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Cannes: Before ‘The Beguiled,’ Sofia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ Showed Her Genius for Crafting Characters Through Environments

"Marie Antoinette" was booed at Cannes, but it vividly illustrates how location is Coppola's most evocative means of exploring dislocation.

Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette

“Marie Antoinette”

This is the first part of a series exploring significant films from the careers of directors showing new work at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

“In the end we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained. Oddly shaped emptiness mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name. What lingered after them was not life, but the most trivial list of mundane facts. A clock ticking on the wall, a room dim at noon, the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.”
— “The Virgin Suicides”

Sofia Coppola didn’t write the searching, wonderstruck narration that ends “The Virgin Suicides,” but it often feels as though her entire body of work has been devoted to clarifying that crucial passage from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel on which she based her directorial debut. Filling its gaps. Deepening its imagery. Solving its missing femininity. From “Lost in Translation” to “The Bling Ring,” her subsequent films make it seem as though she’s returned to those words before starting each script, like a quill being dipped in ink.

“Oddly shaped emptiness mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.” 

Coppola is compelled by the negative space between women and the worlds they inhabit — desperate to escape the feeling that they’re merely disguised as themselves, her characters are defined in contrast to the panopticon-like places in which they’re constantly watched but seldom seen. Coppola was naturally drawn to the Lisbon sisters, those five beautiful girls who inexplicably took their own lives by the time they were 18; she was drawn to how their deaths left the rest of suburbia damp with the unrequited love of a cold case.

“The Virgin Suicides” is a remarkably self-assured first feature, but Coppola’s career was galvanized by what came next, the shift from adaptations to self-generated stories allowing her to change her perspective while retaining her focus. Beginning with “Lost in Translation,” she would make movies that looked from the inside out rather than from the outside in. If “The Virgin Suicides” feels like visiting a zoo, her later films are shot from inside the cage.

Bob Harris may have been joking when he told Charlotte of his plans to escape from the penthouse bar of the Park Hyatt hotel, but each of Coppola’s movies can be thought of as a jailbreak of some kind — each of her characters is looking for a way out of a privileged sort of purgatory they are known to everyone but themselves. From the candied hallways that connect Versailles to the infinite sea of insomniac lights that blink across the Tokyo cityscape at night; from the hedonistic heights of the Chateau Marmont to the foothills of Hollywood down below, where impressionable teens stare up at the mansions and wonder what it might be like to rummage around inside, Coppola’s films use exterior spaces to access interior lives. In particular, the interior lives of people who aren’t permitted to have them.

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That approach is certain to continue with “The Beguiled,” which premieres at Cannes later this month. Once again using an extreme location as a lens through which to look at the space that women occupy, the film is set in and around an all-female Mississippi boarding school that goes up in flames when the headmistress (Nicole Kidman) agrees to shelter a wounded Union soldier (Colin Ferrell). Sweltering with sex and shadowed by the dark potential of its gothic atmosphere, the trailer suggests that there’s a limit to the strictures of Southern hospitality.

Of course, it won’t be the first time that Coppola has come to Cannes — in 2006, her “Marie Antoinette” received a very mixed reaction for how it gently humanized one of the most famous (and famously ill-fated) monarchs in French history. But time has been as kind to Coppola’s most opulent film, which continues to seem less like a gaudy outlier than it does an opulent expression of its maker’s singular genius. It may not match the tenderness of “Lost in Translation” or “Somewhere,” but none of Coppola’s other movies so vividly illustrate how location is her most evocative means of exploring dislocation.

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