When Sofia Coppola stepped behind the camera to make her first feature, it was to the surprise of no one. The daughter of Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and producer Francis Ford Coppola, she had already spent ample time on the other side of the lens. Indeed, Coppola made her movie debut in The Godfather before she was even a year old, earned a Razzie Award for acting in the trilogy’s third chapter and featured in six of her father’s other films. And yet, her career as a filmmaker has proved anything but expected.
It’s with a distinctively dreamy style that Coppola approaches her features, crafting images ethereal in their beauty yet astute in their insights — and, along with them, narratives to match. From The Virgin Suicides to Lost in Translation to The Beguiled, her resume resounds with tales of yearning protagonists struggling with their lot in life. The writer/director has followed her thematic fascination through accounts of teenage angst, royal drama, sexual politics and more, winning an Oscar for screenwriting and being anointed Cannes’ top director in the process, but she’s never made the same thing twice.
Before you watch Vice’s exploration of Coppola’s cinema output, we run through the basics behind the second-generation filmmaker.
The Coppola essentials
In The Virgin Suicides, five sisters dream of truly living their own lives, of breaking free from their strict parents’ control, and of being something more than objects of fantasy and mystery to the local boys. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, it’s a film both intimately specific and widely relatable, revelling in the detail of being a teenage girl while also resounding for anyone who has ever grappled with finding their own path. And it’s also one that makes quite the statement on its director’s behalf. It’s easy to understand how Coppola saw parallels in the story as she endeavoured to carve out her own niche in an industry already conquered by her father and in a field hardly welcoming to women.
Nearly two decades later, Coppola has turned that attention-grabbing debut into a trailblazing career well and truly outside of her dad’s shadow. When she was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards for her second film, Lost in Translation, she became the first American woman in history to be recognised in the category, though she’d ultimately only win for Best Original Screenplay. Next, when her fourth effort, Somewhere, took out the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, it became the first movie by a female American director to do so. In Cannes with her sixth title, The Beguiled, she’d make a similar splash when she won the festival’s Best Director trophy.
It’s hardly astonishing, then, that Coppola favours the narratives she does — of a young woman searching for fulfilment beyond her unhappy marriage in Lost in Translation, a queen reacting to the spotlight in Marie Antoinette, a movie star assessing what’s important in life in Somewhere and a group of friends seeking their own thrills amidst Hollywood’s celebrity-obsessed culture in The Bling Ring. Nor is it surprising she's become known for soft, entrancing but never too delicate or light aesthetics; images that don't hide the fact that they’re made with a female eye and always ripple with empathy. In 2017’s The Beguiled, both shine at their brightest as Coppola dissects the complicated dynamic between men and women. In gorgeously realised candlelit scenes, she flits between melodrama and satire, and sex and politics, crafting an ode to the fortitude and savvy of underestimated ladies fighting for their place in the world.
Three things you mightn’t know
- In the music video for The Chemical Brothers’ "Elektrobank", she performs a rhythmic gymnastics routine, with the clip directed by her future-husband, Spike Jonze.
- She was so determined to turn The Virgin Suicides into a film, she wrote an adaptation of the novel before securing the rights.
- In Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, Coppola plays Saché, one of Queen Padmé Amidala’s handmaidens, alongside Keira Knightley and Rose Byrne.
Five films you really need to see
The Virgin Suicides: The inner torment of teenage girls — and the allure they hold to their male counterparts — has rarely proved as poetic and haunting as in Coppola’s feature-length debut.
Lost in Translation: Loosely based on her own experiences in Tokyo, Coppola’s second film perfects the existential yearning of both quarter- and mid-life crises, as aided by its pitch-perfect turns by stars Scarlett Johansson and Billy Murray.
Marie Antoinette: Coppola’s distinctive take on the famous French monarch, as played by Kirsten Dunst, continued her focus with women coping with their station and surroundings, eschewing historical biopic convention for an upbeat aesthetic.
Somewhere: In a thematic companion piece to Lost in Translation — and a film that proves just as absorbing — Coppola examines the existential malaise surrounding a famous actor’s stay at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont with his pre-teen daughter.
The Beguiled: The second film adaptation of Thomas P Cullinan’s novel, Coppola’s Civil War-era drama corrals Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell into a smart and scathing exploration of gender power dynamics.
Who’s sharing the Coppola love?
Kirsten Dunst: Featuring in three of Coppola’s six films to date, Dunst jumped from child actress to teenage star with The Virgin Suicides, before playing Marie Antoinette’s titular character and one of The Beguiled’s school of women.
Stephen Dorff: The Power of One, Backbeat and Blade’s Dorff took on the role of a movie star reconnecting with his 11-year-old daughter in Somewhere.
Giovanni Ribisi: As well as playing Lost in Translation’s workaholic husband, Ribisi voiced the narration for The Virgin Suicides.
James Woods: The Videodrome, Once Upon a Time in America and Casino actor played the exasperated father of The Virgin Suicides’ fated teenage sisters.
David Ehrlich: Currently Indiewire’s senior film critic, Ehrlich ranked Coppola’s first five films for MTV.
What should I watch next?
Watch Coppola discuss The Bling Ring with star Emma Watson on SBS On Demand:
You can stream the focus on Sofia Coppola in The Vice Guide to Film now at SBS On Demand: