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When looking at Sofia Coppola’s filmography during quarantine, it’s evident how the theme of isolation and its effects on young women is prevalent in several of her movies. Both The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled are characterized by showing how a group of young women react to being extremely isolated from outsiders. In contrast, her film Marie Antoinette shows how emotional distance can be as isolating as physical separation. As quarantine has dragged on now for six months, it feels like the perfect time to examine the portrayal of isolation across Coppola’s films.
Sofia Coppola is an American writer, director, and producer whose six feature films have marked her as one of the most notable female directors working today. Her first role as an actress was as the baby in The Godfather, as it was directed by her father Francis Ford Coppola. She went on to other acting roles in Peggy Sue Got Married and The Godfather Part III. She turned from acting to directing and made her feature film directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides in 1999. In 2004, she became the third woman nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards for Lost in Translation in addition to winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Coppola continues to be one of the most exciting female filmmakers working today.
The Virgin Suicides is a poignant examination of five teenage sisters whose conservative parents shelter them from the world around them and how the neighborhood— particularly a group of young boys—collectively remembers them. It’s a remarkably impressive film for a first-time director, particularly in how atmospheric it is. After one of the girls attempts suicide, their parents become even stricter, keeping the girls who range in age from 13-17 years old away from their peers. At one point, “Lux” (played fantastically by Kirsten Dunst) tells her parents, “I’m suffocating.” The film delves into how difficult it is to be a teenage girl, but it never allows the audience to enter the young women’s psyche. We are kept both very close to and yet distant from the girls, making us feel that they are so isolated even the audience cannot reach them.
Coppola’s most recent film, The Beguiled, is an American Southern Gothic tale of a school for young women in Virginia during the Civil War. The film is equally as atmospheric as The Virgin Suicides; as you watch it, you feel the summer’s oppressive heat, making the girls more lethargic—and more volatile. Trouble looms when the school’s peaceful mood is broken by discovering a wounded Northern soldier (Colin Farrell). The school is in a home run by headmistress “Miss Martha Farnsworth” (Nicole Kidman), and the only remaining teacher, “Miss Edwina Morrow” (Dunst), are both affected tremendously by the soldier. His appearance in their small world causes discord as every woman fights for his attention after going so long without having close contact with any man.
We feel their isolation in how strongly the women react to the sudden presence of an outsider and how they are forced to fend for themselves. Nothing demonstrates it better than Martha yelling, “Edwina, bring me the anatomy book” as she tends to John’s wounds. Each woman clamors for his attention in a way that she would not in normal circumstances.
The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled share a hazy, dreamlike cinematographic tone that emphasizes the otherworldly effects of the isolation. They both also highlight female sexuality and blossoming young sexuality; Dunst’s performance as Lux in The Virgin Suicides seems mirrored by Elle Fanning’s in The Beguiled. Both films also highlight the obsessive fascination the women develop with outsiders—mainly men—when they do come into contact with them. Each film is also intentionally slow, as it demonstrates how stagnate their lives are, something that we relate to as an audience living through pandemic quarantine.
Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette shows the effects of emotional isolation, rather than physical. Starring Dunst as the young queen (in perhaps her best performance in a Coppola film), the film shows her forced transformation in a matter of minutes from a 14-year-old girl with a ribbon in her hair to the princess of France. When Marie crosses the border from her homeland into her new country, she is forced to “leave all Austria behind,” including her friends and family, every item of her clothing to even her beloved pug, Mops.
Her entire life is on display at court, and people continuously surround her, yet she is so alone; the other ladies are cold to her, and her husband has little interest in her. Two scenes show Marie reacting to devastating letters from her mother which reprimand her for not being pregnant yet; her pain shows clearly on Dunst’s face. In one scene, she slumps down against a floral-wallpapered wall that she almost blends into thanks to the pattern of her dress, highlighting her feelings of unimportance. Marie Antoinette has none of the other two films’ dreamlike atmospheres, only stark reminders of how isolated its lead character feels in the middle of opulence.
All three films highlight the boredom of isolation and how it causes heightened reactions to anything vaguely exciting. Marie Antoinette throws herself into fashion while the girls of The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled grow obsessive over the few men in their lives. These are all emotions that people currently living through quarantine can likely identify with, whether through an online shopping addiction, getting overly excited about a trip to the grocery store, or becoming fixated on one of the few people you’re in contact with.
All three movies are excellent portrayals of isolation, though they’re far from the only ones. These could easily pair with Castaway, Rear Window, or The Lighthouse, which all highlight the effects of being removed from society. Or you can soon pair one of them with Coppola’s new film, which reunites her with Bill Murray. On the Rocks premieres at NYFF on September 22 and releases in early October.
© Nicole Ackman (9/15/20)
Top Photo: From Marie Antoinette
Middle Photo: From The Virgin Suicides
Bottom Photo: From The Beguiled
Photo Credit: Leigh Johnson for Sony Pictures Entertainment; Paramount Pictures; Focus Features