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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola was born in 1971, the only daughter of Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola. With an entire family of film industry legends, it seemed only inevitable that Coppola would also make her mark on cinema. Since the late 1990s, she has established herself as an important filmmaker, often focusing her lens on teenage girls, who are so rarely treated on screen with the same respect that Coppola gives them.

Although Coppola is recognised for her filmmaking efforts, most notably the Oscar-winning Lost in Translation, she started her career as an actress. She appeared in many of her father’s films, making her debut as a baby in The Godfather. Yet, in 1990, Coppola sparked controversy when she played Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III. Most critics agreed that her performance was a terrible one, with some going as far as to say she had ruined her father’s career, as well as her own – even though she was just 19.

Coppola has expressed that she only acted because her father would ask her to, and she was not hurt by the negative reception since she had no interest in pursuing acting as a career. Instead, Coppola turned to writing and directing, creating her first short in 1998, entitled Lick the Star, a black and white film shot on 16mm that sees the young director explore themes that reoccur throughout her filmography.

These themes of girlhood, isolation and loneliness define Coppola’s oeuvre, making her films particularly popular amongst teenage girls, especially The Virgin Suicides, which has seen a recent resurgence of popularity amongst younger audiences. Coppola’s exploration of female teenage characters, alongside her largely female audience, has led to much of her work being taken less seriously than her male counterparts, with many critics seeing her work as nothing more than feminine ‘fluff’. However, this, of course, is not the case. Coppola has carved out a cinema where many teenage girls feel represented (albeit white teenage girls… read more about this here) and has an impressive body of work to her name, exploring anything from Civil War-stricken America to 1700s France to 2000s California.

Sofia Coppola’s six definitive films:

Lick the Star (1998)

For the definite fans of Coppola, it is well worth checking out her debut piece of cinema, the black and white 16mm short Lick the Star. Bringing into focus the lives of teenage girls, the film depicts the effects of the fast-changing junior high hierarchy. But in typical Coppola fashion, the movie deals with the unpleasantness that resides under the surface of everyday life. The queen bee archetype is not your typical high-school movie character – instead, she is planning on poisoning boys with arsenic, inspired by the book Flowers in the Attic.

The short uses imagery that features in various other Coppola films, such as a girl gazing out of the window of a moving car. Loneliness, being outcasted, suicide, and hierarchy – all common features of Coppola’s filmography – are at play in Lick the Star. With a ’90s indie edge to it, the film has some gorgeous shots that are even reminiscent of Sonic Youth visuals (The Whitey Album cover springs to mind), which makes sense due to Coppola’s association with the band, having starred in their ‘Mildred Pierce’ video. Although nothing in comparison to Lost in Translation or Marie Antoinette, Lick the Star is worth the watch for any Coppola fans.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

The Virgin Suicides was released in 1999 and marked Coppola’s first feature film debut. Adapted by Coppola from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name, the film is a dreamlike pastel fantasy that contrasts with the harsh subject matter. We follow the Lisbon sisters to their inevitable suicides through the lens of the infatuated neighbourhood boys, who see the girls as tragic, beautiful objects rather than humans. Coppola’s debut is impressively beautiful and features particularly fantastic performances by Kirsten Dunst and Kathleen Turner.

Soundtracked by dream pop duo Air, The Virgin Suicides has an ethereal atmosphere that reflects the neighbourhood boys’ view of the girls and establishes the overtly feminine, hazy visuals and soundtracks that come to define much of Coppola’s work. Comparing the film to 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Roger Ebert praised the film, describing Coppola’s direction as “content with the air of mystery and loss that hangs in the air like bitter poignancy”.

Lost in Translation (2003)

Coppola’s second feature-length film, Lost in Translation, earned the filmmaker her first Academy Award, which was for Best Original Screenplay. Starring Bill Murray as a fading actor who is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, and Scarlett Johansson as a recent graduate who is accompanying her husband on a work trip, the film follows the pair as they struggle with feelings of alienation and loneliness in Japan. Coppola decided to take a simple approach when making the film, writing a short screenplay which would allow for improvisation. Natural light was used as much as possible, and real businesses and public areas were used as filming locations.

Lost in Translation remains one of cinema’s greatest explorations of loneliness and isolation, and Coppola achieves this through an attentive eye for set design, location, music, and dialogue. Muted blues and oranges give the film a mellow atmosphere that conveys the characters’ loneliness, and the soundtrack – My Bloody Valentine, Air, Death in Vegas, The Jesus and Mary Chain – creates a melancholic soundscape. Coppola says the film is about “things being disconnected and looking for moments of connection” and remians a must watch from her filmography that remains one of her greatest achievements.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Following the release of Lost in Translation, Coppola created Marie Antoinette three years later, starring Kirsten Dunst in the titular role. The historical drama examines the isolation and pressure placed upon Antoinette as she is sent to marry the Dauphin of France at the tender age of fourteen before becoming queen. Showcasing the excess of high society through extravagant cakes, dresses, and shoes that Antoinette consumes to fill the void of her struggling marriage, the film uses a pastel colour palette that highlights the young girl’s innocence and adolescence.

Marie Antoinette won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. However, that was not the only striking element of the film. Accompanying the gorgeous period costumes are stunning locations – much is filmed within the Palace of Versailles, where Coppola and crew were granted unprecedented access. Furthermore, the regal 1700s setting is contrasted by an excellent post-punk, new wave and ambient soundtrack featuring the likes of New Order, The Cure, Aphex Twin, and The Strokes, which helped to aid Coppola’s vision of humanising these historic figures.

The Beguiled (2017)

Another period drama of Coppola’s, The Beguiled is set in the 1860s against a backdrop of the American Civil War. The film follows Colin Farrell’s Corporeal John McBurney, an injured soldier who is discovered by a pupil from the local girl’s school. After taking him in to recuperate, his presence leads to rivalries and tensions between the women at the school, resulting in disastrous consequences. The film features long-time Coppola collaborator Dunst, as well as Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman, who reveal the sexual repression bubbling underneath religious conservatism perfectly.

The Beguiled was inspired by the Thomas P. Cullinan novel of the same name, which was also made into a film in 1971. However, Coppola was accused of whitewashing the story after the filmmaker chose not to include the black female slave character, as well as casting Dunst in a role originally written to be biracial. Defending her choices, Coppola stated that she removed these characters so as to “not brush over such an important topic in a light way.” She also stated that “young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them.” Whether you agree with Coppola’s decision not to include the black characters or not, we can still look at the film as a whole and acknowledge the merits it has to offer – a bold and precise look at the dangers of repression and the tensions that exist between men and women.

On the Rocks (2020)

Coppola’s most recent effort, On the Rocks, sees the director explore a more mature set of characters in comparison to her previous films’ preoccupation with adolescences and young women. On the Rocks follows Bill Murray’s Felix and his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones) as they investigate the suspected infidelity of Laura’s husband Dean (Marlon Wayans). The film explores the relationship between the father and daughter whilst also examining marriage, New York City, and ageing.

Despite Coppola’s departure from her usual style, she proves that she is capable of exploring more than just adolescence and isolation. Although On the Rocks pales in comparison to her earlier works, it indicates a step into new territory for Coppola, suggesting that she might be transitioning into an exploration of a wider range of themes than she has done previously.