Books

Beneath the Pretty Surfaces of Sofia Coppola’s Films

A new monograph demonstrates that the director’s aesthetic does not equal “mere frippery,” but examines important issues.

Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure by Laura Mulvey (image courtesy Berghahn Books)

The book Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure by University of Gothenburg professor Anna Backman Rogers starts with a jab. After thanking someone named Olivia and feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, the dedication page addresses an unnamed peer reviewer who “responded that [Coppola] is too frivolous and lightweight to have a whole monograph dedicated to her work.” “Happy reading pal,” Rogers wishes him.

The author’s primary aim in this monograph (published by Berghahn Books) is to demonstrate that the director’s arguably kitschy, cutesy, and girly aesthetic does not equal “mere frippery,” but that, beneath a pretty surface, Coppola’s films examine important issues, especially in terms of patriarchal society’s rarified and sanitized ideal of womanhood. True, over time, Coppola became identified with her whimsical, feminine aesthetic, but filmmakers such as Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson, or even Hayao Miyazaki have gotten a pass specifically from film reviewers for stylistic strategies similar to those for which Coppola is derided.

Throughout the book, Rogers identifies Coppola as a “beguiler,” someone who coaxes the viewer through pleasurable imagery into an uncanny sense of ease in order to unearth psychological and cultural norms in the unconscious. This tendency is perhaps most apparent in her latest movie The Beguiled (2017), which combines the visual and narrative tropes of fairytales with a female-centric Southern Gothic setting to spin a tale of female repression and revenge.

Coppola also beguiles the viewers through stories where the somber or sinister is seething beneath a shimmery surface. For example, Coppola sees her début feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), as a horror movie masquerading as a suburban fantasy, not just because of the catastrophic events that unfold in the Lisbon household. At the center of the film is the female body, the ethereal Lisbon sisters visually constructed from 1970s beauty commercials and Playboy centerfolds of the same era. “Beauty is invoked as a kind of psychic abjection,” writes Rogers, “an attempt to cast out the reality of the Lisbon girls as human beings who continue to resist a specific priapic form of narrativization. ”

A similar argument emerges in the author’s analysis of Marie Antoinette (2006), where all the saccharine pastels and rococo fluff are anything but gratuitous. Rogers responds to Nathan Lee’s criticism in Film Comment that “Coppola’s conception has nothing to do with thinking through the politics, history or morality of this milieu,” by positing that the movie is actually about commodity fetishism: the body of a young woman is divested of all autonomy and traded as a commodity. What appears to be superficial eye candy — fine pastries, fashion, the glitz of Versailles — is actually a way of showing Marie Antoinette as a doll-like consumer good in the patriarchal Ancien Régime. Coppola’s political statement concerns gender specifically, not pre-revolutionary France in general.

Rogers sometimes takes her fandom too far, excusing legitimate issues raised by Coppola’s work. While the author is eager to expose the political connotations of Marie Antoinette’s treatment as currency between European nations, in The Beguiled she breezes through the director’s erasure of a Black character in the original novel and 1971 film with the phrase, “I will admit that is not an issue I wish to deal with here, and thus seemingly condone and explain away.” While Rogers’s focus on Coppola’s aesthetic somewhat rationalizes the author’s statement, some address of the director’s omission would lend the book a critical edge.

As a cuteness apologist, I have trouble understanding why any creative work has to be defended for being “cute.” Is cuteness worth fighting for in the 21st century? Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure works because, despite the heavy annotations and the sometimes lofty academic language, it’s clearly a project born of both frustration and personal passion: Rogers credits her pursuit of film scholarship to The Virgin Suicides. The author’s analysis of Coppola’s movies is strong even without her defense of the filmmaker. The points Rogers makes, regarding both form and content, validate Sofia Coppola’s placement in the history of cinema.

Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure by Anna Backman Rogers (2018) is published by Berghahn Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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