I think most critics can take or leave Sofia Coppola. She’s kindof a quasi-auteur director who imbues her films with visually naturalistic, beautiful and Cinéma vérité style, consciously bringing to mind French New Wave directors like Agnès Varda, and New York independents such as Harmony Korine, Jim Jarmusch and John Cassavetes, but with a satirical adult approach similar to Robert Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts.
As with her critically acclaimed and much loved second feature Lost In Translation (2003), Coppola sidestepped plot and scenes with dialogue and instead goes for a tableaux long takes and scenes where the actors look as if they haven’t rehearsed and improvised non-professional actors. Lead actor Stephen Dorff, playing ‘Johnny Marco’, commented that Coppola didn’t give a lot of direction, but found that playing a celebrity, bored and avoiding the paparazzi and surrounded by adoring fans, came quite naturally and often it felt as if he was playing himself. Similarly, Ken Loach was criticised by critics for using non-professonal actors, and that these actors were simply playing themselves, although Loach disputed these comments and suggested ‘playing yourself on screen demands requires emotions and to take something from inside yourself, which is not easy’.
In contract to Loach, who fascinated with ‘realism’ and pushing its boundaries, Coppola seems more interested in ‘anti-realism’; ie Hollywood, surrealism, celebrity popculture and characters who feel alienated or isolated by their own fame and popularity. Coppola often positions these themes in the troubled, defused lives of adolescent girls or older men uncomfortable with the pressures of fatherhood and middle-age. Her feature film The Virgin Suicides (2000), showed the bitter fallout of middleclass family values and its idealisation of the chastity of pubescent girls. An unsettling theme exploring teenage sexuality, femininity, family roles and the ‘Lolita’ fantasy.
The theme of lost innocence, chastity and femininity was explored again in Lost in Translation, this time in the surrogate father-daughter relationship between a mature young woman and a washed-up movie star, both characters feeling at loose ends in their personal lives.
The hubris of fame and fashion was appropriately satirised and given a contemporary make over for Coppola’s third film, Marie Antoinettee (2006), and moving away from the flat ‘realist’ style for a colourful narrative plot, but which critics dismissed as facetious and historically inaccurate. Perhaps Parisian critics didn’t appreciate a Hollywood studio trespassing on their heritage or making a satirical film about decadent aristorcrats which they could otherwise do better themselves. Arguably, this was a faux pa, a send up of elegance and sophistication, not as offensive to the hipsters as The Devil Wears Prada, but the French super-rich must draw the line somewhere.
It’s fairly apparent that Coppola has drawn from experiences in her own life, giving us a voyeuristic look into her past. Somewhat obtusely, she’d describes the film as a ‘portrait’ into the world of a young daughter on a brief visit to see her father in Hollywood, a movie star somewhat resembling Johnny Depp, who’s coasting on his fame and estranged from the numerous women he has rejected.
Initially, the premise sounded like a retread of what she’d achieved with Lost In Translation, not to mention caricatures of young angelic and stubbly, chauvinistic movie star, seemed contrived. As with Lost In Translation, Coppola steers away from sentimentality and melodrama, and with what I thought was going to be a cute Richard Curtis/About A Boy style romantic comedy, is alot grimmer and colder than I’d expected. Unlike Lost In Translation, there is no revelation or cathartic moment between the characters, simply brief emotional scenes in which the characters share their feelings before they go back to where they were in the beginning – loneliness and uncertainty, although the ending does show a final ambiguity of Johnny Marco abandoning his car on an empty road and setting off alone