June 30, 2017

The Beguiling Cinematic Worlds of Sofia Coppola

What makes a Sofia Coppola film a Sofia Coppola film?

Oscar-nominated director Sofia Coppola has been directing films for almost two decades and in that time has proven herself to be a true visual virtuoso. Her films are patient, subtle, and nuanced while still managing to be powerfully mysterious and perplexing—each one its own carefully crafted cinematic world that beguiles audiences with their unique and personal artistry. In this video essay by ScreenPrism, we get to see these worlds from all angles, from their visual construction to their oft conflicted inhabitants, as well as get a better understanding of the sensibilities of their creator.

A life in pictures

What many of you know is that Sofia Coppola is the only daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, but what many of you may not know is that she didn't set out to become a film director like her father. She instead got her start in the fashion industry, interning with Chanel at just 15 until she set her sights on CalArts to study painting, ultimately transitioning into photography at the Art Center College of Design.

Her experience working in fashion and visual arts is perhaps what makes her the great visual storyteller that she is. Her deep understanding of what it takes to transform an image into a story, as well as her immense attention to detail, is what makes Coppola's work truly stand out.

'Marie Antoinette' (2006)

The Sofia Coppola Mood

One thing that Coppola does particularly well is use cinematic elements to create a specific mood in her work. From The Virgin Suicides to The Beguiled, Coppola uses camera movement, lighting, composition, and color to communicate the emotional energy of every scene, employing much less dialog in her films than other filmmakers.

She relies instead on the visuals to tell her stories. In Somewhere, she allows Johnny Marco to float off camera to communicate his loneliness and apathy. In The Virgin Suicides, she places Lux Lisbon awkwardly in the bottom right of the frame to communicate a sense of abandonment. In The Bling Ring, she captures an interesting extreme wide shot of her characters breaking into a glass house, effectively making them look like dolls running through a dollhouse to create a visual metaphor for not only the characters' materialism, but also for the childish way in which they commit their crime spree.

'The Bling Ring' (2013)

Coppola Trademarks

ScreenPrism lists several of her most noteworthy trademarks, ones that not only show up in most (if not all) of her films, but ones that also facilitate her aptitude for visual storytelling.

  • Typically a female protagonist at a turning point
  • Not driven by plot, but by themes
  • Learn about emotional states through visuals
  • Shot on film (except for The Bling Ring)
  • Signature follow shot
  • Ambient sound
  • Documentary sensibility
  • Muted or pastel colors
  • Natural light
'The Virgin Suicides' (1999)

Sofia Coppola's latest film The Beguiled, an adaptation of a Southern gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan, is her furthest departure from her typical style and form, but still bears the mark of her unrelenting devotion to visual storytelling. The film won her Best Director at this year's Cannes, and is now out in theaters.      

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