Columnist Jon Paul Roberts writes about Sofia Coppola’s style and her upcoming film, On The Rocks.
During the brief period in which I studied film at university, we didn’t talk about Sofia Coppola. There was a module on ‘auteur filmmaking’, a somewhat archaic and potentially moot theory around style and aesthetic, that covered, well, a lot of men. Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Federico Fellini, and Dario Argento, amongst others, were touted as ‘auteurs’ and, as such, they were a specific type of filmmaker that my, mostly male & straight, lecturers admired. There was one woman on the syllabus; Kathryn Bigalow, a great director who deals into predominantly masculine stories of violence and war.
For our end of year examination, we had to sit an exam on auteur filmmaking (I mean, why?) and we were told to familiarise ourselves with two different directors to make sure we had a suitable range of examples to answer whatever essay questions came up. Choose one from the syllabus, my lecturer told us, and then, if you like, you can choose one of your own. From the syllabus, I chose Tarantino, for my sins, and then I decided on Sofia Coppola. No one told me she was an auteur, but I’d recently watched Lost in Translation, and The Virgin Suicides in quick succession and her pastel pinks and blues, her muted silence, and the stiltedness of both films stood out me. Her devotion to the female experience, though notably middle-class and white, felt different from the hypermasculine bloodbaths I’d been watching in class. There was a slowness to her work, a reflective quality that allowed room for interpretation and thought.
At the risk of sounding basic, Coppola’s films deeply affected my twenties. The motionless malaise that she perfected felt akin to my wandering, unsettled, life. I shifted myself from city to city, watched them all pass by in a haze of cigarette smoke. I often had trouble connecting, finding my purpose or identity, and so, someone like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Lost in Translation felt deeply personal to me. She was a woman out of place, both literally and mentally, in a relatively new marriage in which her husband is thriving. ‘I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be,’ she tells Bob (Bill Murray) as they lie next to each other in a Tokyo hotel room. I didn’t either. For the longest time I bounced from possible profession to possible profession; actor, writer, teacher, filmmaker, and many others. Sometimes, I regret the aimlessness of those years, especially when I see people my age or younger thriving (Justin Bieber is my age, for example. As is four-time Oscar nominee Saorise Ronan…) Still, there is something artistic in that aimlessness, in that lack of direction, something in that space that is charged, and that’s what Coppola digs into as a filmmaker.
So many of Coppola’s characters, especially her women, feel stuck. The Lisbon Sisters are stuck within an existence they want to leave in any way possible, Marie Antoinette is stuck within the social entrapments of Versailles, and girls at Martha Farnworth’s Civil War-era school feel trapped in place (a few miles from the fighting) and stuck with their repressed sexual desires. But, let’s be honest, if a sweaty and half-naked Colin Farrell were sitting in your drawing room, you’d be just as flustered. You would do anything to bathe him with a wet rag and don’t even try to tell me you wouldn’t. Still, lust aside (and because if I keep talking about Colin Farrell I won’t stop), Coppola captures a millennial longing for a particular life, one that always seems out of reach, always taunting you.
Recently, the trailer for her latest feature, On the Rocks, was released online. The film reunites Coppola with Murray for the third time and also adds Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, and Jenny Slate (she isn’t in the trailer but IMDB lists her fourth and, honestly, I’m very excited about it). The story follows another stuck woman, Laura (Jones), this time in her late 30s, as she reconnects with her philandering father and also suspects her husband is having an affair. ‘I’m in a rut,’ Laura says, she’s ‘the buzzkill who’s waiting to schedule things’ and feels separate from the life she’s living.
It’s hard not to feel, as I enter my late twenties, and find myself with a flat, writing jobs, teaching jobs, and more responsibility than before, that the fun is slowly stopping. The rut Laura is in doesn’t feel a million miles away from my own. I’ve been waiting for my life to change for a while and yet, it’s not happening no matter what I do. I often feel monotonous, controlling, or a fun killer when I note the time, the early morning we all have the next day, or the expense we’d incur. All things which, at one time, we bore next to no concern for – at least, until afterward.
It’s been just over three years since Coppola released her last film, The Beguiled, and On the Rocks feels like a small, but significant, shift. Coppola usually explores the aspirations and issues of younger women, in their teens or late twenties, but with Laura, she’s exploring the late-30s. ‘A woman is at her most beautiful between the ages of 35 and 39,’ her father (Murray) tells her over dinner. ‘Great. So I have many… months left,’ she retorts.
Coppola is a filmmaker whose films I’m going to see. In 2017, I went with two friends to a packed Curzon in Aldgate for a preview screening of The Beguiled and I followed the news of her, now abandoned, Little Mermaid remake with great interest. So, whether I watch On The Rocks in cinemas or if I restart my AppleTV+ account (I mean you know I cancelled that the second I finished The Morning Show…) I’ll be super excited to see what this new (okay, slightly new) direction has in store. After all the madness of the past summer and almost nothing tangible to look forward to film-wise, this finally feels like salvation.
Sofia Coppola’s ON THE ROCKS will be released in Select Theaters around the world October 2 and on Apple TV+ October 23.
Also Read: How Film Changed Me: On Trailers