Children of Chaos: Sofia Coppola’s Women

Sofia Coppola’s protagonists are free particles in search of orbits. Sometimes they discover new families, sometimes they live and die alone.

Note: I use the term “Coppola’s girls” and “Coppola’s women” somewhat interchangeably simply because her characters range in age from pubescent to young adult. 

Let’s start by shedding the shallow idea that Sofia Coppola’s cinema is a bored dissection of upper-class ennui. A popular refrain is that she shares with Wes Anderson a fascination with the restlessness of the rich. Yes, their characters herald from common economic classes. Otherwise, this is a shallow observation. Anderson’s films are heightened narratives, broad comedies (do we still say “dramadies”?) bordering on magical realism. His bored white men summon storms and complete themselves by erecting great odes to artifice. Coppola’s women want freedom from artifice, to discover or create honest identities for themselves. Coppola is primarily a dramatist of silence. She evaluates people whose public personas have poisoned their inner lives, and vice versa.

A cinema of ennui? Might as well call it a cinema of sleepiness. This means nothing.

Daughters of Disorder

Sofia Coppola consistently portrays girls and young women who must carry on their lives without meaningful social structure. There are few functional parents in the lives of Coppola’s girls. We meet some parents, but they are defined as much by their absence as their presence. There are civil laws and customs, but very little social guidance.  There are few parents willful enough to manage Coppola’s girls. They are children of disorder, of the void. Parentless. Self-inceived, self-actuated, and self-delivered. Coppola’s girls are free particles in search of orbits. Sometimes they discover and belong to improvised families, sometimes they live and die alone.

Near death

The girls are all beautiful, and the incautious eyes of men in their lives provide some degree of structure; many of these girls can’t help but sculpt their own clay in the image that men project on them. In Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, the titular girls, the Lisbon family, struggle to discover what it means to be whole beyond the sweaty imaginations of neighborhood boys. This persona, this flat broadcast of a horny adolescent’s imagination, has no mass. The girls, imagining themselves first and foremost as reflections of lust, are otherwise hollow. They began to die long before they start jumping from windows.

The virgins’ parents, played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner, do try to order the girls’ lives and gift them each with some degree of character. They are not up to the task. The girls need more than a rogues’ gallery of leering boys to restore their substance. They need more than matching dresses and matching hair to convince them that they are more than just clay. The first girl’s death – 13-year-old Cecilia leaps from a second story onto spiked fence posts – thoroughly un-stuffs the Lisbon’s plush toy version of suburban American dream life. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon decommission themselves, self-demoted from parents to silent housemates. Chaos wins early and quickly consumes the rest of the girls.

Casting Men

A number of Sofia Coppola’s films explore young women’s relationships with adult men who help foster confidence and independence. Her women seek to order the chaos of their inner lives in many ways, including casting men in nurturing roles. Coppola’s women have far more power than they are necessarily aware of, and develop and direct casts of characters, building constructive relationships and even complex families.

Somewhere and Lost in Translation both feature men who clearly struggle to constructively relate to women (and themselves), but who gradually develop powerful, meaningful relationships with new young women in their lives. In Somewhere we watch Johnny, a lonely youngish actor (a sexily scruffy Stephen Dorff) following his agents’ commands to travel wherever he is meant to show his face, receive keys to cities, et cetera. His private life is on one hand lurid, a barely survivable marathon of sex (truly, he sleeps with half the women in this film) and drugs, and on the other hand entirely chaste, devoted to his extraordinarily composed daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, who even as a tween is magnetic on-screen). Their onscreen relationship is quite beautiful and feels true. He is a better man for her sake, and for his own. Cleo knows precisely what she needs from Johnny, and expertly directs him in the role of flawed but gold-hearted father.

Bob & Charlotte, Lost in Translation

I can easily imagine this guy aging into the quietly tragic Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation, who fixates on Scarlett Johannsen’s Charlotte as he would his own daughter (albeit with uneasy sexual undertones). Here as well, Bob and Charlotte are isolated from humanity even as they welcome new experiences in a part of the world that is new to them. They effectively place each other precisely where they need them to be, along strictly conventional gender lines. Charlotte desires a steadfast man who can make her the center of his attention, as a daughter, a friend, or a lover. Bob needs to know that he can still connect, powerfully, deeply with a woman who doesn’t care much about his celebrity or about the mundane daily details of a home life. They manipulate each other, but with open hearts. They welcome each others’ machinations.

The Cost of Privilege

Marie Antoinette deals explicitly with the social and existential costs of royalty and unchecked wealth.

Power?

These children, trapped as they are by the pomp and ritual of royalty, are generally powerless to resist the requirements of their office. Choice, and its absence, is central to Coppola’s work; and here, unhealthy as it may be to do so, it’s hard not to speculate about Coppola’s youth, or about any child of an immensely famous family. In the film, Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette doesn’t really even possess the illusion of choice – as moderately irresponsible as she is when indulging her minor rebellion with her friends, she is simply following a script. Teenaged drama is a universal constant, from generation to generation. The much-discussed inclusion of modern pop music such as New Order simply enforces this universality. Her destiny isn’t her own. Few children of public privilege and scrutiny have much control over their lives. Marie Antoinette is imprisoned by her social position. And again, she is essentially parentless. Upon her marriage, her parent is France.

Cleo in Somewhere is also a child of fame and wealth, and she too has limited control over her destiny although we can expect her to grow into a confident woman who confidently wields her power. The Virgin Suicides inherits from its eponymous source novel a horrible notion that yes, its family of sisters, wrapped up as they are in thick webs of fate, ultimately have a choice, some control over their lives – but it’s only the choice whether to live or die. This is power of a sort, I suppose.

We Are Forever Alone

Some of Coppola characters’ find meaning in each other and in art, but their isolation is ultimate and impenetrable. They are forever alone.

Scarlet Johannson’s Charlotte is heavy-hearted through Lost in Translation but she nonetheless consumes art and beauty relentlessly. Unmoored as she may feel, her appetite for color and sound is bottomless. There are many tales throughout filmdom of kids whose imaginations are their retreats from unreasonably hard lives, such as Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth or Oscar in Closet Monster. Charlotte’s solace is not unique.

The ugliest solution to an anchorless interior is, of course, self-harm. Coppola is neither shy nor particularly reverent about this; she did, after all, begin her directorial career with a semi-comedic film about five suicidal girls. She portrays the girls’ fates with a disdain for art-film hardness. The Virgin Suicides is, as with many of the great tragedies, a comedy first and foremost. The girls are themselves are unwilling or unable to regard their fates with seriousness. The girls disrespect fear. To respect fear is to give it power, to allow loneliness to consume them. The film is often ephemeral, as if it has already stepped over into afterlives.

Coppola’s girls are largely unmonitored, and perhaps for the better. They need to discover whatever it is that will fill their minds, that will crowd out fear. Many children do well with greater autonomy. Many require it to come into themselves, healthfully or not.

Bling Ring: Party at Paris’ house

The kids in The Bling Ring are on the same mission, but their dissatisfaction leads them to take severe legal risks, forgetting what very real consequences are associated with them. These kids combat their aimlessness with theft from the homes of A-List celebrities. They are in it for the stuff and the thrill of kleptomania, to get their hands on anything that they associate with fame, under the illusion that fame, however fake, might answer their need.

These characters are never safe from themselves, no matter how extreme their diversions. This isn’t unique to Coppola’s women characters. My favorite moment in Somewhere is a long shot of Dorff’s head completely mummified in casting plaster. He sits still, covered in white slop that is hardening into a shell, while he focuses on his breathing. In. Out. In. Out. My response as a deeply anxious person is to begin to hyperventilate just because I am so conscious of his breathing and the pure and total isolation of this moment, so claustrophobic and meaningless. This reminded me of my favorite moment in Todd Haynes masterpiece Safe, as Julianne Moore’s afflicted Carol sits panicking and gasping for breath at a child’s birthday party, camera backing away from her as her eyes convey unmitigated horror. Existential threats typically bully us from inside ourselves, from our own minds and bodies. Isolation, self-destruction, and illness strengthen this threat. Death feeds on our quiet. Every time we stop moving, we feed it.

We Are Not Who We Choose To Be

In the absence of families and structure, the best outcome for Coppola’s girls is often to re-parent, to create new family to help contain the chaos. In Lost in Translation Charlotte finds this with Bob, a man who might be a father or a lover or a creepy uncle, but whose engagement with her is overwhelmingly self-affirming. His interest is substantive. Sexual, maybe, but it’s more about her energy and her youth than the potential for sex. They become friends. It is friendship that helps her save herself from a formless, lonely adulthood.

I have a bit of a problem, at times, with Coppola’s ultimately privileged view of quests for identity.

The only real legitimacy I see in the otherwise shallow comparisons to the work of Wes Anderson is this: they appear to share a naive notion that the exploration of identity is an option accessible to all youth, that internal dissatisfaction may be answerable by the pursuit of alternative family. Internal identity struggles have little bearing on reality for children whose finances or race or other factors alienate them from the dull normalcy of privileged life. For those who live to survive, stealing sunglasses from Paris Hilton’s mansion just for a dopamine hit may seem very specific and unrelatable.

Sofia Coppola, Child of Chaos

It’s generally a lousy idea to try and psychoanalyze an artist based on her body of work, however we can imagine who this character is, the director called Sofia Coppola, the woman from whom such a consistent vision originates. We know that she herself was a child of a show-biz family, with a father who frequently undertook physically and emotionally demanding projects away from home, away from his family.

I only bring this up because with a single-minded artist like Sofia Coppola, an auteur whose career circles round and round the same concerns, the story feels incomplete without some understanding of its beginnings. She is, surely, one of her own girls. With Somewhere I can’t help but speculate about the family life of the Coppolas, growing up a child of an ambitious Hollywood insider, one who had directed at least 4 of the greatest films ever made. The great and hopeful conclusion to the lonely stories of Coppola’s girls is that their real parent, their actual creator, has become of our most important filmmakers; if she herself is not fulfilled, we certainly are.

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