The ‘problem’ of Sofia Coppola

The trailer for Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Beguiled was released last week amidst much hype. A reimagining of the 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood, this newest work from Coppola will inevitably be divisive, not only because it carries pre-existing cinematic weight on its shoulders, but also because Coppola is a figure that persistently inspires ambivalence in her critics. Emma Sutherland examines Coppola’s problematic reception history.

Throughout Sofia Coppola’s career, the American filmmaker has received a considerable degree of criticism of an increasingly homogenous nature. The 45-year-old, who has written and directed five feature films (The Virgin Suicides; Lost in Translation; Marie Antoinette; Somewhere; The Bling Ring) and two short films, as well as directed music videos and fashion advertisements, is characterised by many film reviewers and some scholars as superficial. Vacillating between subtly patronising and outright dismissive, critics position Coppola as an insufficient storyteller and argue that her visually-based films exhibit shallow and vacuous qualities; terms that have been applied to most of her works but are often not adequately substantiated.

To White, Coppola’s work is “shallow”1; to Gibbs, she has “the nose for a good story but not the depth to sufficiently explore it”2; and to Shoard, her “blankness runs deep”3. Clarke believes one will never encounter any filmmaker “quite as vague and psychologically diffuse”4; Beck describes
The Bling Ring as “the most superficial film”5; and Australia’s beloved reviewing duo Margaret and David agree that this film is “as vacuous as the characters”6. Describing Coppola and her films in these terms seems to have become somewhat of a trend in film criticism – a trend that may constitute a superficial approach to contemporary cinema in itself.

Sofia CoppolaWriter/director Sofia Coppola (2013)

Coppola is an award-winning screenwriter, the third woman to be nominated in the Best Director category at the Academy Awards, and is often embraced within academia as a key figure of the American ‘indie’ film landscape. Yet she cannot seem to shake the popular label of superficiality, which is applied to both her personality and her films. Negative press is, of course, an expected aspect of filmmaking, but these particular assertions are problematic because they attack Coppola on ambiguous grounds. She is perceived as eschewing – or not being capable of – narrative ‘depth’ in favour of a ‘surface’ approach, which implies a clear distinction between two types of filmmaking that critics seem reluctant to delineate.

The assumption is that Coppola’s work fundamentally lacks depth because her cinematic style is overwhelmingly visual, placing highly-composed, decorative images at the centre of her communicative process. Images are favoured over dialogue, as is ephemera over rigorous plotting. Critics imply that there is little complexity of thought or profundity of idea beyond Coppola’s technical flair; that her use of visual pleasure is “self-indulgent”7 and employed to mask the fact that she “can’t pull off anything too complicated” with dialogue8.

It is commentary such as this that is troubling; an established discourse that collapses perceptions of Coppola’s personal character with her films, which are in turn deemed frivolous and inadequate. It is arguable that a scathing attitude exists towards Coppola in the mainstream media due to her father Francis Ford’s cinematic legacy and the assumption that her success is the result of nepotism; that she is a “daddy’s girl”9; the “Veruca Salt of American filmmakers”10. White proposes that neither Coppola nor her brother Roman (a producer, director, and regular co-writer with Wes Anderson) can “seem to get out from under their father’s eminence but at least Roman gazes beyond his own navel”11. Smith shares a similar opinion when he argues that Coppola has access to “only one, thuddingly autobiographical, subject…how hard it is to be a little princess”12.

The Virgin Suicides Sofia CoppolaThe Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola (1999)

Interestingly, Coppola’s public persona offers little to foster and provoke these impressions. Though she has been in the public eye since childhood because of her prominent filmmaking family, she appears to avoid the celebrity limelight, remarking in a 2013 interview that, “to be private seems normal to me”13. Video interviews of Coppola reveal a softly spoken, reflective director interested in discussing the craft of filmmaking rather than herself.

Nevertheless, this widespread scepticism as to Coppola’s intentions and abilities, and hesitance to take her seriously as a filmmaker feeds into the rhetoric of superficiality surrounding her films. With arguably gendered undertones, critics place emphasis on Coppola’s personal life and appearance, make derogatory evaluations about her off-screen intelligence, and refuse to refer to her by her surname as is typical with film directors, preferring instead “Sofia”, or often incorrectly, “Sophia”.

This lack of respect towards Coppola, and more generally the projection of a female filmmaker’s perceived persona onto her films, reflects a problem in film criticism worthy of interrogation.

Would a male filmmaker be so frequently deemed superficial for making image-based, atmospheric films? Would damaging assumptions about his personal character be as readily invoked in discussions of his works?

It is surely valid to suggest that we rarely refer to male directors by their first names: Fellini is seldom ‘Federico’ and Spielberg never just ‘Steven’.

While it is difficult to make a definitive argument of gendered bias against Coppola in film criticism, given her often positive reception within scholarly circles, it is certainly worth considering whether the kinds of comments Coppola receives repeatedly in the mainstream media are fair. At the very least, Coppola’s case highlights the fact that there remains a problem in how some critics approach female filmmakers and that the language used in film criticism can be destructive.

Perhaps it is not Sofia Coppola who is superficial, but rather, the pervasive and, at times, quite troubling attitude towards her and her films.

Featured Image Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola (2006)

References

1 White, Armond, 2013. ‘Dud of the Week: The Bling Ring reviewed by Armond White for CityArts.’ New York
Film Critics Circle. 12 June.

2 Gibbs, Ed, 2013. ‘The Bling Ring review: Steal from spotlight.’ The Age. 4 August.

3 Shoard, Catherine, 2013. ‘The Bling Ring – review.’ The Guardian. 7 July.

4 Clarke, Donald, 2006. ‘Girl Interrupted/Ancien Regime.’ Irish Times. 13 October.

5 Beck, Jeff, 2013. ‘DVD Review: The Bling Ring.’ Examiner. 16 September.

6 Pomeranz, Margaret, and David Stratton, 2013. ‘The Bling Ring review transcript.’ At the Movies with
Margaret and David (ABC). 6 August.

7 Vonder Haar, Peter, 2006. ‘Marie Antoinette.’ Film Threat. 22 October.

8 McCarthy, Todd, 2006. ‘Review: Marie Antoinette.’ Variety. 24 May.

9 Young, Lucie, 2004. ‘Daddy’s girl.’ Evening Standard Comment. 9 January.

10 Stevens, Dana, 2006. ‘Queen Bees.’ Slate. 19 October.

11 White, Armond, 2013. ‘Show Biz Kids.’ CityArts. 21 February.

12 Smith, Kyle, 2010. ‘Audiences would be better off Somewhere else.’ The New York Post. 22 December.

13 Radziwill, Lee, 2013. ‘Lee Raziwill and Sofia Coppola, on Protecting Privacy.’ T Magazine – The New York
Times. 30 May.

Emma

Emma Sutherland studies at the University of Melbourne and has research interests in film aesthetics, cinema history, and representations of women’s health in visual culture.