The news that Sofia Coppola has won Best Director at the Cannes film festival for The Beguiled is sure to delight film fans, feminists, and Coppola watchers everywhere. Coppola has blazed a singular trail for women in film, winning awards that are rarely given to female directors. She is only the second woman ever to have won the Best Director prize at Cannes. She won an Oscar in 2004 for Best Screenplay for Lost in Translation. In 2010, she was the first ever American woman, and only the third woman ever, to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which she did with Somewhere. Furthermore, she has achieved all this with films that prioritise a female perspective, with predominantly female casts, concentrating on girls' and women's lives, and taking seriously what it's like to be female in a world where the rules are still largely determined by men.
In all of her films, Coppola shows us how girls are contained within worlds that, while they may look like they are idyllic havens, stifle them. Sometimes, girls are objects of boyish lust and fantasy, as in The Virgin Suicides. Other times, they have outgrown this role, and, abandoned by husbands who are uninterested in them, or incapable of seeing them as people, struggle to find an identity of their own (Lost in Translation; Marie Antoinette). Coppola shows us how girls attempt to find meaning in the objects they are told should please them - shoes, dresses, make-up - and how in the end the stuff itself seems overwhelming and confusing (Marie Antoinette; The Bling Ring). Time and again, then, Coppola makes films that might seem on the surface to be as delicate and pretty as the macarons that Marie Antoinette shares with her friends. She offers us traditional images of women for us to gaze on - sunbathing, applying make-up, lounging around, pole-dancing, ice-skating, dressing up, dancing. But she also takes her time to get under the skin of her female characters, so that we also come to sympathise with them, and understand their feelings.
Frequently, we are shown characters in tears of frustration or despair, as the gaudy objects they are offered are insultingly inadequate to the task of making up for their oppression or neglect. Her films linger on girlish pleasures, the camera gliding over shiny jewels and furry stiletto heels, not simply dismissing them as stupid. But she doesn't pretend that this revelling in the delights of the feminine is the answer for her female characters, and by extension, women off-screen. This makes The Beguiled all the more exciting a proposition, as the coverage of the film from Cannes and its teaser trailer offer us the promise of a film in which Coppola finally gets angry. Before, her films have shown us girls and women who, when pretty objects fail to fulfil them, turn in on themselves, becoming depressed, committing suicide, or ending up in prison. Here, the trailer finishes as Colin Farrell, the solitary man involved in the project, cries out 'what have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?' Is this finally a film in which Coppola's interest in girlish feeling allows anger to seep in, and her girls look to violence as a way to change their world?
Author of Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood (I B Tauris, 2017).