3. “Marie Antoinette” (2006)
“This is ridiculous,” says Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), as she is forced through a morning ritual. The essential response: “This, madame, is Versailles.”
Coppola’s grandest production came on the heels of next-level acclaim for “Lost in Translation” and brought her reputation crashing back to Earth when the movie was booed at Cannes. But of course the French had a problem with this ironic period piece, in which the country’s most famous Queen is reimagined as a grinning party girl whose lavish exploits are set to the likes of The Strokes and The Cure, not to mention Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”
With time, however, “Marie Antoinette” has solidified its reputation as a stunning blend of period detail and contemporary mores, as Coppola uses the sweeping backdrop of Versailles to provide a lyrical immersion into the roots of affluence in Western culture. Dunst’s best role to date — at least until “Melancholia” — allows her to transform the former archduchess of Austria into a cunning young woman whose individuality transcends the frustrating rituals of her time and place. (Jason Schwartzman, as the shy and possibly impotent Louis XVI, is ideally cast as her opposite.) Coppola’s only big studio effort to date shows the potential of her vision when given boundless resources and autonomy to spare; the result may have seemed like a tough sell at first, but like Marie Antoinette herself, it has been vindicated by history.
2. “The Virgin Suicides” (1999)
Viewed in retrospect, Coppola’s ethereal debut is something of a mission statement. Her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel about middle-class suburban teens in ‘70s Detroit is brought to life as a vivid, nostalgia-laden saga in which men recall the women who changed their relationship to the opposite sex for good. The macabre circumstances in which the teen inhabits of the Lisbon household take their own lives is counteracted by Coppola’s poetic approach, which makes the events feel somehow less horrifying than ritualistic, as their inevitable suicide pact symbolizes the tough and unnerving passage into young adulthood. Assembled by ace cinematographer Edward Lachman, the expressionistic colors become extraordinary windows into the teen characters’ shifting moods; laced with a perfectly-curated soundtrack of ’70s tunes, and an original score by Air, “The Virgin Suicides” is a complete immersion into Coppola’s fresh perspective, and it remains a modern classic decades down the line.
1. “Lost in Translation”
Then again, if “The Virgin Suicides” anointed Coppola as a major new talent, “Lost in Translation” proved she was just getting started. The fascinating, textured plight of aging movie star Bob Harris and the young woman he befriends at a palatial Tokyo hotel accomplished many things at once: It singlehandedly remade Bill Murray’s career and put Scarlett Johansson on the map; it turned the Westernized vision of Tokyo luxury on its ear; it assailed the advertising industry; it made karaoke seem cool. Both actors were readymade for Coppola’s playful, mysterious romantic comedy, a Kafkaesque tale of two people from different walks of life who find common ground in the sad, lonely world surrounding them. Murray’s face tells half the story, with each crease and cock an eyebrow speaking volumes about his internalized frustrations. But Johansson’s character, a young woman tired of playing trophy wife to her self-absorbed husband, has long been interpreted as an avatar for Coppola’s own experiences in her marriage to Spike Jonze.
Coppola doesn’t deny these characters the possibility of finding their way to a happy ending; but in a masterstroke that has become iconic, she denies the audience the ability to hear the would-be couple’s parting words. This is Coppola’s brilliance in a nutshell — the limitations of language can never convey the boundless possibilities of emotional engagement. We’ll be puzzling over Bob and Charlotte’s final exchange for ages, but its moving implications are undeniable.