Guest post by Michelle Spencer.
With the release of The Beguiled this summer marking Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature film, it seemed an opportune time to revisit her directorial debut. Recently, she won Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival; making her the second female director to win in the festival’s seventy year history.
Before her first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), Coppola made Lick the Star (1998), a 14 minute black and white short and the first film solely directed by Sofia Coppola. It was co-written by Stephanie Hayman and the Director of Photography was Lance Acord who she also worked with on her Oscar nominated film Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006). Although not a feature length production, Lick the Star contains many of the visual motifs and distinct directorial choices that would define Coppola’s work in the years to come.
The film explores the agony of adolescence and the ever changing social status of middle school girls. It is narrated by a young female student returning from a short absence to find the queen of seventh grade, named Chloe, has taken reign over her social group. The girls have plotted to slip rat poison into the lunches of fellow male students; inspired by the V.C. Andrews novel ‘Flowers in the Attic’. As the plan takes off, so does the quick demise of Chloe’s social status. After a misunderstanding and a game of telephone dethrone her, she becomes isolated and attempts suicide.
There are several instances of scenes and shots in Lick the Star which Coppola carries over into her feature length films. She seems drawn to stories centered on characters longing for a sense of acceptance and need for emotional stability during difficult transitions in their lives.
Coppola frequently uses a car to move characters along while physically along through the film while internally they are at a cross roads. For example, in the opening shot of Lick the Star, a young girl gazes out of a car window watching the scenery pass by as she contemplates the dread of returning to school after missing several days. She knows in middle school things change rapidly and wonders what will be in store for her.
Similar shots of young people gazing out of car windows and contemplating their circumstances can be found in many of Coppola’s other works. In Somewhere – an almost exact shot as above -the character of Cleo looks out the window while her father is in the background looking forward. It demonstrates their distance and need to reconnect.
In Lost in Translation, the character Charlotte looks out at the intensely electrifying neon lights of Tokyo reflected in the car window. Although she is fascinated by the overwhelming mega city she appears detached as she fades into her surroundings.
Further use of separating a character for a visual allusion to their emotions are bathtub scenes. The intimate setting of these shots only enhance our awareness of the vulnerability of the characters internal well-being. The point of view of the camera is also important as we are looking down on the subjects. Here we see the defeated Chloe’s attempt at suicide after taking pills and sliding down into the bathtub in Lick the Star.
The Virgin Suicides has a similar shot of an attempted suicide by the thirteen year old Cecilia Lisbon. In Marie Antoinette, the queen’s slowly dwindling popularity and family strife has her isolating herself in her bathtub.
Another common aspect to Coppola’s films are the ensembles of female characters. In Lick the Star, our group of scheming preteens assemble in the grass resembling a flower. The image brings us back to the book ‘Flowers in the Attic’ which is the inspiration for their poisonous plot.
A similar shot from The Virgin Suicides. The remaining sisters looking like castaways on an island waiting to hear from the outside world. In Marie Antoinette, the more plainly dressed queen is framed by her courtiers in their lavish attire. The shot reminds us of her otherness—an Austrian in France—and sets her apart as the outsider.
As you can see in the comparison of her earliest work Coppola has used certain visual motifs and given them new life and new meaning in each of her films. It will be interesting to see what the auteur director does next.
Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, based on the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, is in theaters on June 30.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, which has been frequently compared to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, screened at IU Cinema in 2016.
Michelle Spencer has a B.A. in English and minor in Film Studies from Purdue University. She has a great love of reading, but has been captivated by movies since her father took her to see Star Wars: A New Hope when she was three years old. Her favorite films include The Big Sleep (1946), Annie Hall (1977) and Rushmore (1998).