You are in your room as a 16-year-old, it’s a Sunday afternoon. The streets are sleepy, the fan is turning slowly, you can see the slant of light on the floor, hear the music that is playing at a distance, and everything is a certain way. If a scene in a movie could take you back to this exact moment and fill you with sharp nostalgia for a feeling that you cannot explain, would that make for good cinema?
The three cardinal rules of screenplay writing are set up, conflict and resolution. Hollywood screenwriting’s golden mantra is the three-act structure. However, Sofia Coppola has broken almost all the rules and whispers her own mantra. Her body of work with under ten feature films is a delectable archive of such feelings and moments.
Sofia, however, has been criticised of many things, like making films that are pointless, superficial, with no character arcs or satisfying resolutions. She has been called Hollywood’s star nepo baby; her father is a giant in its fraternity, his masterpiece Apocalypse Now seared forever in every cinema lover’s brain. When I see the word napalm, I still think Francis Ford Coppola. He has produced many of her films and champions her work to date, sharing every press junket about his daughter’s work proudly on social media. But Sofia didn’t storm into the scene like her father. She shimmered in with her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. A suburban coming-of-age story based on the book by the same title, it is about five sisters trapped in their strict Catholic parents’ conservative grip and the neighbourhood boys who become obsessed with the sisters. The film doesn’t end well (all the Lisbon girls take their lives in a suicide pact) or give any easy explanations, but it lingers in its awkward adolescence, stolen kisses and small town psychological brutality.
Next came Lost in Translation, Coppola’s film about two strangers who meet in a hotel. Within the oasis of carpeted corridors and smoky bars, two sleepless guests — played by Bill Murray (Bob) and Scarlett Johannson (Charlotte) — form an unusual connection. Both married, set apart by a generation in age, feel something simple unravelling between them —they can talk to each other, they get each other. Could this be love? Amid Tokyo’s neon lights, chaotic traffic and tuneless karaoke singing, the two of them wander its streets knowing they are momentarily less lonely by each other’s side. In the most iconic top angle shot of the them lying in bed chatting through the night, Charlotte asks Bob if marriage gets easier. The scene is less about their dialogue and more in the way he touches her curled feet as they fall sleep. The film again doesn’t end conventionally and there are no easy answers, including the last scene when he hugs her and whispers something in her ear before they part ways, which the audience don’t hear. An enigmatic, haunting end.
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From Scarlett Johannsen to Kirsten Dunst (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette), Sofia has infused her women protagonists with a certain fragile melancholy, a dreamy loneliness that they carry with them in every frame. With the weight of knowing they are destined for more, they are like trapped birds that need to escape. Sometimes Audrey Hepburn-esque , sometimes mysterious unreadable sphinxes, and suddenly child-like in their candour, they capture our imagination. Like the boys who can’t get over the Lisbon girls, like Bob saying “I guess this is goodbye” with a catch in his throat to Charlotte, Coppola’s women never cease; they continue to live in our minds. It’s hard to let them go.
“I feel my films are a snapshot of that moment and who I was, where I was, at that time.’ Sofia Coppola said to The Guardian in 2017. She has imbued a piece of herself in every character she has created at each stage of her life and career.
Aesthetic or sublime?
Sofia’s latest work Priscilla, which opened in Venice this year, is another film about a woman; this time, a teenage Priscilla’s love affair, marriage and separation from the legendary Elvis Presley. Reviews stay divided, some calling it fluff and some calling it a delicate telling of a true story.
But, everyone agrees that it is a different take on Elvis’ life, seen through the eyes of Priscilla, where she is in the spotlight, not him. Sofia has said in her interviews that she has tried to tell their love story with an unbiased voice, where he is already a superstar and Priscilla an ingenue, without idolising or villainising him. It is an attempt to enter her world and see how marriage to a rockstar much older than her took over Priscilla’s adolescence and formed her identity at a time in America when women didn’t have one within a marriage. The film is full of poignant moments and beautifully shot imagery, and no easy conclusions according to the reviews.
But, are films about moments worthy of praise and posteriority? Is it just first world feelings captured in sublime lighting? All this decadence, opulence and pretty pictures — what is the point of it all? Is it the privileged making art about the privileged? What are her politics? Where’s the real struggle for the protagonists? These thoughts may be what divides the audience for Coppola’s films.
Her die-hard fans love her films and her aesthetic, as she has become a brand herself over the years. T-shirts with quotes from her films became a theme for Uniqlo, and she is an ambassador for Chanel. Her fashion sense is as coveted as her process as a filmmaker. Inimitable, stylish, and fiercely debated over, Sofia Coppola and her films remain ensconced securely in almost every Top 100 films list of the 21st century.
I for one cannot look at a hotel room’s bay window without thinking of Charlotte perched on it looking out at the big city, or hear the song ‘Strange magic’ by Electric Light Orchestra without thinking of Lux Lisbon, or see cake and not think of the young queen of France sprawled amid pink icing-ed layers of cake.
Priscilla will release in theatres on December 15 in India
The writer is a cinematographer who works in the Indian film industry