In 2015, three significant films were released: Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe and Céline Sciamma Girlhood. All three are female stories devoid of the faux candor associated with many male-directed ‘women’s stories.’ There is an astonishing amount of authenticity in these wildly different films, each playing with explorations of the teenage girl psyche with wildly differing results. In Mustang, we met girls whose spirits could never be broken, no matter the odds or imprisonments they faced, from societal to literal, when they’re confined in their home. In Girlhood, we learned these imprisonments could be as psychological and socially constructed as the physical bars placed on their windows in Ergüven’s feature. And in Laurent’s psycho-drama, we face the realities and interplay of teenage cruelty and intimacy found in female friendships in that developmental stage. These films aren’t playing to strictly a female audience, but they feel refreshingly tailor-made to do so. They’re offering up honest and raw depictions of girlhood and femininity on the creative landscape and it was often beautiful, sometimes tragic and all together worth celebrating. It’s something that filmmaker Sofia Coppola has been doing her entire career, and her latest release, the remake of The Beguiled, drives home this point further.
Over the course of her career Coppola has developed a distinctive approach to her filmmaking. Her distinct style utilizes—and nearly favors—visuals as a means of storytelling (I’d argue she could tell the same stories in silence with her visual finesse). Along the way she’s also developed an unabashed feminine perspective that, combined with her eye for stylish filmmaking, has set her apart from her male contemporaries. She isn’t just telling stories about women but imbuing them with a sense of femininity.
It starts with color, building a point of view from a vibrant palette and the way in which the cinematography capture each female character. A common complaint in current cinema—particularly in blockbusters and tentpole films—has been the gray color grading. Movies that should pop ultimately end up blending in with their background. Coppola defies this expectation, relishing in the pinks of the hats Marie Antoinette or in Scarlett Johansson’s wig in Lost in Translation. She finds color in the yellows of the kitchen in Somewhere—the sunlight radiating through the shades covering a window—or in the baby blues of the sky whizzing past Antoinette. We see the blues that swallow Elle Fanning whole in Somewhere as she hosts a tea party beneath the surface of a pool. She utilizes stark whites in Antoinette's lavish, daisy-infested fields and the sun-bleached morning-after in The Virgin Suicides. Her color palette is distinctive and gives her films a fantastical atmosphere, adding to their unabashed femininity. Her colors aren’t loud and vibrant or muted and hollow, serving as much of a purpose as her storytelling.
Her films’ image subvert the male gaze by never allowing the female characters to be exploited as they view her cinematic universe instead through a female friendly lens. We watch the sisters of The Virgin Suicides from afar, sure, and Johansson is sometimes looked at through the eyes of Bill Murray, but more often than not we’re given looks into the worlds of female characters born into male-dominated spaces. Their inclusion is worthy of curiosity, judgement, disdain or damaging admiration. As Roger Ebert once said in a review for Marie Antoinette:
“This is Sofia Coppola’s third film centering on the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you. [...] Every criticism I have read of this film would alter its fragile magic and reduce its romantic and tragic poignancy to the level of an instructional film. ”
When we meet most of Coppola’s delicate, youthful characters in moments of severe isolation—be it on a lonesome carriage ride through a foggy morning, alone in an expansive hotel room meant for two, or in a household where rules are inflicted to keep its inhabitants sheltered and painfully lonely. From The Virgin Suicides to this year's The Beguiled, Coppola has depicted isolation as one of her major themes, approached particularly through the specific point of view.
The femininity comes from Coppola’s understanding of these women beyond their psychological or physical cages. So often in films about women, the female characters exist without any sense of female identity; they’re simply judged on their actions, their features or what a wider audience can relate to. Movies about weddings, having children and being mothers and girlfriends play on tropes of what it means “to be a woman” without exploring what it means to be a woman. Coppola, typically working from a place of interested in adolescents mature beyond their years, shows rather than tells us aspects of being a woman through all historical settings and walks of life.
Throughout much of cinema’s mainstream history we’ve been told just exactly what it means “to be a man,” definitions that may have changed throughout the decades but have still been firmly covered in a layer of masculine attitude. We have films that dedicate their stories from a male character's birth to their death, detailing the ins and outs of what makes that particular guy tic. For women that sort of nuance through different time periods is much more difficult to come across, and it’s why voices such as Coppola’s are so poignant; they reach and grab hold of those looking for stories they can relate to, that mirror who they are or were in certain periods of their lives. (Until this point, she has had little to no diversity in her films and is mainly showcasing white femininity. Hopefully this is something she’ll change in the future.)
All of this makes her directing The Beguiled remake so fascinating. Originally filmed by Don Siegel, adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel, and starring Clint Eastwood as Corporal John ‘McBee’ McBurney, this is a man’s story: after being wounded during the Civil War, McBurney is taken in by a Southern all-girls boarding school. The female characters are more sinister and less sympathetic. In Coppola’s version there are similar tropes of the mighty headmistress and the school’s young seductress, but yet again, we’re given these depictions through the female point of view; these women have increased agency as we see the story unfold from their worldview. As is the case with The Virgin Suicides, the girls of the boarding house are kept inside and isolated for their own safety, making them curious about and isolated from the outside world. Like with Marie Antoinette, it’s women living amidst the mess men have made, thrown into a society that has displaced them. Coppola’s themes are undoubtedly recurring, flexible and timeless enough to be able to encompass all walks of life that women can identify with, spread wide across history.
Coppola’s films are full to the brim with unabashed and gleeful femininity. It’s shown in the way Fanning's role of the daughter in Somewhere is polished and poised, showcasing the wisdom girls possess from a young age as she helps her father (Stephen Dorff) out of his jaded shell. It’s in the naiveté of the sisters of The Virgin Suicides, but also in their world weariness in the face of boyish neighbors who take interest in the reclusive girls. Coppola dismantles the idea of depicting mysterious and shielded women as enigmas rather than humans. We see it in casual shots of modern Converse shoes scattered amongst decadent heels in Marie Antoinette, or in its titular character enjoying the pleasures of sex at her own pace. It is in Johansson’s unyielding gaze and youthful yearning in Lost in Translation and hell, even Emma Watson’s self-absorption in The Bling Ring. To be a female character in Coppola’s film is more than presenting a gender or a trope but instead the director makes the “radical” decision to depict women in all of their grace, kindness, misery and determination in ways that feel very honest.