unpacking the hyper-feminine, dream-like lens of sofia coppola
Sofia Coppola recently became only the second woman ever to win the award for Best Director at Cannes. As we now await her hotly anticipated new film The Beguiled, we salute her unmistakable aesthetic.
Sofia Coppola is one of only two women to ever win the Best Director award at Cannes. She was presented it for The Beguiled, a retelling of a 1971 western starring Clint Eastwood, about a wounded soldier escaping the American Civil War and finding refuge in a girls' boarding school.
In Sofia's version the plot and perspective are twisted inside out, and the tale is told from the perspective of the girls -- who live in Miss Martha's Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies -- rather than the soldier. Colin Farrell takes up the Clint Eastwood role, Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst, Angourie Rice and Anna Laurence her students. The outcome of this union is -- unsurprisingly -- a hot, violent, sticky mess.
The Southern Gothic themes, mixed with the plot's blood, sweat and screams, feel like new territory for the director, but the visual codes are classic Sofia Coppola. From the delicate sherbet shade dresses adorning her largely female cast -- the latter is something that has dominated Sofia's films since The Virgin Suicides -- to the font type that swirls over the film's poster in Baby Spice pink, to a starring appearance from her ultimate bae Kirsten Dunst. These are the hyper-feminine visual codes that make each of her films instantly recognisable.
But what is it exactly that makes Sofia's films so dreamy? It's as if the auteur looks at life through a sun-soaked lens; ultra-light, hazy, with speckles of sunshine reflecting onto the camera.
"What we have here is a dreamer," says teenager Tim Weiner in Sofia's first feature, The Virgin Suicides. "Someone who is completely out of touch with reality." Tim's words are particularly poignant; this could be an actual description of Sofia's distinctive aesthetic. A dream-like quality is to Sofia what symbolism is to David Lynch, or perfect symmetry to Wes Anderson. Watching a Coppola picture is like being immersed in a beautiful hallucination, with the long drawn out shots and slow zooms often telling you more about the protagonist than the director's minimalistic dialogue.
But what is it exactly that makes Sofia's films so dreamy? It's as if the auteur looks at life through a sun-soaked lens; ultra-light, hazy, with speckles of sunshine reflecting onto the camera. Yet for all the visual beauty, there's always somber undertones. Picture owner of a lonely heart Charlotte, in Lost in Translation, as she tours Kyoto -- the scene is prettier than a postcard, but while the dreamscape is as aesthetically pleasing as it gets, melancholia is the overriding sensation. The absence of dialogue turns all attention to the perfection of the landscape, within which Charlotte is disoriented and alone.
While on the subject of Lost in Translation, it makes sense to turn the attention to Sofia's utterly delectable colour palette, and the pinky blue cinematography that's prominent when Charlotte sings Brass in Pocket in one of Tokyo's infamous karaoke clubs. She smoulders, dressed in a shoulder-length pink wig, simultaneously shining through a lit-up sea blue backdrop. The juxtaposing colours are an excellent metaphor for her bittersweet romance with Bill Murray's aging actor, Bob; a relationship that's sweet, innocent, sexual and sad.
The fairest of all Coppola's colour-schemes is the truly scrumptious spectacle, Marie Antoinette. Rumour has it that when Sofia first came together with costume designing superstar, Milena Canonero, to make the film, Sofia took with her pastel-toned Ladurée macaroons: "These are the colours I love."
Yet for her fifth feature, The Bling Ring, Sofia took it up a notch. The bright lights of Paris Hilton's actual Hollywood home sets the tone as a Californian-clique of high schoolers play dress up in the heiresses' infamous walk-in wardrobe before stealing her gear. That's so hot. Hardly surprising, considering the title, that the film is her most gaudy to date.
It's her dream girls that really draw you in, though, Disney-like in their appearance, with porcelain skin and silky hair. More often than not they are played by Kirsten Dunst. They come from all walks of life. They are teen queens, wannabees and sometimes even real life Princesses. They are ultimate babe Lux Lisbon, Marie Antoinette dressed in frou-frou draws and marabou feathers, melancholy Charlotte and The Bling Ring's Cali girl, Nicki. Coming-of-age girls are Sofia's specialist subject. While some would argue that her dreams are Laura Mulvey's nightmares -- for example, The Virgin Suicides is told from the POV of the teenage boys who perve on the Lisbon sisters from across for the street -- they still feel like they've been crafted for the female gaze. They may be beautiful on the outside, but beneath their glossy surface they're all longing and searching for something to complete them.
Sofia's talent as director stretches beyond mere visual fantasy and beauty, because she uses her aesthetic world as a way of exploring the complexities of girlhood.
Sofia's talent as director stretches beyond mere visual fantasy and beauty, because she uses her aesthetic world as a way of exploring the complexities of girlhood. One of my all-time favourite Sofia quotes is: "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets." Said by the Doctor to the littlest Lisbon sister, Cecilia, in The Virgin Suicides. She replies "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl." Words that will resonate with everyone out there who has been a 13-year-old girl.
Sofia's influence stretches beyond the silver screen. Today, pastel hues and an unapologetically feminine aesthetic have found a common place in our cultural sphere. There's tulle master fashion fave Molly Goddard, whose sheer princess dresses could have been cherry picked to be worn by Sofia's Marie Antoinette. Then there's the likes of Petra Collins and real life teen queen Tavi Gevinson (though she's 21 now) and her bible Rookie -- have a similar dreamy, light aesthetic, which they're using to reclaim 'girly', an aesthetic that's been undeniably influenced by Sofia.
It's no secret that cinema very much remains a man's world. Best Director isn't even the top prize at Cannes. The Palme d'Or is, and Jane Campion is the only woman to have won it for seven decades. Hollywood is seriously lacking equality -- but Sofia's super girlish vision, her stylistic flair and dedication to beautiful hazy aesthetics, long written off as not serious cinema, is finally getting the credit it deserves.
Text Billie Brand