Sofia Coppola: Deeply Shallow

This piece originally appeared in Candid Magazine’s 2017 Luxury Issue, which launched during London Fashion Week.

There are few names as synonymous with luxury in contemporary cinema as Sofia Coppola. Since her 1999 feature debut, The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s work has increasingly dealt with depictions of lavish lifestyles and existential ennui. Her preoccupation with luxury should, of course, come as no surprise. Born into Hollywood royalty, Coppola interned with Chanel at the tender age of 15, and has recently collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a line of handbags and shoes. Hers is an unusual perspective in cinema, and contemporary visual art in general, thanks to her privileged upbringing; a perspective that values brands but shuns consumer capitalism, that is at once defensive of the trappings of wealth and bored by them.

Though it is perhaps insulting to Coppola’s merits as an artist to compare her work to that of her father, it would be remiss not to consider his influence given that his success is what shaped her comfortable early life. While Francis Ford’s upbringing was far from working class, his most-praised work often deals with the immigrant experience, the relationship between wealth and status, and the dark underbelly of American capitalism as experienced through the criminal underworld. Early in his film school education, Francis Ford Coppola became entranced by Soviet cinema, citing film-makers such as Sergei Eisenstein as one of his greatest influences. In many ways, his work depicts a more multi-faceted and nuanced view of the American class system than his daughter’s. Whereas Francis seems interested in the machinations of greed and power, Sofia goes on to portray the empty rewards without the struggle. In that sense, one could argue that their filmographies together track an economic progression in American culture; from early, violent bids for wealth and power to the blasé hedonism of modern-day late capitalism.

Among the most interesting aspects of Sofia Coppola’s depictions of American society are her opinions on consumerism. One would think, given her zeal for haute couture and luxury brands, that Coppola would be sympathetic to consumer culture, at the very least. However, in a 2013 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, she was quick to distance herself from the subjects of her latest film, The Bling Ring, arguing:
“There’s a side that I appreciate about Louis Vuitton and Chanel, that they have this heritage and great quality, but the kids in the story are more interested in the bling aspect, kind of the status of those brands.”
This distinction between the appreciation of craftsmanship, and the crass lust for status symbols, belies a certain disdain for the upper-middle class; a very old-money response to the rising economic powers of the lower classes. Coppola’s remark also reveals a great deal about her artistic process. Her cinematic output arguably relies more on aesthetics and craft than storytelling. Though she often examines the profound boredom experienced by the rich and famous, one can’t help but feel this renders her art myopic, and potentially alienating to audiences beyond her peer group. This sense of distance and detachment from the wider world, indeed, permeates much of her work too.

As if to counter any potential cries of “Poor little rich girl”, Coppola’s work often attempts to repackage a life of luxury and excess as something radical. Nowhere is this more explicit than in 2006’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette as a punk heroine. Coppola’s sympathy for the doomed queen is understandable. She views her as a rebellious teen, trapped in a gilded cage of political expectations and extreme wealth. As a teen growing up in the public eye, it makes sense that Coppola would depict Marie Antoinette as an angsty celebrity, at odds with the demands of her society.
However, it’s problematic that Coppola suggests that luxury and radicalism can co-exist. That’s not to say Coppola is entirely misguided. It is true that certain brands began as radical ventures. Coco Chanel sought to redefine the silhouette for the “New Woman” of the early 20th Century, subverting gendered signifiers by ditching exaggerated femininity for clean, geometric shapes. But to suggest that today’s Chanel is in any way the same gender-defying force would be ridiculous. In this, as in other instances, Coppola’s defense of luxury as something revolutionary comes across rather tone deaf. It is a vision of rebellion that could only be conjured by someone born and bred in a Hollywood bubble.

In addition to a spirit of rebellion, key themes in Coppola’s work are transcience and existentialism, often played out against the backdrop of luxury hotels. Somewhere and Lost in Translation are populated by characters bored of their privileged circumstances, yet unable to connect with the world around them. In these instances, Coppola is keen to show wealth as a curse, rather than a gift, and perhaps that is something she can speak to better than anyone. It is here that she appears her most personal and vulnerable. Her images of listless, lonely celebrities adrift in grandiose surroundings call to mind the final act of Citizen Kane, which sees Charles Foster Kane roaming his mansion like a ghost; a lonely soul trapped in a mausoleum of his own wealth. Whether intentional or not, these films exude frustration, a need for human interaction going unmet. It would be irresponsible and more than a little presumptuous to suggest that Coppola intends these films as cautionary tales, or criticisms of life at the top, but there is certainly an argument to be made in favour of both.

Coppola’s films are very much luxury items themselves; flawlessly made, undoubtedly beautiful, but not particularly expressive of anything deeper than their surfaces. Though one could pore through her back catalogue and concoct endless readings – pertaining to class, to gender, to philosophy – their true triumph is in their shallowness. You can admire the materials, examine the stitching, but on the surface they are simply something beautiful to behold; something transitory and empty. In this sense, Coppola stands alone as a visual artist and film-maker – one that crafts products for the wealthy, by the wealthy.

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