Float On in Isolation

On Sofia Coppola and Capturing the Dreamlike Nature of Youth

By Lucy Ryan

Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon in Coppola's The Virgin Suicides


Basically what we have here is a dreamer. Somebody out of touch with reality. When she jumped, she probably thought she'd fly


Picture the scene: you are straddling the line between sixteen and seventeen, muscles quiveringly sore trying to hold up every fear and hunger and thread of alienation that holds your fragile little body together. All you want to do is lie back against soft white bedsheets and watch watery light pass over the quiet city and filter in through the delicate net curtains.

Congratulations, you've just felt the first drifting sense of melancholy a Sofia Coppola protagonist breathes and blossoms in.

Perhaps bleached blonde and pink-blushed angst doesn't appeal, but haven't we all daydreamed living the idylls of a Daisy perfume ad, trading our awkward girlhoods for lounging in couture and overgrown grass and floating our problems away like leaves downstream? There is something ubiquitous about the desire for the dreamlike world that only exists in a vivid, immaculately lit snapshot, perfect and infinitely softer than reality. This is what Coppola works in: dreamscapes. Ephemeral worlds that focus less on reality and more on capturing the specific, overwhelming feeling of being young.


Her feature-length directorial d├ębut, The Virgin Suicides is brimming with sunlight-filtered shots of the wistful girls, capturing their entrapment, their exhaustion, the ethereal, rose-tinted aura the boys project upon them. Lost In Translation features a long, pensive shot of deuteragonist Charlotte as she sits alone in a hotel room, the kind of place made for disappearing into and out of and looking out at a blue-washed city, encapsulating everything about her isolation and adriftness. Coppola’s Maire Antoinette contrasts the opulent but oppressive aristocratic courts with the pastoral fields of wildflowers where Marie is finally allowed to let her stresses unravel, allowing insight into the princess’ ever-changing mental state.

It is in scenes such as these where Coppola’s mastery of setting comes to the fore, by contrasting the vastness of a space - whether this is a huge city like Tokyo and LA, the wilderness outside the castle in France or desolate suburban streets - with the small, solitary nature of people. Everything is evident in the negative space. Coppola focuses her lens on young women who absorb the world and want to reflect it back but can't because they are so small; they instead take that moment to look out and either smile at the space around them, the colours and the blinding sunshine, or they look softly into the grey-blue cloudscape and fade into it.

And in her artistic direction, Coppola only furthers the illusion of dream - her stories are centred on both light and darkness, a heady rise and tragic fall from grace. People can only drift for so long in bliss before reality comes to wake them. Perfection is futile, the pursuit hurts. But for a bright, crystalline moment, that high seems worth it.


It's easy, once we leave that transient, hungry period of adolescence to forget what it is that could be so dark and painful. Aren't those the wonder years? But Coppola challenges us to see past the gloss and affectations and glimpse the dark parts we've long since buried.


In The Bling Ring, the sun-drenched LA streets the teenagers traverse are contrasted by the quiet, still nights they use to ransack celebrity houses. In particular, the raiding of former The Hills star Audrina Patridge’s house stands out - we see a long shot of the beautiful glass house, stillness only disturbed by the frantic movements of the teenagers inside, lit up in an unnatural blue by the glimmering pool. Similarly, the idyllic lives of the Lisbon sisters begin to unravel once they are banned from leaving the house, and we, alongside the boys, spy on their nightly activity - most notably Lux’s frantic couplings on the roof - which allows them their way into the girl's gut-wrenching final moments. Marie Antoinette’s carefully constructed and lavishly decorated world of decadence is shattered when the palace is attacked by nightfall and the royals must try and make what we who are watching know to be a futile escape.


Under the cover of darkness, with the last drops of golden light sapped from the scenes, the characters become what they are - youthful and stupid and human. The dream becomes what it is - a dream, and dawn sends reality crashing through.


Perhaps it is Cecilia Lisbon, suicidally suffering through her own growing-pain riddled body and knowing this unsure, painful fall better than we, can articulate it best - "Clearly, Doctor, you've never been a teenage girl."

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