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Sofia Coppola: Do Audiences Still Want to Look Through Her Gaze?

Is Sofia Coppola ever going to take it to the next level? The answer may be no, and that could be fine. I consider myself a Coppola fan (though I didn’t care much for “The Beguiled”), and part of me thinks that she’s in the perfect place and always has been. In a directorial career that stretches back 18 years, she has made just six features. Only one of them, “Lost in Translation” (2003), ever put her at the center of the white-hot center. Tellingly, it was the one time that she deigned to build an entire film around the personality of a movie star (no slight to Scarlett Johansson, who’s terrific in it, but that movie is defined by Bill Murray), and I feel like I understand why she hasn’t done it since. It’s part of her lone-wolf art mystique. The real star of her movies is Sofia Coppola. Which is fine. Or maybe it isn’t.

We’ve reached a point when a lot of people are asking — rightly — why there aren’t more women directors of power and influence in Hollywood. Yet Sofia Coppola has always been ahead of that curve, or maybe just beyond it. She’s on her own wavelength, working not just apart from the lockstep system of blockbuster imperatives but a layer or two outside the indie world.

At the start of each Sofia Coppola film, you see the logo of American Zoetrope, the film studio founded by her father and George Lucas and now owned, as a production company, by Sofia and her brother, Roman. That logo is at once a declaration of independence and a declaration of royalty. It says that she can make her films the way she wants to, in part because of who she is. It’s an enviable position, and Coppola has used it in the most admirable way possible. Her six movies are astoundingly diverse, shot and edited with an immaculate voice, every one of them an aesthetic adventure, a fluky vision that adds up. Each carries the fine-cut aura of being the precise movie she wanted to make.

What ties them together? Many observers have noted their overlapping themes of celebrity and privilege (“Marie Antoinette,” “Lost in Translation,” “Somewhere”), those themes occasionally targeted from the outside in (“The Bling Ring”), and there’s a more elusive motif of women living a step removed from the fray, in a bubble that’s also a trap (“The Beguiled,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Virgin Suicides”). But when I think of sitting down to watch a Sofia Coppola film, either one that I’ve seen or a new one, what entices — and, on occasion, perplexes — me is the prospect of fusing with the Coppola Gaze.

Every good filmmaker has a gaze, a sensibility, a way of taking in the world, but in Coppola’s case the word is almost literal, because you can really feel her sitting there gazing, endlessly curious and fascinated, and more than a shade detached. Sofia Coppola is an immense contradiction as a filmmaker, because she’s a bold artist who goes her own way and has the audacity to work without a net, and has the craftsmanship to pull it off, yet there’s something almost cosmically passive about her point-of-view. She’s gazing, enraptured and absorbed, at the characters she creates, and she wants you to partake in that trance. As filmmaking strategies go, this isn’t a bad one (there have been a lot worse), yet as often as not it leaves the audience wanting more.

I watched “Marie Antoinette” again recently, a movie I’d had powerfully divided feelings about the first time. Once again, I was drawn into its world, and saw that it touched insider truths about royalty, yet by the end I felt the movie’s allure fizzling rather than cresting. This time, knowing what I was in store for, I was ready to meet Coppola on her idiosyncratic terms, yet I had the same enthralled-but-still-hungry experience. Half the film is brilliant: the sense that you’re there, in the baroquely preposterous splendor of Versailles, a place of unspeakable beauty and decadence, and that Kirsten Dunst’s Marie is the luminous naïf that Marie Antoinette may, in spirit, have been.

Dunst, who shows us Marie learning her wiles, is marvelous, and the palace machinations, caught from around the edges — the wasp stings of gossip, the libertine extravagance, the insanely big hair — create their own luxe intrigue. Yet the picture lacks the compulsive undertow of a journey. There’s a resolution, but there is never a reckoning. That’s all by design — Marie remains, to the end, locked in her bubble — yet it’s a design more conceptual than dramatic.

At the time, “Marie Antoinette” played as a metaphysical metaphor for our own increasingly gilded culture, and that gave it, back in 2006, a moment of cachet. But I actually think that the two films Coppola made after that are (along with “Lost in Translation”) her best. “Somewhere” (2010), the story of a dissolute movie star holed up in the fabled Deco shadows of the Chateau Marmont, may be the most authentic drama ever made about the life of a Hollywood player. It’s pure voyeuristic candy, and the startling thing is that Coppola brings that off with a minimum of dialogue. It’s as if we were watching an extended episode of “Entourage” directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Yet every scene — every moment — carries its own hovering drama. Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco drinks and slacks around and ambles into PR junkets and international awards ceremonies and falls into bed with groupies without trying to, and through it all he’s walking on air, but he’s also a benumbed addict of bored sensation, so he’s kind of like us. His daughter (played by the 11-year-old Elle Fanning) is his only real connection to life, and the film is tartly graceful about letting him figure that out on his own. “Somewhere” is the purest expression of the Coppola Gaze. Yet there’s a lesson in the fact that the movie went nowhere.

Three years later, “The Bling Ring” (2013) connected a bit more, though not nearly as much as it should have; it should have been a knockout. It dramatized the true story of a rat pack of Los Angeles teenage girls who busted into the homes of celebrities (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan) while they were away, mostly to steal their stuff but also to get “close” to them — to rub up against their aura in a stars-they’re-just-like-us-especially-if-we’re-wearing-their-designer-handbags way.

The girls were doing what Charles Manson and his followers called “creeping” (snooping around empty homes, marking them with their presence), but mostly they were doing a degraded version of shopping. The film was brilliantly made, a satire that played like a staged documentary about the depravity of tabloid fame-whore culture. But though the ensemble included Emma Watson, in a remarkable change-of-pace performance as a glassy-eyed consumerist mean girl, the film failed to find the audience it was made for. It never connected to the generation it’s about.

That wasn’t, strictly speaking, Coppola’s fault, yet I began to have a thought about her, or at least a question: Did she yearn — truly — to connect? Or was she content to simply keep on gazing? “The Beguiled” was supposed to answer that, and when it played at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, a lot of people took it to be the right answer. The film won Coppola the Best Director prize (the first time since 1961 that the award was given to a woman), and it was celebrated by critics as a “comic” vision of feminist vengeance.

Yet I couldn’t go along with the praise. I felt that it was Coppola’s least successful film, and the reason is that “The Beguiled,” a remake of a rather eccentric Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel drama from 1971 (think bottom-drawer Tennessee Williams staged by Sam Peckinpah, with a touch of grindhouse sleaze), struck me as being the first Coppola film that wasn’t, in essence, experiential. The thing about her gaze is that it really doesn’t descend, as a filmmaking style, from her father’s. It’s closer to Jonathan Demme’s, and after stripping down the sordid subtext of the 1971 version of “The Beguiled,” she was left with a light didactic fable — a trifle of identity politics. Did it make an impact? This weekend, it grossed $3.2 million on 674 screens, with a relatively lukewarm per-screen average of $4,836. “The Big Sick” already seems to be in it for the long haul, but I’m not sure that “The Beguiled” is a movie people will be talking about in two weeks.

The film’s distributor, Focus Features, probably made a mistake by releasing it wide over the Fourth of July weekend. They should have held it until the late fall, when its relatively tenuous connection to the mainstream audience might not have mattered so much. Nevertheless, that connection should give Sofia Coppola pause. She can go on doing what she’s been doing, making the films she wants to make every three years or so, in the way that she wants to make them, aligning her gaze with that of a fairly limited audience. She’s an honest filmmaker who has, over the years, perfected her art, but she may be trapping herself in a boutique bubble of her own. Perhaps her next move should be to work on a larger scale, to mix it up in some way, to shake herself out of her comfort zone. She has provoked, entranced, and — in the best way — beguiled us. But I’m still waiting for her to blow us away.

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