SOFIA COPPOLA: A FEMINIST DIRECTOR?
When producing an essay that utilises the concept of authorship, an argument for its use in analysis and examination must certainly be addressed. Whilst this essay will not necessarily use the form of authorship in direct analysis, the decision to undertake an investigation of the entirety of a director’s body of work of course invites such a discussion. The use of authorship, after becoming increasingly outmoded, is once again becoming an acceptable means of film analysis. Utilising the concept of authorship as a means not only for examination of each work individually, but also allowing analysis for the director’s films collectively; helpful in developing reflections upon recurrent themes and motifs often specific to a particular director. Sofia Coppola’s body of four feature-length films is not only enhanced by their discussion in relation to one another, but their considerable stylistic and thematic achievements make them ideal for comparative study: ‘Each relies centrally on the evocation of impressions of aching loss and/or need for connection.’ (King, 2010: 49-50) This sense of aching loss is revisited by Coppola across her entire body of work.
Coppola’s direction draws upon a number of aesthetic references, with her experience as a photographer and a music video director prior to her work as a feature-film director often providing the basis for these references. When working on The Virgin Suicides, Coppola looked towards ‘photography [collecting] a lot of photos … there were so many influences’ (Tobias, 2000: Online). These aesthetic references imbue Coppola’s work with a unique dream-like quality, distinctive largely through the scope of Coppola’s knowledge of both photography and fashion. Furthermore to the aesthetic look of the films themselves, it is Coppola’s thematic decisions that further set her work apart, at once unique, but entirely comparable to one another: ‘Coppola’s first three films do lend themselves in some respects to being read interconnected, so much so that they might be (and indeed have been) considered a trilogy … complex variations on a theme’ (Barton Palmer, 2012: 40 – 41). In addition to her first three efforts, Coppola’s latest film, Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010) can undoubtedly be included as a continued rumination upon the same complex themes that Coppola so frequently returns to: her protagonist, whilst male, struggles with similar issues that Coppola’s female protagonists deal with. Her films and their protagonists continually return to the concept of ennui, and a lack of direction often borne out of the wealth of opportunities afforded them (often attracting criticism). Such criticism is superficial: Coppola’s characters, despite their wealth, are worthy of study. Coppola depicts character isolation and alienation, borne out of specific circumstances; these circumstances happen to be of wealth and privilege. Coppola’s characters, often from exclusively privileged backgrounds, struggle with what direction to take purely because there is so much choice for them, a quality that has proven contentious for some: ‘A portrait of the young rich, painted by the young rich’ (Brooks and Barnes, 2010: Online). Such criticism is irrelevant, both to Coppola’s films, and to this essay as a whole: regardless of the issues these characters go through, they are enough to produce a state of utterly directionless ennui. Coppola’s characters are forever seeking some sense of meaning, often disillusioned with the apparent easy life their privilege should afford them. They struggle towards a search for some form of control, hopeful that this will in turn allow them to find direction and meaning to their lives. Through this search for meaning, Coppola’s protagonists are entirely linked with their environment and the space that they both interact with and occupy. Through their torpor, they seek a form of control over the space that they occupy, a space within which they can interact as they choose.
Much of the academic focus upon Coppola thus far has largely placed her within a feminist context: certainly, as one of the most successful female directors working in Hollywood today, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Director, as well as a Palme D’or , the feminist aspect to her films much not be dismissed. Her complex female protagonists invite such analysis, but such a reading surely undermines all that Coppola’s work has to offer. Her male protagonists are surely as complex as the more frequently analysed female: ‘Coppola’s “subject” thus far is at least as masculinist as it is feminist, her films offering sympathetic portraits of men puzzled, frightened, or frustrated by the elusive nature of the feminine’ (Barton Palmer, 2012: 53). This singularly feminist approach is made even more redundant when we consider the male subject of Coppola’s most recent film; as such, Coppola’s films should not be considered as solely feminist, but rather as a complex analysis of both female and male protagonists that reference their inability to garner a sense of control over the environment that they inhabit. As such, this essay, whilst certainly referencing concepts surrounding gender, will seek to focus upon the manner in which Coppola presents and utilises film space, a concept consistent across the body of her work. Certainly ‘Coppola’s first two features, “The Virgin Suicides” (2000) and “Lost in Translation” (2003), negotiate ongoing tensions between interior and exterior spaces, whether dramatic, emotional, or geographical’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 189), but there can be little doubt that these tensions are persistently revisited across the entirety of her work.
Whilst Coppola’s work has doubtlessly elicited much study and discussion, there has been little, if any, discussion at length on the use of film space aside from its relationship to gender, particularly female gender. Indeed, her films frequently look towards male protagonists: the neighbourhood boys in The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999), Bob in Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) and of course Johnny Marco in Somewhere. Similarly, previous discussions surrounding the use of space have merely looked towards the ennui and isolation that stems from an entirely private space, as well as the gender implications of physical, man-made institutions. Certainly this essay will involve a discussion upon such issues, but it will also look towards the protagonists themselves. Previously, Coppola’s protagonists have not been identified as active, seeking control. Charlotte’s desire for something else in Lost in Translation has been acknowledged for example, but it has not been specifically identified as seeking a control over the space that she inhabits.
Before this essay will begin its discussion of Coppola’s work it is important to discuss and define this concept of film space, what is meant by this term and how can it be used in the analysis of film. This essay will seek to use the term ‘space’ as linked with the environment of the film, referring to both the physical location and setting in which the narrative takes place, as well as the symbolic space her characters often occupy; the symbolic use of nostalgia in The Virgin Suicides for example, or the symbolic kinship both Charlotte and Bob enter in Lost in Translation.
Thus in this essay’s discussion of The Virgin Suicides for example, I will refer to the symbolic concept of suburbia, before discussing specific physical locations, such as the school, the football field and the Lisbon’s home. Similarly, in my discussion of Somewhere I will initially look towards the symbolism of Hollywood (as presented within the film itself), before focussing upon the physical, literal space of the Chateau Marmont and the suite that Johnny takes permanent residence in. Coppola’s characters frequently demonstrate a search for something seemingly intangible, an impossible desire for control over the space that they inhabit. The search for control within a privileged setting may seem contradictory: surely wealth and privilege enables self-control? Once again, it is Coppola’s very specific chosen circumstances that allow such a seemingly juxtaposition. Coppola’s characters, in order to achieve their wealth and exist within these privileged circumstances, have forfeited any sense of control. Johnny and Bob’s lives are controlled by their managers and publicists, Charlotte made the initial decision to travel to Tokyo, unaware of the consequences, the Lisbon girls, due to their age, are still controlled by their parents, whilst Marie’s stilted life, in Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006), borne into royalty, ensured her loss of control from the beginning of her life. This continual search, or a desire for escape from their current environment, is consistently depicted literally; thus Coppola frequently revisits the specific motif of depicting her characters looking out of, or through, windows, affording them a glimpse of the space that they do not yet occupy.
For Coppola, much of this interaction with space both depends upon and reinforces the concept of a form of spatial limitation: the audience only learns of the space that the character interacts with, and thus nothing appears to exist beyond the space that the characters themselves inhabit. As such, in Marie Antoinette we learn little of the political and social contexts of the historical events depicted within the film, as, in solely witnessing the environment that Marie herself interacts with, we are never afforded the opportunity. Notably, it is ‘significant that Coppola does not construct the sets in which her films take place. She employs existing locations, which implies that architecture is already gendered and produces, as well as reflects, the values of the society in which it is built.’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 198). Certainly this concept of reflecting the ‘values of the society in which it is built’ is crucial in our understanding of Coppola’s characters, who, through their existence, are defined by the space that they interact with.
The concept of spatial limitation, referring to the literal limitations of space that is occupied, is particularly pertinent to Coppola’s work. In Coppola’s films, each character exists solely within the space they inhabit: they simply do not exist outside of it, and it is this interaction and existence that does much to create and enhance both character development and the audience’s empathy for their predicament. Without this somewhat blinkered view, brought directly through their spatial limitation, Coppola’s characters could be, and indeed would be, perceived in an entirely different manner, markedly less sympathetic. We do not learn of the wider contexts to the issues involving Coppola’s characters, Coppola is instead concerned with the character themselves, any statement that she wishes to highlight, are made through the characters themselves, rather than the film as a whole.
Thus, whilst the impact and consequences of both Bob and Johnny’s fame reach those outside of the space that they inhabit, we do not witness anything outside of this space. Often, the manner in which we should view a character is informed through other characters’ perceptions, particularly characters that exist within and interact with a separate space. This is notably not a feature of Coppola’s films, thus we are forced to draw conclusions through the protagonist’s interactions with the space that they alone inhabit. As such, we do not learn of the interactions within Bob’s marital home, nor do we learn of the circumstances surrounding the abusive texts that Johnny receives. Certainly, gaining an understanding of these interactions would affect our perception of these protagonists, perhaps undermining their empathetic portrayal.
As each of Coppola’s films demonstrates a use of spatial limitation, it would be best to detail Coppola’s films chronologically and thematically; such an ordered analysis will give rise to points of contrast and comparison, in turn aiding the analysis of each film individually and the examination of Coppola’s work collectively.
Coppola’s first feature-length film, The Virgin Suicides, demonstrates perhaps the most explicitly physical use of spatial limitation. This spatial limitation is largely displayed through the narrative use of the group of neighbourhood boys, whose obsession with the young Lisbon girls remains ever coloured through their lack of interaction with them.
Adapted from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides depicts the Lisbon family: the strict religious matriarch, the ineffectual father, and their five young pubescent daughters, whose beauty inspires the desire of a collective of neighbourhood boys. The eventual suicides of the young daughters, whose demise is reflected upon retrospectively by the neighbourhood boys long after their death, forms the basis of the film’s narrative: ‘the chorus of boys, now grown into men … continue to be bewildered by the self-annihilation of the five Lisbon beauties’ (Barton Palmer. 2012: 52). The boys struggle to ever come to a satisfactory conclusion as to why the girls choose to end their lives. It is this failure to ever truly understand the reasons behind the girls’ self-annihilation that most explicitly demonstrates this concept of spatial limitation: the boys, never truly choosing to interact with the girls and instead preferring to admire them from a distance, simply do not have access to this knowledge. Thus they will never understand why the Lisbon girls decide to commit suicide, because they are never able to occupy the same private space that the Lisbon girls occupy. Notably too, through this spatial limitation, there is a tendency to perceive Mr and Mrs Lisbon’s parenting decisions as entirely tyrannical. Of course, this apparent tyranny is entirely informed through the neighbourhood boys’ perception, who in desiring interaction with the girls, blame the Lisbon parents rather than believe that their lack of interaction is due to their own timid nature, or even, due to the Lisbon girls’ lack of mutual desire.
It is the boys’ failure to understand this, coupled with the desire that they feel towards the girls, that informs the film thematically: a reflection upon loss and yearning, ‘a meditation on longing and suburbia’ (Hoskin, 2007: Online). This sense of longing takes on a physical quality, occupying much of the space within the film, especially the space that the neighbourhood boys themselves occupy. It is the desire that these boys feel towards the Lisbon girls that informs the manner in which they engage with their environment, and it is through this spatial limitation, largely experienced by the boys, that in turn ensures that the young Lisbon girls inhabit this ‘symbolic space of loss and longing’ (Hoskin, 2007: Online), remaining ever elusive. The boys, through their limitation, often self-imposed in their failure to question the girls prior to their deaths, occupy little of the same space that the girls inhabit. Certainly they attend school together, at least until Mrs Lisbon removes the girls from school, but the girls interact with this public space in such a way as to make it private. They fail to interact with others, ensuring they remain together, often removing themselves from the public space of the classrooms to retreat to the private space of the bathroom. The boys despite their protestations would appear to prefer to maintain their spatial limitation, surely demonstrated in their failure to intervene, opting instead to view the Lisbon house’s activities through a telescope. In this way they can continue to comfortably view the Lisbon girls in the voyeuristic manner they have established, admiring them from afar, allowing them to effectively create their own personal impression of each Lisbon girl. In this way they are able to exert a degree of control over this fantasy they create; importantly, they cannot exert control over the physical manifestation of the Lisbon girls and, aware of this, they instead exert control over their fantastical creation, at all times ensuring that this self-imposed spatial limitation is upheld.
Markedly, there are two instances in the film in which the boys collectively choose to overcome this spatial limitation, entering into the Lisbon home; each time ending with a death, or deaths. Notably, there is an earlier, additional instance where an individual classmate of the girls, in helping Mr Lisbon complete a project at school, is invited to attend dinner with the girls. On this occasion, the boy explores the bathroom, and is confronted with various female paraphernalia; sniffing one of the girls’ lipsticks, he fantasises about Lux. Upon her entering the bathroom, he is confronted by the physical, real manifestation of his fantasy and rapidly retreats, unable to correlate the Lux of his fantasy with the real manifestation, preferring instead to admire her from afar. On the two occasions that the boys collectively visit the Lisbon house they are invited by the Lisbon girls, first to attend Cecelia’s party, and later to effectively witness their collective suicides. The first occasion the boys enter the house marks the first instance that we see the boys engaging with the girls, each attempting to make stilted conversation. There is a very real sense that the boys remain somehow afraid of being confronted with the physical manifestations of the girls they so often dream about. They interact with the girls until Cecelia, retreating from the party, throws herself from the house, ending her life. The boys, sensing that they are no longer welcome, quickly leave, not to return again until the girls invite them over at the film’s culmination. After Cecelia’s death, perhaps frightened by her self-destruction, the boys choose to reinstate the limitations they had previously imposed. It could be argued that it is the girls themselves that prevent the boys from overcoming these spatial limitations, with Cecelia’s death forcing them to leave and their final collective act of suicide serving as a reminder to maintain spatial limitations. Arguably, however, the boys continued predilection towards fantasy, they continue to fantasise about taking the girls away with them for example, further emphasises their need to maintain their fantasy, and thus their desire to maintain these spatial limitations. After Cecelia’s death, they choose to remain admiring the girls from afar, not returning again until the girls invite them over under the pretence of escaping together. Here, the boys once again project their fantasies upon the girls, and through their spatial limitations, are unaware of what is truly taking place, instead believing that the girls will adhere to the fantasy that they have created. These fantasies, so far removed from the reality that the girls are experiencing are only possible through this spatial limitation, and in turn through the boys’ lack of understanding.
In contrast to these self-imposed, unwavering spatial limitations, the spatial limitations in place in Coppola’s second work, Lost in Translation are continually under threat, frequently intruded upon, and ever threatening to break down entirely. Depicting Bob Harris, a former celebrity whose star-status is waning, Coppola’s film focuses upon the connection made between Bob, and Charlotte, a young recent graduate, who similarly struggles with a lack of direction and increasing ennui. The pair, meeting in a hotel, both find their present marriages an effort to maintain; Bob seems to have little to talk to about with his wife Lydia or his children who frequently ring him, whilst Charlotte feels increasingly separated from her photographer husband John, spending hours waiting in their room doing little, whilst she waits for John to return from work each day. Spatial limitation is used in an entirely different manner in Lost in Translation: in The Virgin Suicides, the concept of spatial limitation is used to comment upon gender roles and the objectification of women, whereas in Lost in Translation it is used to create empathy, ensuring that the central relationship is portrayed as innocuous, rather than illicit; Bob and Charlotte’s relationship is romanticised, portrayed as two souls connecting, rather than presenting them as adulterers. Certainly, the chosen hotel setting would have more typically made allowances for illicit encounters, but that is not the case in Coppola’s film. Coppola manages this feat in several ways, firstly by utilising this concept of spatial limitation, as mentioned, in which, despite Bob and Charlotte’s spouses physical and symbolical presence, their mentally detached state makes them less empathetic, and thus Bob and Charlotte less guilty, and secondly, by ensuring that the relationship remains suitably chaste. Coppola also introduces a sense of routine to both characters, effectively domesticating the space; Charlotte and Bob do not spend their time in the hotel as if they are on holiday, away from home, but rather instil a homely routine to their lives: having breakfast, conducting work, ringing friends and family.
Both characters, residents in the hotel, are relatively limited to where they can travel. Charlotte is the freer of the two, able to travel away by herself, visiting Kyoto at one point, as she has no daily obligations. Bob, however, must adhere to a strict schedule that has been arranged for him by his manager. He has particular obligations, such as arriving to the prearranged photo shoot, or appearing, as arranged, on a TV show. The pair are able to connect through their shared feelings of isolation and ennui: ‘the protagonists are assailed by an encompassing boredom and loneliness’ (King, 2010: 126 – 127). This coupled with the crucial hotel setting, allows for their relationship to blossom. Unlike The Virgin Suicides, in which spatial limitation impacted characters within the narrative and thus effected character development, the spatial limitation in Lost in Translation does more to impact the audience, affecting the manner in which they interpret Bob and Charlotte’s relationship. Certainly Bob and Charlotte are aware of the other’s relationship: both spend time discussing each other’s marriages, with both mentioning their struggle to make their marriages work; what then does Coppola do to ensure that these marriages are seen as relatively inconsequential? Whilst the audience does see John (unlike Lydia who never appears onscreen), he is portrayed as relatively unsympathetic, dull, and seemingly impervious to Charlotte’s sexuality, often ignoring or appearing to not recognise her undressed state. Charlotte watches John with a mixture of fascination and disbelief as she watches him talk to the irritating, utterly tedious Kelly, whose excitable exclamations contrast sharply with the quiet, confident, self-reflective Charlotte. Contrast too, the way in which Charlotte interacts with John in comparison to the way she interacts with Bob. John and Charlotte’s conversations frequently reveal their lack of synchronicity: they often talk at one another, instead of with one another. Charlotte shows little interest in John’s work, and John, failing to recognise this, continues to frequently regale Charlotte with tales of his day. Coppola utilises this to demonstrate the couple’s lack of compatibility, and in contrast shows Charlotte easily conversing with Bob, often revealing her fears and her concerns, as well as showing the pair exploring Tokyo together, running almost manically as they enjoy the time they spend with one another. Charlotte is never shown to share the same enjoyment with John that she does with Bob, and notably, the audience only ever sees John in relation to Charlotte; we don’t ever gauge an understanding of his character outside of the space that he occupies with Charlotte.
Lydia, meanwhile, is never seen occupying the same space as Bob. She frequently attempts to, but her attempts feel like an intrusion as she continually contacts Bob over trivial matters. Not only do her regular phone calls, faxes, and parcels sent intrude upon Bob and Charlotte’s private space, but it also serves as a reminder of her absence. Her frequent methods of contact, often over inane matters (at one point Bob receives a package of carpet samples, and is asked his opinion), presents Bob’s home life as a form of drudgery; there is seemingly no enjoyment for him at home anymore. His children seem reluctant to speak to him, and his wife frequently admonishes him for his failure to attend his children’s school events. Through the spatial limitation Coppola employs, Bob’s family life feels like a burden, continually threatening his relationship with Charlotte. If, instead, we witnessed Bob’s home life, and saw the effects that his detachment had directly upon his family, Bob and Charlotte’s relationship, despite its chaste nature, would take on a far more illicit turn. By removing the physical presence of their spouses, Coppola ensures that our sympathies remain with Bob and Charlotte.
Coppola uses spatial limitation to a similar effect in Marie Antoinette, ensuring her protagonist’s empathy through a lack of political context: ‘the focus on the perpetrator’s traumatic experience enables us to obliterate the entire ethico-political background’ (Žižek, 2011: 58), Coppola instead focuses upon Marie’s personal experience. Depicting her private struggles enables Coppola to humanise the oft-criticised ill-fated Queen, Marie is not part of the tapestry of history here, but is instead, an individual struggling through a difficult life. Thus, the focus on Marie alone ensures that we do not learn of, nor never truly address, the social and political issues that were taking place in France at the time. It is, in some senses, odd to depict a biography of Marie Antoinette in which no real attention or focus is given to the formative events taking place, but it must be remembered that Coppola’s film is a biography, rather than a historiography or documentary. Coppola wished to focus upon the young girl, and the way she may have felt, to criticise an aspect of the film that was never Coppola’s intention is reductive to analysis.
Depicting the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s film portrays the Queen as a young girl, whose isolation in Versailles does much to create sympathy. Whilst Coppola certainly shows the luxury that Marie enjoys, there is much focus upon her isolation and loneliness, doing much to ensure that the audience remains sympathetic. Interestingly, given that Coppola gives very little historical or political context, she chooses to include a number of letters from Marie’s mother, detailing the precarious relations between Austria and France. Little information is given to further develop the audience’s understanding of this situation, instead Coppola gives us just enough information to ensure that we feel the burden Marie is struggling under, without truly understanding the reasons behind it. Certainly Coppola uses these spatial limitations to her advantage; Marie Antoinette has been portrayed in a number of ways, and there is little doubt that some element of controversy remains even now. Coppola, being aware of this, ensures sympathy by removing some of the more controversial elements, thus we never see the effect the monarchy had on the poverty-stricken people of France. Coppola ensures that the narrative of the film takes place solely through Marie’s interaction with space, thus we only ever see the rich life that she leads. Coppola also gives us very little information about the French Revolution itself, as little of the political decision making involves Marie. Learning of events solely through Marie, who spends much of the film indulging herself rather than involving herself in any political concerns, means that we too spend little of the film learning of the wider contexts of the era. Coppola merely hints at the events that are taking place outside of Versailles: in one scene Marie is informed that she has spent all of her budget for the month already and there will be none to give to her charities; the news does little to ruffle Marie, and she instead opts for a slightly less extravagant purchase and offers to retrieve the money from the King. Thus, whilst others are aware of the political backdrop, Marie is not, and thus the audience is not. Certainly it cannot be suggested that Marie’s character is solely empathetic because we do not learn much of the context, there can little doubt that this certainly adds to our feeling of empathy. Making her perhaps solely empathetic, rather than partially, this omission ensures that the audience does not interpret Marie’s character negatively. She is shown as a young girl struggling within her isolation, rather than a Queen ignoring the plight of her people. Marie, perhaps more than any of Coppola’s protagonists (aside from the Lisbon girls), is physically and symbolically trapped, and it is this limitation, informing Marie’s interaction with space, that in turn limits what the audience can both see and understand of the film’s context. Marie, as a royal, cannot leave Versailles, which ‘not only refers to a particular place but also to an entire way of being. Versailles collapses the distinction between individual and sovereign authority, denying the freedom of its subjects through the ritual organization of daily life.’ (Lane and Richter, 2011:198) Coppola uses these physical and spatial confinements to both create and develop the character of Marie: Marie’s loneliness is directly linked to the isolation of living at Versailles, and she is not able to bloom until she is finally able to physically move away from the palace, moving to a smaller residence within the grounds:
‘The association between women’s freedom and nature is constantly re-emphasized … man-made structures are built only to limit the expression of women’s souls. In breaking out of social structures and rediscovering themselves in the state of nature, Coppola’s heroines feel rooted to a sense of self.’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 200)
It is not just Coppola’s women that are limited through their association with man-made structures: as has been made clear, Coppola’s films are not merely about women and should not be regarded as simply feminist pieces. Instead, Coppola frequently comments about male masculinity, and in her latest feature Somewhere her commentary upon men is made most explicit through her focus upon a male protagonist: Johnny Marco, an increasingly world-weary actor, who feels progressively more disconnected from the space that he inhabits. Johnny, much like Marie, Bob, and Charlotte, is made more empathetic through the use of spatial limitation. Again, we only learn of Johnny through his interaction with the space that he himself inhabits; we never witness a space that Johnny does not interact with, thus we are never able to truly gauge him as a character. He is made to seem sympathetic because, within these spaces that he inhabits, he is sympathetic, lonely, and struggling to deal with the world around him. He feels lost within this space, lacking in confidence in his ability and his sense of self. Coppola hints at the life outside of these spaces that Johnny has conducted, but little information is provided. Instead, we understand, through his co-star’s reaction to him at the press junket, (‘it wasn’t even that good’) (Coppola, 2010), that he may not treat women particularly well, a concept reinforced during his visit to Italy when a former conquest treats him with similar disdain. Similarly, at various points in the film Johnny receives abusive texts from an unknown number, or at least, a number that the audience is unaware of; that is not to suggest that Johnny himself is unaware of the author of these messages, but rather that he chooses not to divulge the information. Again, we only understand these texts through Johnny’s interaction with them, we do not learn what might have prompted them. As such, we feel sympathy towards Johnny purely because we do not understand the context; to the audience the likeable Johnny is receiving unwarranted abuse. We are still empathetic towards Johnny because we only learn of him, gaining no insight into how others perceive Johnny; we instead learn of Johnny through Johnny himself, and through his own perception of himself. In a similar way, we never truly learn about Johnny as a parent; he is clearly involved in his daughter Cleo’s life but there are hints that there is much he has missed. Not knowing about her ability to ice-skate, for example, indicates that perhaps he has not seen her for a while, or that he takes very little interest in her life. We see Johnny later interacting with Cleo happily, but we do not know if this is a regular or a rare occurrence, as we never see outside of this space. As for Cleo herself, we again only learn of her through her interaction with Johnny: there are moments when Cleo is alone, when she orders room service and cooks for example, Johnny is not present. Importantly however, this act still takes place within the space that Johnny occupies. Cleo may act entirely different in her own space, but in the space that Johnny occupies she, seemingly willingly, takes upon an almost parental role, looking after her father, cooking for him and his friend; an act undertaken purely through the manner in which Johnny acts within this space, seemingly unable to take care of himself, prompting Cleo to undertake this role. In a similar manner to Bob and to Marie, Johnny finds himself physically and symbolically trapped, (although certainly to a lesser extent, able to free himself at the end). Johnny, through his career, is, like Bob, continually expected to perform certain duties; attending press junkets, travelling to Italy. He is also, through his choice of accommodation, trapped within the Chateau Marmont, adhering to a certain lifestyle through the implications of the environment; importantly though for Johnny, this is a choice, and he is able to leave at will, thus he is seemingly the freest of Coppola’s protagonists.
THE CONFLICT BETWEEN PRIVATE AND NEUTRAL SPACE
‘One of the most powerful of Capra’s techniques portrays the utter isolation of an individual from the public world … completely private space always has an element of terror in it, for completely private space, while sometime inspirational, is also uncontrollable and involuntary in its suddenness and its acuteness.’ (Bowman, 1992: 48)
‘It is when Charlotte’s husband goes away on a photo-shoot, leaving her behind in the hotel, that she and Bob begin their friendship in earnest. They run into each other in the hotel corridor (neutral space), both in their bathrobes (neutral clothing)’ (Bolton, 2001: 112)
This concept of private and neutral space lend themselves to being discussed in conflation with one another; the existence of one certainly depending on the existence of the other. This is especially pertinent in the discussion of Coppola’s work, whose films ‘negotiate ongoing tensions between interior and exterior spaces, whether dramatic, emotional, or geographical’ (Lane and Richter, 2001: 189). Coppola uses space as a means of expression and development, and these tensions between different forms of space in turn lead to characteristic development. Both of these spatial concepts are entirely linked to the previously discussed concept of spatial limitation; often Coppola’s protagonists, through their spatial limitation, become isolated from the world around them, physically and symbolically trapped. For Coppola, and for her protagonists, this isolation and alienation (a continually revisited theme for Coppola) is a negative experience, and her protagonists are constantly seeking: ‘Charlotte is situated in a complex landscape of space and symbolism … it appears that she is searching, and this is confirmed when she confides in Bob that she cannot work out what she wants to do’ (Bolton, 2011: 111). Notably, however, this alienation does not merely stem from private spaces, but can also originate from public or neutral spaces; Coppola’s complicates her characters, who are not simply seeking connection, but a form of space that not only affords them control, but allows them to create connections with others. Seeking meaning and connection, it is their often enforced private space that only serves to heighten their feelings of isolation and lack of control and direction. Thus, in The Virgin Suicides the Lisbon girls are forcibly kept within their homes and, under duress, are unable to make contact with those outside of the family home. It is the Lisbon girls’ forced isolation that is perhaps the most horrifying, utterly private space, made all the more disturbing because we never truly learn what takes place there. In Coppola’s other works, private space, whilst still a source of isolation, is perhaps not such a source of awfulness, but rather a source of ennui. Charlotte, biding time in her room in Lost in Translation, for example, is not explicitly an image of fear, but it would seem for Coppola that any sense of alienation is a source of dread, an isolation that can eventually threaten to take over, or indeed, as is the case of Marie in Marie Antoinette, and again the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides, culminate in the end of life. Again, a chronological analysis will be most useful in enabling comparative analysis, as each of Coppola’s films feature an extended use of these concepts of private and neutral space, often in direct conflation with one another.
This conflict between private and public space is certainly most explicitly forced in a physical manner within The Virgin Suicides. Private space in particular is used to physically contain the girls, whilst neutral space, despite its scant appearance, affords the girls the opportunity to present themselves as unique individuals, with the previously often mute girls speaking themselves into individual existence. Private space refers to both the literal sense of space, as well as symbolic privacy; it also does not necessarily refer to an individual sense of privacy, but can also refer to a shared private concept or desire. Thus, the neighbourhood boys, through their collectiveness, form a shared space made private through the private nature of their mutual desires: their love and lust for the Lisbon girls. Similarly, the Lisbon girls’ private space is shared, physical, and symbolic; physically, they are imprisoned within their familial home, a space shared with each other. Symbolically, the girls’ femininity occupies a private experience and space beyond the reach of the neighbourhood boys. It is this femininity that frequently prevents the boys from staying within the Lisbon home: as seen in the aforementioned scene, one boy, bestowed with an invitation to dinner, rapidly retreats from the Lisbon home upon the realisation that Lux is entering the bathroom to retrieve a tampon. This explicit, overt depiction of her femininity is too much for the young boy to withstand, and seemingly frightened by Lux’s burgeoning sexuality, he leaves. The girls’ sexuality is, for the neighbourhood boys, impossible to understand, especially when it occupies a private space: its private nature ensures that it is something to be feared. Certainly the group of boys attempt to gain an understanding of the girls, collecting a number of physical tokens, including Cecelia’s diary. Notably, these tokens allude to a sense of possession stemming from the neighbourhood boys; they themselves seek to share a space with the girls, but only a space that they can control. This control is indicated in the dream-like fantasies that these tokens conjure for the boys; these fantasies, whilst evoked by the physical tokens, are importantly conjured by the boys themselves; this is a fantasy of which they are the author, a fantasy that through spatial limitation cannot possibly reflect the truth. These physical tokens are not merely suggestive of the girls’ private space, but are entirely linked with the boys’ private space; their desire for the girls, as well as their nostalgic desire. The girls’ suicides are not merely a physical death, but a symbolic act, symbolising an attempt to find a space over which they have control. The current space they inhabit prohibits them from exerting any sense of control over their interactions. Their interaction with the space within which they reside is increasingly controlled by their mother, who, in her fear and misguided care, seeks to limit their space. The boys too seek to gain a form of control over their space, their frequent reminiscences for the girls evoke their own private nostalgia for their lost youth. As the boys have journeyed into adulthood, the space that they occupy is further removed from the space of the Lisbons’, who remain eternally trapped within adolescence, incapable of aging.
This sense of eternal adolescence is further evoked through the suburban setting, the girls’ deaths seemingly heralding an end to the current state of this environment: ‘Everyone dates the demise of our neighbourhood from the suicide of the Lisbon girls’ (Coppola, 1999). The very suburban setting further traps the girls, forcing them to exist within the particular codifications and expectations maintained within this environment. Thus the girls are expected to attend church with their parents, maintain a particular demeanour and sense of duty, remaining familiar with all those that inhabit this space whilst ensuring that their established routines are adhered to. Lux, arguably the most overtly rebellious of the Lisbon girls, quickly establishes her discontent with suburbia in the film’s first moments. Coppola’s film opens with a shot of Lux standing in the middle of the street, her actions ‘convey all we need to know about a particular area, town, or environment’ (Bowman, 1992: 2). As she stands, she absently licks a popsicle, and she gazes around without truly looking at anything; entirely self-contained, her derision indicates her lack of interaction with the suburban space. As Lux retreats from the camera Coppola shows the varying facets that Lux has failed to interact with: an idyllic suburbia, children playing, men watering and tending to their gardens. Of course, Coppola quickly undermines this idyll with the shot of Cecelia lying in the bath with her wrists cut; in Coppola’s film, suburbia is not emblematic of a happy life, but rather hides a very private misery. The suburbs can be seen as a representation of ‘the space of nostalgia for childhood … illuminating the tropes of dying nature and dying childhood, emblematized by the Lisbon sisters’ (Hoskin, 2007: Online). Certainly, in terms of the space shared by the boys, the suburbs are representative of nostalgia, but for the girls the suburbs represent something to escape from, not to return to.
Whilst symbolically trapped within the suburban idyll, after Lux’s indiscretion with Trip Fontaine, the girls find themselves physically and forcibly trapped within the familial home. Gradually, fewer people enter the home, and fewer people leave it: ‘Habitual space … is work space or play space, and it supports the narrative assumption that neither totally private nor totally public realities are particularly healthy … habitual space is often a measure of health in the films, healthy relations above all.’ (Bowman, 1992: 33) The escalating enforced privacy creates an unhealthy environment, and it is this environment, that culminates in the girls’ collective suicide. Lux is heard off-screen, informing her mother, ‘We’re suffocating’ (Coppola, 1996), Mrs Lisbon replies that the girls are ‘safe here’ (Coppola, 1996), to which Lux responds ‘I can’t breathe in here’ (Coppola, 1996). Clearly Lux is not referring to a physical inability to breathe, but rather the symbolic effects this stifling environment is having upon her and her sisters. After being removed from school the girls are unable to interact with anyone outside the family home; unable to physically speak, the girls resort to sending coded messages to the neighbourhood boys. It must of course be noted, that whilst the girls are essentially trapped within the home, they are not entirely separated from the neighbourhood boys, who could easily intervene at any time. Thus, it is the boys’ inability to act that serves to symbolically trap the girls, as much as the Lisbon parents seek to physically trap them.
As the Lisbon home is made increasingly private, the girls’ mental state becomes increasing unhealthy as they begin to waste away both physically and mentally. Coppola features time-lapse footage of the Lisbon home, showing the increasingly deteriorated state of the home once the girls have been effectively imprisoned, this footage also highlights the increasingly intangible nature of the girls; no one is shown entering or leaving the home. Lux appears aware of this spatial division, and as an act of both rebellion and an attempt at control begins to engage in sexual intercourse with varying men on the roof of the Lisbon home.
Her choice of location, whilst clearly forced due to her imprisonment, is notable; the roof is clearly part of the physical structure of the Lisbon home, and yet, it is at the very boundary of the house, and whilst the men seemingly enter through the house, the actual act takes place outside it. Lux’s motivations are never truly made clear, her sexual acts viewed voyeuristically from a distance by the young male collective, and yet these sexual moments can be perceived as both an attempt a rebellion and an attempt to gain control. The girls’ are imprisoned because Lux, in consummating her relationship with Trip, arrived home after the approved hour. Thus, effectively she is punished because of her own sexual desire; these illicit moments on the roof show attempts to not only continue in forging her sexual desire and identity, but to directly rebel against the rules instigated by Mrs Lisbon. Similarly, this is an area which is entirely private to her, no one else is ever seen entering this space, and as such, even in her imprisonment she can find a way to claim ownership and gain control. This attempt to find an area or space to control is replicated in the girls’ suicides; each death, aside from Cecelia’s, takes place in an entirely private space. Cecelia struggles to find a private space for her death; her first attempt was discovered by Paul Baldino as he made his way up through the storm drains. Her second, successful attempt took place during the arranged party; perhaps successful because she is not interrupted this time, and is able to continue to claim ownership on the symbolic space that she is creating. The girls’ decision to commit suicide within the house itself further establishes both this rejection of imprisonment and this desire for control; unable to physically leave the house, they choose to do so symbolically. Unlike the Lisbon girls, the neighbourhood boys are free to visit one another’s home as they choose, but notably they choose not to enter the Lisbon home again after Cecelia’s party, until they believe the girls will be leaving with them. The boys are thus only willing to interact with the girls in a space that they themselves have created; they are not willing to enter the private space of the Lisbon girls. The shared private space enjoyed by the boys is not something to be feared, it remains healthy through their ability to share it. The private space of the Lisbon girls, however, is entirely unhealthy, made so through their utter isolation and their inability to move from this private space to a neutral or public space; this private space becomes the only space they can occupy. This space becomes unhealthier in retrospect: it is within this space that the Lisbon girls, unbeknownst to others, conspire to collectively commit suicide.
For much of the film the girls are able to enjoy interacting with a neutral or public space, and during these interactions the girls’ actions and demeanour are far removed from the sad plight of their isolation towards the film’s end. They appear happier, more approachable, although the news of Cecelia’s death effectively taints the sisters, leading to their classmates’ reluctance to truly engage with them. Despite this, there can be little doubt that without this luxury of the neutral space awarded by the school, Lux would not have been able to embark on her relationship with Trip. It is her presence in this neutral space that allows him to approach her, and later, when invited into the Lisbon private space to watch television, he is unable to act. It is only once he and Lux are once again in neutral space that their relationship can develop. The neutral space of the school also allows the girls to attend the school prom; their attendance at the prom marks the first time that the neighbourhood boys, and in turn the audience, truly see the girls as individuals. When the arrangements for the prom are initially made it is clear that the boys chosen to accompany the girls do not recognise them as individuals: the girls comment that ‘they’re just gonna raffle us off’ (Coppola, 1996). It is only once the girls interact with the boys in a neutral space that they are recognised individually. The car journey to the prom is the first time that we hear the girls speak unguarded, away from the pressures of private space. It is this moment that the boys finally recognise the girls are individuals, distinct from one another, as well as truly realising that they are in fact a real presence, not the almost mythical beings the boys had created in their fantasies. Away from their parents the girls become animated, they interact intelligently, demonstrating their wit and humour; they are not the passive creatures the boys had created through their voyeurism. Arriving at the prom, we see the girls truly interacting within a social space, they indulge in activities common to their peers, dancing and drinking together, activities that previously seemed alien to the girls, viewing them through the neighbourhood boys’ fantasises. Bonnie is shown to engage in what is likely to be her first sexual encounter, allowing one of the boys to kiss her, an act impossible in the private space of the house.
This relationship between private and neutral space must of course, eventually come into conflict with one another; dependent on one another they are unable to exist separately. Thus, Lux, engaging in sexual intercourse with Trip upon the football field (a private act in a neutral space), is discovered and is then forced into remaining in a private space removing them from the reach of others: ‘the boys will always be outsiders looking in and back at the Lisbon house, and the girls will always be inside, illuminating a lack of not only temporal, but also physical, proximity’ (Hoskin, 2007: Online).
Coppola uses this conflation of private and neutral space in a rather different manner in Lost in Translation. Once again, there are varying degrees and form of private space presented; there is of course the literal private space that Charlotte endures within her room, left alone by John for hours at a time, and there is the symbolic private space enjoyed by Bob and Charlotte as they establish and develop their relationship, enjoying experiences entirely unique to the space that they share together. Coppola’s use of neutral space, a space entirely linked with the film’s hotel setting, enables Charlotte and Bob to first meet and then engage with one another. The hotel setting is particularly notable: the space it provides is a space that neither Bob nor Charlotte have any emotional or physical connections with. This is not their home, nor are their daily actions part of a regular routine; they can exist away from and outside of their daily life, and thus they can embark upon their relationship together.
The most obvious use of private space comes through Charlotte’s interaction with her hotel room. Left alone for long periods of time, she is consigned to her suite within the hotel, unable to find herself another private space as the rest of the hotel is neutral. Her room becomes private through her enforced isolation: her husband John leaves for work assignments for long periods of time, and being away from home, Charlotte has few people to engage and interact with. She attempts to phone a friend back home, but her dislocation from daily routine makes conversation difficult. Her friend is still placed within her daily routine and thus finds it difficult to both find the time, and relate to Charlotte’s expression of ennui and isolation: ‘Charlotte and Bob … are both dislocated, temporary itinerants out of their element. They each have their own room’ (Bolton, 2011: 116), and thus they each have their own private space. Charlotte’s private space is more than simply literal: certainly her room is private, as once John is away it is hers alone, but it is also made private through her lack of connection with John. Even before John leaves for work there is a very real sense that their hotel suite is Charlotte’s own private space. The pair frequently fail to connect with one another, they often appear distracted, and Charlotte especially fails to listen to John for much of the time they do spend together. For Charlotte, entirely private space, over which she has little control, is a source of both isolation and ennui. She has no control over the private space she currently inhabits because it is a space that has been created by John and his absence. Charlotte is often shown suffering from insomnia: as she sits awake, John is often shown asleep, a rather literal presentation of how disconnected the couple are. At these moments they are not occupying the same conscious space, and are clearly unable to communicate. Charlotte attempts to wake John, effectively inviting him to share her private space. John is seemingly reluctant to do so, falling back to sleep, perhaps not recognising the existence of Charlotte’s private space and the invitation that is being extended to him. Charlotte, whilst frequently venturing outside the hotel herself, is often shown as ‘a tiny figure against the backdrop of the vast, colourful, and neon-drenched Tokyo cityscape … in order [to] metaphorically … convey her isolation and alienation’ (Bolton, 2011: 110). Her wanderings fail to enable her to connect, and it is not until she meets Bob that she is able to make a connection with someone else.
Charlotte, despite her assertion and confidence, is frequently depicted as vulnerable, especially in her private space, ‘her characteristic position is seated in or close to the picture windows of her room, framed against the backdrop of the city, images that suggest her smallness and vulnerability in comparison with the vast scale of the “alien” urban environment’ (King, 2010: 104). There is a very real sense of her being lost, both physically and metaphorically. Her often seemingly aimless wanderings, without any real sense of direction, reflect Charlotte’s current inner state: ‘in the scenes that consist of Charlotte exploring the city, the camera lingers on her for several seconds at a time as she watches and studies the objects of her interest – an excess of detail and focus’ (Bolton, 2011: 110). Despite the almost immersive nature of these wanderings, Charlotte fails to ever connect with those she observes, instead she spends her time exploring the city, ‘silently wandering around Tokyo, exploring the city and observing its inhabitants’ (Bolton, 2011: 116). It is important to note the manner in which Charlotte conducts these explorations: she clearly isn’t seeking any form of connection with the inhabitants of Tokyo, as she makes little effort to engage with them. This lack of engagement indicates her desire to remain separate; it also highlights her desire to remain in control, connecting with others would undermine the little control Charlotte has at her disposal, by preventing anyone from entering her own private space she can remain in control.
Charlotte’s engagement and explorations of Tokyo are reminiscent of the manner in which she explores the hotel. Wandering around its many corridors, observing the actions of its inhabitants, ‘she comes across a room where some Japanese women are arranging flowers in various vases … These experiences engages Charlotte’s sense of touch, smell and sounds, as well as sight, and create an immersive cinematic experience for the spectator’ (Bolton, 2011: 108 – 109). Despite the immersive, sensory nature of such scenes (the sounds of Tokyo are often overwhelming), Charlotte fails to really interact. This flower-arranging scene comes after hyperactive actress Kelly’s press conference, which Charlotte observes at a distance. The serene nature of the flower-arranging comes as a relief both to Charlotte and the audience after the brash, crass Kelly’s interactions with the press. Charlotte clearly wants to leave the space that Kelly occupies, and chooses to remove herself to a space that is occupied by traditions of another culture. Indeed, Charlotte frequently removes herself from the hotel to explores spaces occupied by Japanese culture; she visits Kyoto: ‘A generally unhurried impression is created by the entire Kyoto sequence … the film seems to be going at the pace of the character’s thoughts, seemingly without any particular direction other than marking out a need for time and reflection’ (King, 2010: 108). Certainly, Charlotte’s visit to Kyoto is both an attempt to find meaning in her reasons for staying in Japan with her husband, as well as an attempt to physically remove herself away from the space that she occupies with her husband. Charlotte seems to visit these places often because she has little else to do: left alone by John, she struggles to find activities to occupy herself. These excursions are seemingly indulged in because, as a tourist to this country, these are the activities that are typically carried out: Charlotte partly explores and visits these places because it is expected of her. She also uses the exploration of these spaces as an opportunity to reflect, to find her own space that is entirely separate from the connections she has. Notably, despite her friendship with Bob, she chooses to visit Kyoto alone; this is an experience and an opportunity that she desires to experience herself. She visits Kyoto after her most intimate moments with Bob, in which the pair lie together on her bed, discussing their hopes and fears. Charlotte, despite her friendship and shared private space does not want to entirely relinquish her control over her own space, and thus leaves for Kyoto, making out a space that is entirely her own.
Of course, the most important space within the film is the hotel itself; a space that contains both neutral and private spaces. The hotel itself presents a number of interpretations and possibilities: ‘during the period covered by the film, Bob and Charlotte are to some extent adrift from their usual moorings, existing in a state of limbo, between their pasts and their futures’ (King, 2010: 126). The space of a hotel, especially one present in a country that is not native to the protagonists, offers an entirely unique space. Its temporality is a constant, the moments that take place within the hotel are unlikely to be repeated; Charlotte and Bob will never engage in the experiences they have shared together again. This temporality and subsequent finality is a constant reminder throughout the film, and thus both Bob and Charlotte are aware of the impending end to their relationship, imbuing their relationship with a poignancy that would not have been possible within their usual, domesticated space: their relationship is made profound through its finality. Neither Bob nor Charlotte are rooted to the space that the hotel offers, neither symbolically nor physically. Thus, they are free from the constraints that would be present in their usual, domesticated space, and it is this freedom that allows them to connect with one another. Despite this freedom, the hotel also presents itself as a space within which Charlotte often feels trapped, often leading to her explorations of Tokyo. She is regularly seen sat in the window of her hotel room, looking onto the vast city below: ‘a woman framed through a window, looking out at the world – is a distinct characteristic of all of Coppola’s films’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 195). Of course, this contrast of the lone Charlotte framed against a backdrop of the huge city below immediately signifies her loneliness and isolation; it also signifies her relative insignificance, a fact that cannot have escaped the intelligent philosophy graduate. Her awareness at her insignificance further encourages her to find a space that she alone can control. During the hours spent in her room, Charlotte wanders around almost aimlessly, hanging decorations, bathing and listening to self-help audio books. Spending time in her room, Charlotte is often presented in a state of undress: ‘she tends towards tops and underpants that give her a vulnerable appearance … There are distinct resonances of the “little girl lost and confused”’ (King, 2010: 47). It is notably only in her private space that Charlotte appears vulnerable, in public and neutral spaces she is forth-coming with her opinions, confident, and intelligent. This is not to suggest that it is in these public, neutral spaces that Charlotte has more control: instead, it signifies her lack of control; it is in these public spaces that Charlotte feels it necessary to act as people expect her to. It is during her moments in her private space, and those private spaces shared with Bob that she can express her fears and desires.
It is the private space that Charlotte and Bob share together that is both formative and most expressive of Charlotte’s desire for control over her own space. Charlotte invites Bob to share her private space, allowing him to physically enter her room when she first invites him to attend a night-out that she has arranged. Aware of the private nature of her own space, Charlotte is initially uneasy upon Bob’s entrance, but in allowing him to enter it is clear that Charlotte is prepared to allow him to enter into a shared private space with her. The shared space that they enjoy is clearly more symbolic than literal: the pair exchange knowing glances with one another across the bar. Through his relationship with Charlotte, Bob comes to understand that he too desires a private space over which he has control: ‘his wife repeatedly invades his room with faxes, telephone calls, or messages regarding home decoration and furnishing, and she serves as a reminder of his domestic responsibilities’ (Bolton, 2011: 113). Her continual invasion only serves to further remind Bob of his desire for a private space over which he has control. He feels guilt over this and on occasion seeks to contact his wife himself, but each time he does so, he regrets it. Later in the film Charlotte’s private space is invaded in the same way, as John sends her a fax informing her that he misses her. Despite this, we know that Charlotte, through her interaction with Bob, will no longer allow John to invade her space. Her confident striding away on the streets of Tokyo shows that she will continue to attempt to find a space over which she has sole control.
Much of this discussion has focussed upon Charlotte’s interaction with space, and there must be some discussion of the manner in which Bob interacts. There has been less focus upon Bob purely because, despite clearly desiring a private space, he spends less time seeking it. He spends much of the film arriving and leaving spaces according to the schedule that has been pre-arranged for him, much of which he abides by. There are occasions where Bob avoids the media publicists that have arrived to greet him, slipping past to enjoy his own space, but there is a real sense that Bob has given up on finding his own private space: the continual invasions of his wife make this impossible.
Coppola uses private space to a similar effect in Marie Antoinette, but through different means. For Marie, it is public space that brings isolation and loneliness, and whilst she seeks a private space over which she has control, she does not desire to share it. Marie’s desire for an entirely private space of her own stems from the very public nature of her life at Versailles, where no truly private space exists. Those spaces which should be private, such as Marie’s bedroom, and the expected consummation upon her wedding night, are made entirely public through intrusion. Her bedroom, upon the moment she wakes, is filled with various noblewomen, all of whom are able to effectively control this space. Marie is not able to dress herself, instead the act is a honour which falls to the highest ranking noblewoman present. In one scene, Marie is forced to stand nude, as various women enter, each causing the honour of dressing her to fall to someone else: ‘Marie’s bedroom is the least private room in the house, with the entire population of Versailles taking an interest.’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 198) Marie continually struggles to find privacy: at one point after her sister-in-law’s child is born, she runs to a bathroom, holding in her emotions until she’s sure she can be alone: ‘There is no such thing as a private space in Versailles, and even the secret chamber Marie finds hidden behind her bed is actually a room for entertaining guests.’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 198) Marie’s lack of any form of private space ensures that she comes to crave it, desperate for the opportunity to exert control; Marie has no control over her own actions, she quickly finds that particular expectations and routines are instilled by those in control of the space she inhabits. She is expected to follow certain customs, which afford little opportunity for privacy. Thus upon her wedding night, she and her husband are waited upon by attendants, and blessed by a priest immediately before they are expected to consummate their relationship. The next morning, all learn of Marie and Louis’ failure to consummate their marriage, and this failure leads to many hoping to encourage relations between Marie and Louis. Even the most private act is reclaimed for public knowledge; similarly, when Marie does finally become pregnant, she is forced to give birth in a room filled with people, forced to be seen at her most vulnerable moment.
The palace is propagated by both idle and malicious gossip, which despite its secretive nature, is known to all. Marie rapidly learns of the way that she will be judged in this very public life: upon her arrival to Versailles, as she enters the palace, she finds herself received in a hostile manner; men and women line the entrance to Versailles, and as the young Marie walks past, she is aware of their questioning looks and the beginnings of gossip surrounding her. Marie is initially naive to the workings of the palace, but quickly understands its inner mechanics. At one of the first dinners she attends, the party sit around a circular table, breaking off into independent groups around it. Thus, particular confidants whisper to one another as they deliver their verdict upon the rest of the seated party. Marie is aware that she is the focus of much of the talk around the table: ‘Marie’s setting makes clear that she is fundamentally lonely even as she is put on display for a prying public’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 198). Whilst Marie is aware of this, she does not initially move away from it, clearly feeling like there is little opportunity to do so. She quickly becomes accustomed to the workings of Versailles, and she is shown ready and waiting for those who arrive to dress her in the morning, instead of having to be roused from her sleep. She ensures that she is awake before they arrive to not only reinstate some sense of control over the scene, but to also prevent others from seeing her asleep, in a private space, and vulnerable. She may have little control, but she wants to ensure that she does not give away the little control that she still has at her disposal. Ensuring she is awake before she roused in the morning may not seem like an effort at control, but it certainly is; Marie is aware of the scant means at her disposal and ensures that she is able to exploit them. In a similar way, she pacifies herself with the many extravagant purchases she makes. These purchases work on two levels: firstly, to comfort herself in her moments of isolation and loneliness, as she is able to bury herself in wealth as an attempt to forget how alone she truly is. Secondly, these purchases operate as an attempt to once again reinstate some form of control: she is able to choose these purchases herself, thus she is in control of the way in which she outwardly presents herself to others. This is the only means available to Marie to hold some form of control, as she ‘holds absolute symbolic power but has little voice.’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 194)
Marie is trapped in Versailles both physically and symbolically; physically she is unable to leave, wedded into the French monarchy, a decision over which she had little choice. Symbolically, her ‘world is inundated by low murmurs, the whispers and stifled talk of those moving about Versailles’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 195). These whisperings, which Marie is at all times painfully aware of, ensures that she ‘experiences the claustrophobia of sound. There exists an aural geography that reinforces how confined she is by protocol’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 195). Even as Marie walks apparently freely around Versailles she finds herself both attended on and talked about. In one scene she is shown perusing the Palace gardens, she walks ahead of those attending upon her, but she is unable to escape, and they will continue to follow her as protocol dictates. Before she seeks to find her own private space, the only truly private space that she is able to enjoy is during her attendance at the opera: ‘it is significant that she indulges in the sounds of the opera, losing herself and escaping into the senses’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 195). The opera offers Marie an immersive experience, during which she is able to lose herself in the music, momentarily forgetting the protocol that so dictates her life. Whilst idle and malicious gossip certainly still exists (as seen upon the Duchesse de Polignac’s entrance to Marie’s opera box), it disappears from Marie’s thoughts the moment she immerses herself in the music. Similarly, Marie is able to lose herself in hiding her identity, attending a masked ball she is able to once again remove herself from the enforced protocol, interacting in a space in which, whilst she does not control, others do not and thus cannot control her.
Notably of course, it must be again stressed that Coppola’s film are shot on-location, gendering the spaces that her protagonists inhabit: ‘The spaces in Coppola’s films, like the remote Palace of Versailles … act to domesticate the women that inhabit them and produce a system of bodily regulation. Architecture naturalizes the repression of women and isolates them from the public realm’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 197 – 198). Certainly, the spaces in Coppola’s films are not merely restricted to revealing issues surrounding female gender (as can be seen in Somewhere), but undoubtedly, it is ritualisation that removes any form of control. In Marie’s case, it is the ritualistic protocol that she is forced to live by daily that removes both her independence and her ability to create some form of control. It is only upon a physical removal from this space, enabled when Louis allows her the use of Le Petit Trianon, (which whilst still residing in the gardens of Versailles, is free from protocol), that she is able to establish a private space over which she has control. Marie, through her time at Le Petit Trianon, ‘rejects her suffering and chooses instead an eroticization of all aspects of life outside her bedroom’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 199). Not only does Marie seek to control her own private space, but she also seeks to discover her own female sexuality and desire, reclaiming her own sexuality. In the very public space of Versailles, Marie’s sexuality is not even a consideration: her sexuality is merely perceived through her ability to procreate, once again a protocol or task that she is expected to fulfil. Reflected in her ability to discover her own sexuality is her interaction with a more natural space, spending much time in the gardens outside of Le Petit Trianon, reading Rousseau she advocates a return to nature: ‘The association between women’s freedom and nature is constantly re-emphasized … man-made structures are built only to limit the expression of women’s souls. In breaking out of social structures and rediscovering themselves in the state of nature, Coppola’s heroines feel rooted to a sense of self.’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 200) Certainly it is in these moments at Le Petit Trianon, especially when placed within the natural gardens, that Marie feels truest to herself. She is able to expand herself intellectually, developing ‘a fulfilling life outside of Versailles through a community of friends and her relationship with Count Axel von Ferson’ Lane and Richter, 2011: 199), importantly this is a group of friends that Marie has been able to choose herself. Away from the malicious influences of those she spends time with in Versailles, whose gossip leads her astray in her treatment of the King’s mistress, Marie is able to engage with others on a personal level, creating meaningful relationships with others.
Johnny Marco, too, is able to create a more meaningful relationship with his daughter Cleo in Somewhere, able to do so once he chooses to remove himself from the space that he currently inhabits. Johnny, perhaps more than any other of Coppola’s protagonists, is able to choose to remove himself from his current space, but is reluctant to do so; more than any other protagonist, Johnny is aware of his inadequacies, believing himself to be ‘nothing’ (Coppola, 2010). It is his awareness of this that prevents him from finding his own space over which he has control, and he is only able to do so once Cleo has deemed him worthy. Johnny, much like Marie, exists in a public space, a space which allows others to judge and interact with him at will. As Johnny is judged, and perceived in a particular way, he becomes accustomed to living in a certain way, to live up to these particular expectations. Thus he regularly has sex with women who he has only just met, eats poorly, and engages in few hobbies (aside from driving his car, entirely emblematic of the current state of his lifestyle); the emptiness of his life stems from the lifestyle he has chosen to adopt. He doesn’t truly know nor understand why he chooses to engage in such acts, but does so because, as a particular brand of celebrity, he seemingly feels duty-bound to do so.
The friends he surrounds himself with, particularly Sammy, an old friend that has too adopted this vacuous lifestyle, further cements Johnny’s feeling of ennui and dislocation. It is Sammy that, at the film’s opening, organises a party within Johnny’s private suite. This very public party within a private space comes after a moment in which Johnny is clearly attempting to establish a private space. The film opens with the sounds of a car driving, through a sustained static shot the car is shown driving around a track. As the car drives, the camera remains stationary, capturing the car each time is comes into shot. Importantly, the camera does not enter the car, and we do not then immediately understand who is driving the car. Later it becomes clear that this is Johnny’s car; it then becomes apparent that in neglecting to initially show inside the car, it is as if Johnny is attempting to reject the intrusion of the audience. Yet, whilst his car can present a private space for Johnny, it is not a happy one; his car is far too emblematic of his lifestyle, and its connotations prevent it from being a space over which he has sole control. His car is not only a symbol of his empty lifestyle, but is also the scene of much of his paranoia, as he drives around Los Angeles he continually questions whether or not he is being followed. In the same manner, these cars also represent Johnny’s awareness that his time with Cleo must end: she lives with her mother, and whilst she offers an opportunity for salvation, this cannot happen when the time he spends with her is so fleeting. It is only once Cleo and Johnny spend time together for a sustained length of time that Johnny is able to change.
The aforementioned party is the first time that Johnny is seen interacting within a now-public space (the privacy of his suite made public by its attendees), and he is clearly uncomfortable. His suite, a space that should be private, becomes a place for others to freely enter and leave at will, unlike Johnny, whose sense of self-worth compels him to remain within this empty existence. Strangers, through Johnny’s fame, overcome any sense of a private space and instead feign acquaintance, speaking to Johnny as a close friend, creating a superficial familiarity. At the party, Johnny is greeted by various people, before retreating with a woman to his bedroom; despite his apparent attraction to her, he falls asleep, signifying his lack of genuine interest. He doesn’t truly want to engage in sexual intercourse with this woman, but attempts to do so because he believes it is expected of him. Similarly, twice he invites the two twins to pole dance for him; the first time they dance he falls asleep, the second time one of them seemingly spends the night, but he awakes to find Cleo awaiting him. It becomes clear that he invites the twins to dance for him not for enjoyment, but rather to provide a form of distraction; Johnny is unhappy with his life, and the person he has become, and so desires a diversion. It is with Cleo’s arrival that Johnny is forced to confront his issues; he understands and recognises them, but Cleo’s arrival provides the much-needed impetus for Johnny to begin to question his lifestyle.
As mentioned, we are not shown the inside of Johnny’s car at the film’s beginning, and it is apparent that he is attempting to deal with his own personal crisis. It is not until the appearance of Cleo that he is forced to externalise, and in turn, deal with the issues under which he suffering with. These issues can be seen to manifest themselves as Johnny’s increased paranoia about the cars that he believes are following him; symbolic of the issues and concerns that Johnny is faced with, takes it upon himself to deal with them. Johnny understands that he desires a private space, spending time in his car alone is, at the film’s commencement, the only form of private space that he understands as available to him. It is not until his interaction with Cleo however that he truly understands the form of space he desires: a space over which he has control. Thus, as the film ends and Johnny has finally understood the form of space that he desires, he leaves his car behind, parking it at the roadside, striding away from it. Coppola chooses to change the camera angle here, to symbolise Johnny’s defiance; when Johnny is driving, the camera follows his car. Now, as he leaves the car behind Johnny walks towards the camera, walking towards a life in which he controls the space that he inhabits, a space in which he is no longer rendered impotent. Johnny’s career leads to much of his life being micro-managed by others: he frequently receives calls from his publicist, informing him of the next task that he is expected to complete; attending press junkets and premieres, unlike Bob, who chooses to avoid his media publicists on occasion, Johnny’s self-awareness and self-disgust leaves him with little option but to attend. He feels so unworthy that he feels obliged to complete these tasks, despite his not truly wanting to do so. It is his interaction with Cleo that effectively saves him, compelling him to take charge of his life. We see the affect Cleo has upon him, when after a particularly trying day attending a press junket where he finds his very sense of self questioned, ‘who is Johnny Marco?’ (Coppola, 2010), to which he has no answer, he arrives apparently unannounced at the home Cleo shares with her mother. Arriving in the house, Johnny immediately seeks Cleo, and she runs up to enthusiastically greet him; it is clear that Cleo is his comfort, the only person to give his life any sense of meaning.
Once again, Coppola utilises both a real location, and the use of a hotel to great effect. The Chateau Marmont is a hotel steeped in history, moments of iconic celebrity culture are indelibly linked with the hotel: ‘Though the shenanigans tend to get the press, the hotel’s more impressive legacy is its role as muse for generations of artists, photographers, novelists and screenwriters’(Brown, 2010: Online). Using a location that is so synonymous with celebrity culture effectively introduces a form of environmental determinism to Johnny’s lifestyle. The reputation of this hotel, and the manner of lifestyle it allows and affords (allowing parties within hotel suites, allowing guests to employ the services of pole dancers within the establishment), enables Johnny to live in such a manner. The fact that it is so widely accepted to live in this manner prevents Johnny from questioning his lifestyle, it is only once he is removed away from it, travelling to Italy with Cleo, that he able to question it upon his return. Johnny has to be physically removed from the Chateau Marmont before he is able to question its morals, and the effect that it has upon Johnny himself; the hotel allows and enables Johnny’s shallow lifestyle which, whilst aware of it, he is unable to truly confront whilst remaining at the hotel.
Of course, Johnny does not wish to inhabit an entirely private space, but rather a space that he can control. Coppola demonstrates the fear that elicits from an entirely isolated form of private space, most explicitly demonstrated in the scene where Johnny is fitted for aging prosthetics. Sitting alone, his face is entirely covered with plaster; he cannot see, nor speak, and can only breathe through his nostrils. Coppola’s ‘heroines [and heroes] have difficulty speaking and finding their voice within the institutional structures that surround them’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 194), certainly this is true of each of Coppola’s protagonists. Whilst this inability to speak is usually depicted symbolically, Johnny’s inability to speak manifests itself physically in this scene; he is literally unable to speak.
Previous critical discussion of Coppola’s work has concentrated on a predominantly feminist reading, and notably, Coppola’s female protagonists are generally considered to be passive, used by the world they inhabit. Her films are seen to focus upon ‘the loneliness of being female and surrounded by a world that knows how to use you but not how to value and understand you’ (Ebert, 2006: Online). This essay has shown through extensive discussion that to think of Coppola’s films as merely feminist, as well as considering her characters as passive, is incredibly reductive. Coppola’s films cannot be considered as depicting a purely female experience; the portrayal of the neighbourhood boys for example, speaks volumes about the nostalgic male experience – a specifically adolescent male experience. Her depictions of Bob Harris and particularly Johnny Marco have much to say about a specifically male experience; an experience in which the privilege their gender affords (wealth, male virility) brings them little satisfaction. Johnny and Bob reject the patriarchal manner in which they are expected to engage; Bob appears to have little desire to interact with his family, neglecting to fulfil various parental duties. Johnny indulges in sex with various women with little visible enjoyment; he only engages in sex because as a wealthy and supposedly virile male, he is expected to do so.
Coppola’s characters, both male and female, struggle against the expectations that the space that they inhabit instils within them. Aware of their discontent, they initially fail to recognise the cause of their disquiet, eventually understanding that they desire a space over which they can exert control. Coppola complicates this concept of own space, through her complex concept of private space. Coppola demonstrates that entirely private space, when it is unwilling enforced, is a source of loneliness and isolation; Coppola’s characters desire a private space that is entirely on their own terms. Charlotte, for example, rejects the private space that is forcibly created through John’s departure; instead she spends much of the film seeking a space of her own creation. Each of Coppola’s characters require a particular interaction with another character to provide an impetus for their search for control: Marie, for example, only understands her search for a controlled space once she has experienced her own sexual development through her relation with Count Axel von Ferson. Coppola’s characters are unable to understand and recognise their desire for control through their interaction with both space and a particular character: a daughter, a lover, or a friend.
All of Coppola’s protagonists seek the ability to ‘speak themselves into existence’ (Lane and Richter, 2011: 197), but are unable to do so in the current environment and space that they inhabit. Some, like the Lisbon girls, never find the ability to speak, and they remain ever mute, unable to truly assert themselves. The Lisbon girls, aware of this, and unable to physically remove themselves from this space, seek to remove themselves symbolically, hoping that the apparent symbolism will impact those who maintained this enforced space. Others, like Marie, enjoy their own space, over which they maintain control for a brief period, before it is again forcibly removed. It is only Charlotte and Johnny that appear to be successful in their venture: both end the film walking confidently away from the symbolic space that they previously inhabited. Charlotte walks away from the hotel, and Bob too, whose formative relationship aided Charlotte’s understanding and realisation. Charlotte is confident as she walks away, no longer a mere observer, she is confident in her ability to finally find a space that she can inhabit and control. Johnny strides away from his car, an object entirely emblematic of his previous, shallow, and to him, distasteful lifestyle, looking forward to a life which holds meaning.
Coppola’s characters are far from passive, instead they are continually, actively searching, desiring to reclaim a space of their own, over which they hold absolute control. This space is not intangible, but a very real possibility: Marie demonstrates the brief reality of this space. It is maintaining this space that presents the real challenge, whether Coppola’s characters are successful in maintaining this space once discovered is unknown, but regardless, having experienced it, they will forever search for it.
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(30 August 2012)
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Žižek, S. (2011) Living in the End Times, London: Verso
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010)