Sofia Coppola might be best known as the fashionable daughter of the legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. But for anyone who saw her directorial debut, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, or her mega-successful Lost in Translation (2003), it is apparent that the 35-year-old writer/director is a formidable filmmaker in her own right.
She’s got big shoes to fill, but after two acclaimed films and a third one—Marie Antoinette, now in theaters—getting lots of buzz, it looks like she’s filling them.
Critics love writing about and analyzing interesting young filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, and many have noted her seeming preoccupation with the existential drama of teen girl protagonists. Feminist criticism has a lot to say about The Virgin Suicides, a story about five adolescent sisters in the ’70s who kill themselves because, apparently, their oppressive suburban existence—and their rigidly strict parents—holds no better option. And the Scarlett Johansson character of Charlotte in Lost in Translation is also trapped in a boxed-in life, in this case the existential doldrums known as the married-off twentysomething years. And Marie Antoinette—a girl for whom life was a rigid, paved path from her aristocratic birth—fits perfectly into Coppola’s desensitized, directionless girl heroine.
After seeing Marie Antoinette, however, and looking back on Coppola’s first two films, there is something else that I see as the most profound thread between the three. What is most interesting about the young female protagonists in these films is not that they are young or female, but that they are dealing with life as if it were over by age 25. There is a thick existential anxiety in each of these films—a “chasing after the wind” sense of urgency that shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s life at age seventeen. Should it?
When most girls are worrying about nail polish, horses, and amateur photography, Coppola’s heroines are dying for one bit of transcendence before the chance slips away. The Lisbon sisters in Suicides come to a place where life—without any outlet or perspective of a better future—becomes not worth living. Charlotte in Translation is not as desperate, but nonetheless feels stuck and hopelessly unguided despite being a beautiful twentysomething with a degree from Yale. And Marie Antoinette is barely fifteen before she realizes that a life of freedom and youthful carelessness was never really an option for her.
I don’t think Coppola is saying that all, or even most, adolescent girls are this way. Rather, Coppola is showing us in these extreme examples a heavy truth about life: it goes by quickly, and to borrow a phrase from Walker Percy, sometimes the “everydayness” is just too much to bear. Thus, we live for the moments of transcendence, because life is short and 90 percent of it is some sort of letdown. As Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes, “However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless” (11:8).
In Antoinette, Coppola portrays the notorious French queen (Kirsten Dunst) in her “glory days” from her start as the imported teenage Dauphine of France (via Austria) to just before her guillotine end. If ever there were a story about the emotional desperation of trying to hold on to blips of joy as one’s life rushes by, it is this. Young Antoinette’s illustrious, extravagant reign was painfully short-lived before public opinion turned and the “party” was over.
And there is a lot of partying in Marie Antoinette. The queen and her court of giggly aristocrats are constantly guzzling champagne, popping é clairs, and playing parlor games. They are darting to Paris for masked balls or romping around the gardens of Versailles at all hours of the night. The centerpiece party scene of the film is the queen’s 21st birthday extravaganza, a three-day affair in which immense amounts of monies are gambled away and ungodly portions of cakes and bubbly are consumed. This event, which concludes with the queen and about six of her closest friends (not including Louis XVI) lying in the grass outside Versailles to watch the sunrise, is the emotional center of the film.
The party itself is captivating, but it is the morning after where the impact is felt. Coppola and cinematographer Lance Acord capture the tussle-haired Antoinette in the golden dawn light, lying in her wrinkled satin gown amid the pruned grasses of her royal lawn. Then, to the solemn music of Squarepusher (a lonely song very similar to one used in Lost in Translation), we see the queen secluded and hung over in her quarters, while servants roam the palace, picking up empty glasses, leftover gambling chips, and other messes from the previous nights’ exploits.
The feeling of the scene mirrors that of similar situations in Coppola’s other films. In Suicides, for example, the biggest “party” scene is the Lisbon sisters’ high school prom. The frivolity of the dance is a high point for them—an escape from the oppression of their overprotective parents. After Lex (Kirsten Dunst) and her date Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) are crowned prom queen and king, the royal teenage couple celebrate by escaping to the school’s football field, where Lex loses her virginity. But sometime during the night, after they fall asleep, Trip leaves, and poor Lex is left alone on the cold, damp field. This “morning after” scene—an unforgettable blue-tinted shot of Lex’s gaunt white face as she wakes up alone—is devastating. What a contrast to see such a vibrant prom scene and then this tragic shot of a young teenage girl, deflowered and forever tainted by one night of passion, as she picks up her heels, tiara, and tiredly stumbles off the football field in the milky morning light.
Lost in Translation includes several “morning after” scenes. In fact, the film alternates between late-night escapades in the frenetic Tokyo nightlife and subsequent quiet, slow-paced mornings. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is in a constant state of weary-eyed jet lag, and suffers after several nights of heavy drinking at the hotel bar. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) spends her mornings in contemplative, “under the sun” pondering—often looking out her hotel window or lying on her bed. Both of these souls embody the dynamics of “morning after” theology: there are limitless pleasures available on any given night, both good ones (as in their pure relationship) and bad (as in Bob’s one night stand with the lounge singer), but all of them end as the sun comes up. So goes the relentless circadian burden: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises” (Ecclesiastes 1:5).
How appropriate that the last scene in Lost in Translation takes place at dawn in Tokyo, as Bob must fly home and say goodbye to Charlotte. To the haunting music of Jesus and Mary Chain and the ghostly images of Tokyo’s downtown infrastructure, barren in the pastel morning light, we feel the hurt of a chapter closing. The film up to this point has been, for Bob and Charlotte, an escape from realities of estranged spouses and disillusioned identities. The two of them experienced in each other a “high” in life—brief, fleeting, consciously terminal—and the morning after is when the true weight (the “other 90 percent”) of life is felt.
One might be tempted to see in this “morning after” theology some sort of cause-effect moralizing. I think this would be a wrong reading. Coppola is not telling us that wild nights have unseemly mornings after, actions have consequences, or “living in the moment” is both a blessing and a curse. We already know this. Solomon wrote a book about it.
Coppola is telling us nothing new, and certainly is not teaching us anything (whether history, politics, or philosophy). Rather, she is portraying a truth that we all can recognize: after every party, there is a cleanup; after every joy, a comedown. For everything wonderful in life, there is a knowledge that tempers it—the knowledge of impermanence—and it weighs heavy on the soul.