All too often, critics of Sofia Coppola label her films as rich white girl problems. The “white” part is fair enough – it’s not like she can’t be criticised for how she handles (or rather avoids handling) race in her films. But otherwise, there is an unpleasant “daddy’s girl” sneer to dismissals of her, along with a gendered assumption that her work is all surface. When it comes to the portrayal of privilege in her films there is a nuance that is often ignored.
From the very first moments of her debut feature there is a preoccupation with affluence. Set in 1970s Grosse Pointe, a suburb adjacent to a declining Detroit, The Virgin Suicides (1999) charts the final year in the lives of the five Lisbon sisters: Cecilia, Lux, Mary, Therese and Bonnie. The film opens with shots of sun-dappled suburbs, before moving to a cold interior where Cecilia, the youngest of the sisters, has just slit her wrists in the bath. These opening moments establish that the privilege of white middle-class American life hides a deep despair. Such an observation is well-trodden ground from All That Heaven Allows, in 1955, all the way to American Beauty (1999), and it’s one that is not unfairly criticised for being too inward-looking. The same charge could be levelled at Coppola here – but the historical context of the film’s setting should not be ignored.
In 1974, Detroit elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young. With the racially-charged riots of 1967 still fresh in the memory of many residents, Young set out to revitalise a Detroit which had a $103 million budget deficit, and the highest murder rate per capita in the US. At the time, there was a great divide between the predominantly black city, and the majority white suburbs. Though Young had attempted to bridge this divide, suburbs like the one seen in The Virgin Suicides saw his attempts at addressing the racial inequality as a form of reverse racism. Furthermore, while Young was trying to convince Detroit’s business elite to help rejuvenate the city, Young found that “many white investors were not too interested in investing into a city where blacks made up both the majority of the population and the city hall. Instead, they opted for the mostly white surrounding suburbs.” While race is never explicitly mentioned in The Virgin Suicides, the pervasive whiteness of the film hints at a racial injustice that lies beyond the frame.
More visible forms of injustice can be seen here, too. During Cecilia’s party, a boy called Joe, who has Down syndrome, becomes an opportunity for performative kindness rather than a person in his own right. The other boys at the party don’t outright bully him, but they treat him with a condescending niceness and turn him into a spectacle to impress the Lisbon girls. This is what ultimately prompts Cecilia to leave her party and throw herself out the window. Cecilia chafes against the way society pretties up such quiet horrors. She pulls at the bracelets that have been taped against her wrists to unsuccessfully hide the bandages. Seeing past the suburban niceties that allow these injustices, and her feeling of powerlessness against them, Cecilia chooses death.
The girls’ lack of power is made literal after Cecilia’s suicide, when their religious mother removes them from school because Lux had sex with high-school heartthrob Trip Fontaine. Mrs Lisbon’s puritanical values regarding sex are an authoritarian version of the values held generally by the neighbourhood. White suburbia, with its patriarchal-structured family values, produce a strict sexual class system, from which it is seemingly impossible to deviate. This is made obvious in a scene where the Lisbons’ neighbours come together to remove the spiked fence which killed Cecilia.
The men speak with puffed-up authority about what needs to be done but fail to lift the fence out of the ground. Meanwhile, the women stand and watch. Eventually the men chain the fence to a truck and rip it out, destroying the shrubbery in the process. It’s a scene that sums up how the community is incapable of understanding Cecilia’s suicide, but it also shows the adult world that is seemingly waiting for the Lisbon girls. Their lot is to marry dull, mediocre men who claim authority but inevitably fail, leaving destruction in their wake. All the girls can do is watch. They may be privileged but that doesn’t mean they’re free. Their class creates its own strict demands, which govern how the girls can live and love.
Lux initially seeks escape from dread through the momentary pleasure of casual sex, but it is a false hope since she must acquire it from the same mediocre men produced by the suburbs. By the end of the film, the male narrators are left clueless at their business lunches and cocktail parties. Without answers they attribute the girls’ deaths to some mystical femininity outside the male realm of logic. What they don’t realise is that it’s the very privilege found in their white suburbs that demands these girls remain subservient and docile.
This privileged world is an anaesthetic that numbs its characters to the despair it creates. The people of the neighbourhood shut themselves off from the repercussions of their comfort. Beyond the visible world of the film, racism ravages non-white lives, and a seemingly rigid sex class system ensures misery for anyone who wants to struggle against it.
If privilege in The Virgin Suicides is portrayed as a diseased trap, then the privilege in Marie Antoinette ensnares through pleasure. The film is a postmodern interpretation of the infamous queen’s time in Versailles, from her teenage marriage to the Dauphin all the way to the French Revolution. It was met with boos at Cannes and in his review for the New Yorker, Anthony Lane uses such condescendingly gendered descriptions as “silly fizz” and “beautiful blankness”. In Pretty: Film Theory, Aesthetics, and the History of the Troublesome Image, Rosalind Galt suggests that “the pretty evokes a patriarchal fear of cinema’s popular pleasures and its uncontrollable audiences.” If so, then Marie Antoinette is made all the prettier with each quivering sentence in Lane’s review.
Galt goes on to say that the “pretty” in film is often derided as apolitical, something else which Marie Antoinette was accused of by critics. In stark contrast, Anna Backman Rogers, in her article on the film, argues that Marie Antoinette is clearly about the politicisation of the female body. Marie is afforded a life of comfort where she can apparently have as many dogs as she likes, but it comes at a price: the constant awareness of her precarious place within the institution of Versailles. She is reduced to the sole duty of producing a male heir, and in the first half of the film, the pressure and failure to consummate her marriage becomes overwhelming. As Roger points out, in one of her moments of despair, Marie’s floral dress blends with the wallpaper behind her as if she is being “dissolved into her environment.” The pretty patterns are transformed into something sinister and suffocating.
Much like Lux in The Virgin Suicides, Marie attempts to escape from institutional pressure through pleasure. We first see this when, broken down by the continuous gossip of the court and humiliated by the birth of a niece, Marie finds a private room to break down into tears. This moment of ultimate low is then seemingly fought off by the abrupt arrival of ‘I Want Candy’ and a montage of shoes, cake, champagnes, and the consumption thereof. The rapid-fire editing of closeups pop in contrast to the tortured long takes that signal Marie’s anguish. It is an escape into the arms of pleasure which initially presents itself in the form of conspicuous consumption, then later matures into the idyll of a rural retreat. However, as with Lux, this embrace of pleasure is a false hope because the escape from institution is only allowed because of her position within that institution.
Coppola emphasises the sensory elements of Marie’s pleasure through closeups of sun-soaked fields (similar in appearance to the suburbs of The Virgin Suicides), sumptuous confections, and delicate fabrics, but the fleeting nature of such immediate experiences is never allowed to be forgotten. Pleasure can only be sustained through repetition, as these types of brief shots reappear throughout the film.
This sensuality is only matched in potency by Coppola’s use of anachronism. Deviating from the costume drama’s predilection for historical accuracy, much has been made of the fleeting glimpse of a pair of Converse shoes and the American accents of the main actors. Far from an empty exercise in style, such anachronisms signal that the film is less concerned with an historical truth about the real-life Marie Antoinette and is instead more interested in its contemporary audience. We live in a world of consumer capitalism, and like Marie we are convinced to escape the pressures of this institution by buying pleasure. It is a relief derived from both our own and others’ exploitation, and it grows ever more relevant when concepts like self-care can become big business.
Both The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette view privilege through the prisms of pain and pleasure respectively. Far from merely wallowing in it, they offer up narrative spaces in which to explore such privilege. Rather than just letting them eat cake, these films offer audiences the chance to sample such myopic worlds while still retaining their own perspective. If all you see when you watch Coppola’s films is a pretty surface wallowing in its own privilege, then you’re not looking hard enough.