The Voice of Marianne Faithfull; on Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette

Article excerpt

  Walking around the halls of Versailles, and passing from her grand
  public bedroom into her small private apartments, surrounded by her
  fabrics and trinkets, I could imagine the girl ... Being there you can
  feel how lost they must have been, so isolated from any kind of
  reality outside their gates. And I tried to imagine her being there,
  then. A gold-plated, Versailles hangover of the memory of a lost girl,
  leaving childhood behind, to the final dignity of a woman ...

--Sofia Coppola (1)

Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola

Jean-Luc Godard, while professing his admiration for The Apple (1998) directed by the then 17 year-old Samira Makhmalbaf, dismissed any suggestion that her father Mohsen--the powerhouse filmmaker in Iran--had had any helping hand in the making of his daughter's film. "Everyone said that her father helped her", said Godard. "I've seen one of his films, which was very mediocre... The Apple is a very original film, like Cassavetes' early pictures, except that you can see it's a film shot by a young woman." (2)

Alongside the auteur of Blackboards (2000) and At Five in the Afternoon (2003), the 36 year-old Sofia Coppola is another high profile second-generation female filmmaker to emerge in the last decade. Her father is, needless to say, Francis Ford Coppola, the multiple Oscar-winning director of the Godfather trilogy. However, beside their surname, what are the common threads connecting the films by the father and the daughter?

To begin with the older Coppola likes to explore the themes of masculine collectivity and of men on a mission, be it an Italian-American mafia in New York (The Godfather, 1972), a group of teen gangsters in a small town (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, both 1983), or the US military waging war in the South Asian jungle (Apocalypse Now, 1979). On the other hand, ever since her 1998 short Lick the Star, the younger Coppola appears captivated by the fragile emotions of young women, be it high school girls in the suburb (The Virgin Suicides, 1999), an American girl in Tokyo (Lost in Translation, 2003), or a teenage queen in 16th century France (Marie Antoinette, 2006).

Nevertheless, if we are asked to identify one situation commonly found in their films, we could say that both Coppolas like to portray an "outsider" who enters into a world foreign to him or her. The Godfather is a case in point: despite having maintained a certain distance from his mafia-tied family, Al Pacino's Michael Corleone is unwittingly elected to head a crime syndicate after the death of his father. Or take Apocalypse Now: Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz is relegated deep into the jungle of Cambodia, away from the civilized world of Saigon, where he lives like a king among the natives. In Rumble Fish, Mickey Rourke's colour-blind poet-gangster returns from the city to his sleepy hometown, only to find that he no longer belongs there and that doom awaits him. The latter is a great film of claustrophobia, set in a bizarre and colourless American town of almost Kafkaesque proportion. Its inhabitants appear to be trapped inside the small town indefinitely, where one could only dream of leaving. This is the similar situation in which Keanu Reeves' lawyer from London finds himself at Dracula's haunted castle in the older Coppola's version of the Bram Stoker novel. Indeed, FFC's settings are often closed-circuit worlds from which his characters could never get out of.

This theme is more pronounced in Sofia Coppola's three feature films to date. Indeed, her main concern has been claustrophobic situations, in which her characters are increasingly isolated and shut down from the external influences. Moreover, the settings in her films are often limited to a single edifice (school, house, hotel, chateau, etc.); for one reason or the other, her characters find it hard to get out of these situations, not unlike the bourgeois partygoers in Bunuel's The Exterminating Angels (1962). …