" They do ("Very spiritual," one of the glass squeakers intones), at which point Coppola shifts to a distance shot, regarding this luxurious existence the way some people assess chimpanzees at the zoo. It is not unreasonable to find a tone of judgment dominating here. 

Possibly, this judgment is what Brody means when he mentions the "thoughtless consumption" that Coppola's portrait of luxury "considers." But I fail to see what unqualified ideal of luxury she offers as an alternative. The moments of ecstasy in Coppola's movies—tumbling on a football field at midnight, belting out the hits of the '80s in the wee hours, drunkenly rushing a garden at dawn, or kicking around a hotel pool on a perfect afternoon—have nothing much to do with luxury. They're ordinary middle-class pleasures, and their thrill is in social connection and the kinetics of youth. They are about breaking past surfaces, toward an intimate, aesthetic transcendence.

If this is what Brody is referring to, luxury seems an inapt word to describe it. Casting Coppola as a poet of sumptuous beauty and lovely fabrics illuminates little—and reiterates what we've heard too often already—and it ignores the flickers of critical irony and aesthetic ambition that move her work beyond genre formula. (Brody similarly uses Coppola's claim that Somewhere is vaguely based on her personal experience to cast the movie as a reflection on her own efforts to find true luxury in Hollywood. Maybe so. But it's worth noting that Coppola and her collaborators have described all of her movies as personal to the press before their releases, presumably to help harness the power of her extravagant biography for publicity. I'd argue that the common conflation of Coppola with her heroines illuminates more about the public's feelings toward her than about her artistic sensibility itself.)

Brody seems to think that in pointing out the undertone of Hollywood lifestyle criticism in Coppola's work, I am attacking her project. The opposite is true. I count myself among those viewers who respond viscerally to her films. I think that she's doing worthwhile and original work and that, formally, Somewhere is her most mature effort to date. I don't think, though, that her movies are successful simply for their vacation-package surfaces: What sets Coppola apart as a filmmaker is her ability to drive us into, and then through, uncomfortable territory—not simply to drop us in a gorgeous field.

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