In a different league

NEW-AGE DIRECTOR

In a different league

 TUNNEL VISION  Sofia CoppolaHer admirers detect in her work a good eye, impeccable taste, an exactitude with indistinct moods and feelings. Her detractors claim that her frame of reference is narrow, that she makes the same film over and over again.

By her own admission, Coppola’s first three movies — The Virgin Suicides  (2000), Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006) — constitute a trilogy about young women on the awkward verge of self-definition. As her critics see it, the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism. In other words, the privilege that comes with being the supremely well-connected daughter of Francis Ford Coppola merges with the subject of her films, which to a large degree have dealt with the existential plight of the entitled.

Her characters are dolefully cosseted in the fanciest surroundings. Lost in Translation details a brief encounter between two kindred lost souls stranded in the five-star Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo. Marie Antoinette imagines its doomed queen as a poor little rich girl, and prerevolutionary Versailles as a candy-coloured wonderland, the height of haute cuisine and couture.

In her latest film, Somewhere, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival this year, Coppola trains her sympathies on another pampered but rootless protagonist, a movie star named Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), holed up in a suite at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. The trappings of his hedonistic existence barely conceal an incipient identity crisis; when his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), shows up to stay with him, Johnny proves a devoted dad in his own way, even though he’s falling apart on the inside.

The cloistered milieu of Somewhere offers yet more ammunition to her skeptics, but Coppola has a matter-of-fact response. “I feel like everyone should tell what they know in the world that they know,” she said during a recent interview.

In her work, Coppola has never been shy about embracing the good life. While she made her public debut with a notoriously stilted performance in The Godfather Part III (1990), the more relevant early credit is as a teenage co-writer of her father’s short film Life Without Zoe, part of the 1989 omnibus New York Stories that brought together Francis Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

The centrepiece of Life Without Zoe is an elaborate costume party, and party sequences have since become a hallmark of Coppola’s films. All this merrymaking — along with her known interest in fashion (she has her own line and has modelled for her friend Marc Jacobs and designed bags and shoes for Louis Vuitton) — seems to have contributed to a perception that there is something fundamentally frivolous about her films. (Several reviews of Marie Antoinette invoked Paris Hilton.)

Coppola’s movies tend to take the insubstantial form of reveries: ethereal, languid, apt to evaporate on contact. But their dreaminess is a case of form meeting function; her films are about vagueness, her characters typically in transition and stymied by uncertainty.

Coppola acknowledged that she was more interested in moods than plots, and that she was especially drawn to unformed characters. “I’ve always found that a more interesting state,” she said. “You’re learning something about yourself, or trying to.”

In The Virgin Suicides, based on Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, the five beautiful sisters who mysteriously kill themselves remain forever frozen on the cusp of adulthood. Coppola’s subsequent films can be seen as metaphors for adolescence, a condition — at once enjoyable, confounding and traumatic — that they associate with the out-of-body dislocation of jet lag (Lost in Translation), the absurd rituals of the Bourbon court (Marie Antoinette) and the surreal overstimulation and mortification of modern celebrity culture (Somewhere).

As Coppola is well aware, a style that is easy on the eye (and ear) can also be easy to underestimate. “If you make something really gritty it seems like it’s more deep or substantial,” she said. Coppola calls Marie Antoinette, her “girliest” film, has been her most divisive, and the most acclaimed by far, Lost in Translation, in which a glum middle-aged man strikes up an intimate connection with a lovely young woman, is the one that best conforms to a male fantasy.

With Somewhere, Coppola assumes, more fully than ever before, a male perspective. “One of the challenges was to make something from a guy’s point of view that was emotional,” she said. In Dorff — the kind of unlikely casting choice that has enlivened many of her films, she had someone with an aura of “the bad-boy actor,” she said, but who also brought an unexpected quality: “this really sweet, sincere side.”

The watchword for Somewhere, Coppola said, was “minimal” — a reaction to the excesses of Marie Antoinette, which required a small army of costumes and a cake department. The new film is basically a two-hander, and Coppola directed the actors to hold back. “I kept saying, “Don’t do anything, do less,’ ” she said. “I wanted it to be sweet and genuine but without being sappy.”

She discussed visual reference points with her cinematographer, Harris Savides: Bruce Weber’s Hollywood portraits (in particular one of Matt Dillon in bed), Helmut Newton’s photos of models at the Chateau Marmont. “They weren’t literal references, more to set up a flavour,” Savides said. “The main thing was to tell the story really simply and let it play out in long beats and have the audience discover the moment.”

Coppola describes Somewhere as “personal but not so autobiographical.” It was motherhood, she said, that compelled the parental angle. A few details from Somewhere — an impulsive helicopter ride, a whirlwind trip to Italy — are summoned from the memory banks. “Of course, having a celebrity dad, there are things from my childhood,” she said, but she cautioned against tracing direct correspondences: “Johnny and my dad are so different.”

“I didn’t really think about it before,” Coppola said of the autobiography question, which came up when Somewhere was shown in Venice. Her films may be reflective, but she would rather avoid reflecting on her work. When she started writing Somewhere, she said, it didn’t even occur to her that it would be another film set in a
hotel.

Whether this lack of awareness is blissful or protective, Coppola’s tunnel vision likely accounts for both the strengths and the limitations of her delicately self-contained films. “I try to go with what I’m interested in and not think too much about it,” she said. “There are enough ways of talking yourself out of doing something.”

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