“Style over substance!” It’s one of the most frequent accusations in film discourse, and it’s been used to deride visually-driven filmmakers for years. From big-budget genre connoisseurs like Gore Verbinski and Zack Snyder to former awards-season heavyweights like Michael Mann and Terrence Malick, all sorts of filmmakers have seen their work downplayed with this label. The phrase is a reductive one that presumes imagery and atmosphere are less significant to a movie’s staying power than verbosity and screenwriting intricacy. And yet, many creative voices from multiple decades have been dismissed as prioritizing style and downplaying substance.
Even an Oscar-winning screenwriter and history-making female filmmaker has seen her name thrown into the “style over substance” discussion. Enter Sofia Coppola, who jumped into the cinematic conversation with a one-two punch of modern classics in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, and made some noise rejoining it as the second Best Director winner in the history of the Cannes Film Festival. It’s hard to believe she was on the opposite end of the appraisal spectrum when her boldly innovative biopic Marie Antoinette was booed at the very same festival, or when Somewhere was dismissed as “banality passing for depth.”
Coppola will soon release her new film The Beguiled to a wider audience, and it’s shaping up to be her most widely accepted film in over a decade. But this newfound audience would be remiss to overlook the too rarely sung virtues of a filmography that may singlehandedly be the greatest proof for style as rich, haunting and moving substance.
What sets Sofia Coppola apart from other directors of visually-driven indies is how her prioritization of aesthetics matches the emotional and existential insecurities of her characters. You see this time and time again whenever one of her characters looks out a vehicle window, a shot that features at least once in all five of her features.
As viewers are overwhelmed by neon-drenched Tokyo in Lost in Translation, Coppola’s most universally renowned work, her protagonists feel their identities are overtaken by said surroundings. When Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) looks out her car window while Bob (Bill Murray) sleeps, the brightly lit signs and billboards overtake her face in the window. This reflects the sense of insignificance Charlotte feels while her husband leaves on a business trip and overlooks her for more socially forward friends—is there a place for her in married adulthood, or is she just another flash in Tokyo’s mirror? Bob is shown taking in the big city within the film’s first few minutes, but he gets a quicker sense of familiarity with the expansive cityscape when he sees his face on a whiskey ad. Both characters are still working to find themselves, but Bob has lived long enough to stand out among his surroundings, while Charlotte still fades into them.
Charlotte’s anxieties also haunt the titular royalty of Marie Antoinette. Trees overtake the face of Marie (Kirsten Dunst) in her carriage window as she’s en route to marry Louis XVI and strengthen relations between her Austria and his France. Marie is about to be made into her country’s most recognized celebrity, but in this moment she feels like a small part in a bigger political plan—just another tree in the forest. As a teenage girl thrust into politics, the French leaders and Coppola herself both define Marie by her surroundings. She is forced to relinquish both the clothing she wore and the dog she raised while in Austria, and is dressed and accessorized like a Barbie doll with increasingly flashy outfits over the course of the film. Marie can have all the cake and clothing she wants as long as she serves with the expected French dignity. Before she’s given ample time to form her personal identity, Marie picks up a royal fan, accepts Louis’ wedding ring, and begins her life as a French object rather than an Austrian individual. This girl who was previously distraught at losing her beloved pug now addresses now tells Ambassador Mercy, “Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.” Marie, who spends much of the film unable to conceive a child with her new husband, uses her fan as part of her foreplay with Axel von Fersen. In Sofia Coppola’s cinematic worlds, women latch onto objects in search of meaning.
Like Marie, the Lisbon girls of The Virgin Suicides are held back from discovering themselves sexually. Their overbearingly strict mother forces them to stay inside and avoid social interaction after they stay out too late the night of a school dance, during which the 14-year-old Lux loses her virginity to star high school football player Trip Fontaine. Just as the girls’ social lives were picking up, they’re forced into isolation and instructed to burn their rock records. Fashion catalogs become the girls’ only connection to the outside world, and thus they’ve lost any way to define themselves beyond the material belongings they desire.
Meanwhile, the anti-heroines (and one unassuming antihero) of Coppola’s The Bling Ring serve as products of aloof, self-assured liberal upbringing, an inversion to the Lisbon family’s suburban
conservatism. Rebecca (Katie Chang) must start a new life after being expelled from her old school for drug use, so she bonds with new friends over a mutual love of new substances: celebrities’ belongings. When the group breaks into Paris Hilton’s home, Rebecca latches onto a pair of sunglasses, and she uses them to hide behind a newer, richer identity the same way Marie did with her fan. Her ambitions beyond college involve having her own fragrance line and hosting a television show, putting her in line with the glitz she’s surrounded by. “I just have to graduate so I can go to… Fashion Institute of Design. It’s where all The Hills girls went,” says Rebecca, a young woman whose frame of reference starts and stops at celebrity culture.
The materialistic melancholy Coppola excels at portraying is perhaps most apparent in her divisive 2010 film Somewhere. As directed by Coppola, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) lives in the shadow of his renowned movie star masculinity. With a beer bottle always close by, Johnny is defined to the audience by his aimless flings with unfamiliar women, who send him text messages reminding him of his personal shortcomings. Johnny, who admits “I’m fucking nothing, I’m not even a person,” realizes his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is someone worth being more emotional and compassionate for. But since Johnny is deliberately bereft of an approachable personality, Coppola shows us his awakening through a series of performances. The film’s first act features subsequent scenes in which two pole dancers perform for minutes on end, trying and failing to get much attention from Johnny. It isn’t until he takes Cleo ice skating that he looks up from his phone and realizes how much he’s missed in his self-imposed emotional isolation—he has a talented, loving daughter well worth pulling his life together for. As the film progresses into its next two acts, father and daughter play Guitar Hero, swim and sunbathe together, repurposing their lives through activities and gestures rather than heavy dialogue. They give each other meaning through even their most minute actions, to the point where the actual words they communicate are insignificant in comparison. Cleo may not hear Johnny say “Sorry I haven’t been around,” as she leaves for camp, but she smiles and waves goodbye regardless.
Coppola, who admits she prioritizes improvisation over scripted dialogue, has an unrivaled knack for letting the seemingly unwieldy flow of her scenes dictate her characters’ emotional arcs. In
Lost in Translation, a romantic companion piece to Somewhere, Bob’s and Charlotte’s activities while they’re away from each other define the direction they plan to take their personal lives. In the scene immediately following an intimate conversation where she asks Bob, “Does it get any better?” Charlotte takes a solo trip to the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto, where she sees a newly married couple and is reminded of her own marriage’s uncertainty. Coppola then cuts to Bob agreeing to be a guest star for Takashi Fujii, the “Japanese Johnny Carson.” Charlotte’s meditative reflection is juxtaposed by the flamboyant antics of Fujii’s talk show, and it becomes clear that Bob’s and her lives are headed down different paths. They’re in different stages of personal development, so when they share a final embrace before parting ways, it’s less a mournful separation and more a bittersweet acceptance. The frequently debated words Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear during the film’s climax are as insignificant as Johnny’s last words to Cleo. The places they’ve gone and the activities they’ve enjoyed do all the talking.
Indeed, an element of secrecy pervades all of Sofia Coppola’s films. We may never know what Marie Antoinette was thinking when she looked to the camera while getting fitted for new shoes during her film’s opening credits—was she genuinely enjoying her royal luxuries in that moment, or putting on an act? We may never know where exactly Johnny is driving at the end of Somewhere; is he picking up Cleo from camp, or aimlessly wandering to find himself in her absence? And we may never know the exact tipping point that led to the Lisbon girls’ suicide pact in The Virgin Suicides. As Giovanni Ribisi’s narration reflects:
“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
That sums up Sofia Coppola’s filmography in a nutshell. She’s the rare creator of character studies that gives viewers a window into lonely, lost souls and their travels, but keeps a narrative distance alongside the emotional intimacy. Coppola’s characters rarely know their own purpose in life, so why should we? Her strengths in creating atmospheric, often colorful and musical moments give each of her films a loving, lyrical touch. She asks viewers to project their own life experiences onto the vibrant images and seemingly insignificant words said.
Sofia Coppola’s style is bound to bring out different substance in every audience member, as it brings out different anxieties in Charlotte, Johnny and Marie. This subjectivity relies on personal experience in a way few directors’ works do, and it may seem unheard of for a filmmaker to send such an invitation to her audience.
But should you accept Coppola’s invitation, you may be pleasantly surprised by the substance you find in her stylized, cinematic windows. She’s truly a one-of-a-kind artist who deserves affectionate, open-minded analysis to match her historic place in female-driven filmmaking.
Featured Image: Paramount Classics