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An American in Paris: Sofia Coppola and the new auteurism


Melbourne University workshop, 25 September 2013
(Originally presented at EUPOP 2012 conference, 11-13 July 2012, London)

[Title Slide] Sofia Coppola is a high-profile figure in contemporary cinema -- a
celebrity auteur whose personal brand is a key marketing tool. I want to look at
the construction of her public persona in the context of changes in the
organisation of global media industries over the last 20 years. Factors such as the
realignment of the relationship between independent and mainstream
production from the 1980s, the renewed commercial value of art cinema, and
intensified emphasis on promotion and branding have created a culture in which
directors are now more central to commodity production and, like stars, often
perform a vital role in selling their films. [Slide 2] In the 1960s and 70s, auteurs
were perceived as artists whose work transcended or defied the market-led
priorities of the mainstream industry; work that challenges the mainstream is
still produced, but the intervening years have seen the rise of the 'commerce of
auteurism', as Timothy Corrigan calls it.1 Corrigan and others have dissected the
formations and functions of cinematic authorship, opening up questions of
intention, agency and expressivity, but these accounts refer almost exclusively to
male directors and by and large they retain the director as creative source in
some form or other. The case of Sofia Coppola introduces gender into the
equation; but it also allows me to extend discussion of cinematic authorship
beyond the primacy of the film text and authorial intention towards branding
and performance.2

[Slide 3] In Brand Hollywood (2008) Paul Grainge outlines the changes in the
functions of the studios away from production towards management of royalties
and rights, and the increased importance of brand names in their bidding wars
(p. 46). Conglomeration, horizontal integration and cross-media diversification
have scattered promotional operations across a proliferating number of sites; in
order to manage the fragmentation of consumer tastes, the drive to capture
international mass markets is accompanied by niche marketing, which identifies
and exploits local, specialised interests. In this volatile situation, brand identities

must be flexible and mobile, capable of satisfying multiple consumer desires in


different commercial interactions. Directors have always played their part in the
process of commodity production, with their names used to manage audience
expectations by providing coherence for a body of films. In the contemporary
industry, that role has burgeoned, and the name of the director now holds
together a number of conflicting elements that traverse local and global
commercial enterprises. A new breed of commodity auteur, of which Sofia
Coppola is a prime example, has emerged, characterised by high levels of trans-
media public visibility similar to those experienced by stars.

[Slide 4] Coppola's celebrity, which focuses on her private life as well as her
work, extends across interrelated arenas from film, print media, fashion and
lifestyle magazines to television, live appearances and the Internet. At the time of
writing this, she does not have an official website or active Facebook page, but
she and her work are the subject of numerous fan sites.3 Although coverage of
her life in the tabloid press is restrained in comparison to that endured by many
stars and celebrities, she has become a topic on online discussion boards, where
debate is often heated, personal and malicious.4 She works in several fields: as a
film director, screenwriter, producer, costume and fashion designer, actress,
model, photographer and director of commercials for luxury brands such as Dior.
She is no stranger to the business of commodity production; she has her own
fashion line in Japan (MilkFed, directed predominantly at teenage girls)5 and has
appeared in advertising campaigns and commercials for high-end labels Louis
Vuitton and Marc Jacobs as well as for a range of wines named after her by her
father Francis Ford Coppola, who owns a winery. As with the star persona, her
biography plays a large part in her fame. Her relationship with her father, who
acts as mentor, and as producer and executive producer through his
independent company American Zoetrope, features strongly in the construction
of her auteur identity and contributes to its generational address to younger
consumers.

Like her famous father, Sofia Coppola is an independent film-maker. However,
her position vis-a-vis the mainstream is not quite the same as his. Francis Ford

Coppola is a monumental figure with a heroic reputation as one of the 'movie


brats' who transformed Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s, and he features in
most pantheons as a classic auteur and an exemplar of independent practice --
even though the extent of New Hollywood's independence from the mainstream
is open to debate. By contrast, Sofia Coppolas auteur persona is much more
explicitly immersed in popular consumer culture and grounded in the structural
changes that affected the industry from the 1990s. [Slide 5] Alisa Perren has
described how independent distribution companies such as Miramax
successfully emulated major studio exploitation tactics to enable lower-budget
art movies to perform well at the theatrical box office, resulting in the setting up
by media conglomerates of specialty divisions and subsidiaries dedicated to
niche art-house productions.6 These studio-based operations focused on smaller-
scale quality pictures that redefined the identity of independent cinema and led
to the proliferation of production set-ups that occupied the territory of
'Indiewood', located somewhere between mainstream and low-budget
production, depending on mixed funding arrangements and retaining varying
degrees of creative autonomy.7 As a result, the commercial value of art cinema
increased and art cinema became a brand. This shifting terrain provides the
operating conditions for Sofia Coppolas feature films: to date all have been
produced by American Zoetrope with the involvement of other independent
outfits, specialty subsidiaries and, since Lost in Translation (2003), Japanese
production and distribution company Tohokashinsha.

Indiewood has enabled Sofia Coppola to make highly personal movies
distinguished by inventive style and subject matter. It has also brought her
power and prestige in the industry: in 2004, following critical acclaim and a
plethora of awards for Lost in Translation, including the Academy Award for Best
Original Screenplay, she made history by becoming the first American woman to
be nominated for the Best Director Oscar.8 Her extraordinary achievement on
the back of a relatively small-scale, offbeat art-house comedy indicates the
impact that Indiewood production and distribution techniques have had on the
mainstream.9 It also demonstrates her success in establishing a distinctive
authorial identity after making just two feature films. Although this has been put

down to her privileged background as a member of the Coppola film-making


dynasty, it has as much to do with her willingness to engage with the processes
of commodity auteurism by promoting herself as well as her films.

[Slide 6] Coppola's authorial brand is characterised by an emphasis on European
art cinema as a source of inspiration. This in itself is not new: the impact of
European art cinema on independent and mainstream Hollywood in the 1960s
was instrumental in producing Anglo-American auteur theory and a generation
of younger film-makers who were identified as auteurs. What is different in Sofia
Coppola's case is the intersection of celebrity culture with her profile as an artist,
with each dependent on the other. In the discourses that circulate her authorial
brand, her personal links to Europe are marked via her Italian-American family
connections and her marriage to French rock musician Thomas Mars, while in
interviews she highlights the influence of the Nouvelle Vague on her style.10 She
is clearly aware of the significance in global media production of the European-
style auteur in branding a film-makers oeuvre as art, giving it a recognisable
niche identity that can be used in promotion. Her insistence on creative
autonomy and the personal nature of her films add to her auteur credentials,
while her aesthetic, although it incorporates elements of classic cinema, draws
heavily on art cinema tropes by foregrounding ambiguity, elliptical narration and
ambivalent characters and denying the viewer a secure position from which to
understand the film.11 This dilatory mode is supported by Coppolas life story,
which portrays her as having drifted aimlessly before finding her creative
direction, and by her laid-back directorial manner, which is perceived as low-key
in comparison with that of her ebullient father.12 She encourages the idea that
life events have an impact on her work, which is often interpreted as
autobiographical. As an experienced actress, she is skilled in self-presentation
and aware of its importance in creating her brand. Her persona combines the
construction of herself as a character with the performance of identity: for
example, the inconclusive, open-ended structure of her films is mirrored in her
habit of leaving sentences unfinished in interviews, which has become a
trademark.13

This persona is closely associated with the youthful female protagonists of her
films, who find themselves at odds with the traditional social roles they are
expected to occupy. It is configured as gendered and, crucially, generational. In
light of her paternal lineage, it can be no accident that Sofia Coppola cites the
influence of the Nouvelle Vague with its drive to break with the French cinma de
papa. She is not alone in this; she is identified with a creative lite of younger
film-makers whose work spans areas of popular culture such as fashion, music,
art and film and who, despite retaining links with old and new Hollywood,
differentiate themselves from the past while nostalgically recycling it. This set
has been characterised as a 'play group' in ironic resonance with the movie brat
generation to which Francis Ford Coppola belonged.14 It is defined by
postmodern cool and the adoption of whimsical perspectives on dysfunctional
characters and institutions. Jeffrey Sconce has labelled the new sensibility that
emerged in North American cinema in the 1990s as 'smart cinema,' describing its
diverse manifestations in terms of irony, black humour and fatalism. For Sconce,
the ironic detachment characteristic of smart films is a strategic attempt to
address niche audiences and demarcate the works from popular mainstream
cinema. He connects the cinematic trend with the emergence of post-60s
Generation-X youngsters in the USA, who mobilised irony and cynicism as a
means of expressing their disaffection.15

[Slide 7] Sofia Coppola does not appear in Sconces exclusively male pantheon of
smart film-makers, though many of her 'play group' peers do. Nevertheless, her
work shares the predilection for irony, dark undertones, preoccupation with
surface style, engagement with consumer culture and address to sophisticated
audiences of the smart clique. Her films dramatise generational relationships
and conflict, and target affluent younger cinemagoers. They differ from smart
films in projecting a 'feminine' aesthetic that chimes with her own ultra-feminine
sartorial style and identity, evident in the girlish look and persona she cultivates
despite being in her forties and having two children. [Slide 8] This hyper-
femininity has been linked to postfeminism and to third-wave feminisms
celebration of youth, fashion, celebrity and commodity culture a further
indication of the way Coppola projects an identity that distances itself from the

past while not renouncing it.16 Others have positioned her work more in the
tradition of second-wave feminisms analytical response to consumerism and
popular culture and its critique of patriarchy.17

Coppolas auteur persona spans a number of contradictions: the appeal to a hip
younger generation is matched by nostalgia for the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and
Franois Truffaut or indie classics such as her fathers Rumble Fish (1983),
whose diffused cinematography she emulated for Somewhere (2011).18 Her
feminine image encompasses conflicting tendencies: between passive and active;
fragility and toughness; effortlessness and drive; and naturalness and artifice.
Her film-making technique oscillates between the observational distance of
cinma vrit, the intimacy of home movies and highly stylised collages of
images and music. These tensions emanate from her position within Indiewood
and her negotiation of the branding imperatives of global film culture; they
traverse her work, inflecting her creative choices and execution of projects.

[Slide 9] Coppola's authorial brand projects a Europeanised persona, work and
lifestyle that evoke familiar notions of cosmopolitanism and cultural
sophistication. This conjures up old Europe rather than the multicultural
communities of contemporary Europe. Indeed, there are similarities between the
Coppola idea of Paris and that portrayed in Minnelli's An American in Paris
(1951), where the love story plays out against a quaint old-world setting in
which wealthy North Americans represent a primary market for luxury goods.
There is a transnational dimension to the brand's evocation of cross-cultural
exchange that complies with global marketing demands: Lost in Translation's
targeting of the Japanese, for example, or Marie Antoinette's appeal to French and
British audiences. The Europeanness of Coppola's style is a mobile, hybrid
construct that can be tailored to different contexts; nevertheless, from around
2006 when she and Thomas Mars purchased a home in Paris, Frenchness has
been a privileged marker in her cosmopolitan identity. In interviews she refers
to her family's longstanding fascination with Paris, her teenage internship at
Chanel, her love of high-end French fashion and lifestyle and the influence of the
Nouvelle Vague.19 Although the hommages to the French were most visible

around the time of Marie Antoinette, they are consistently present in Coppola's
2008 and 2011 commercials for Miss Dior Cherie fragrance, which playfully
recycle French popular culture, and in her sartorial style, often described as
'effortless chic' (as we know, chic is far from effortless). More recently, her 2009
collaboration with French fashion house Louis Vuitton on a range of signature
handbags was extended in 2011 to a resort collection that included dresses,
pyjama suits, bags and cardigan sweaters.20

Sofia Coppola's French connections are strategic factors in her performance of
her authorial identity. They are intimately linked to public versions of her
private life and history, which enables her to reinforce her projection of herself
as a personal artist who is the sole creative source of her work. This traditional
view of cinematic authorship is reiterated in production notes, media coverage
and other promotional discourses despite her collaboration with other
distinguished artists and technicians. Whereas the Nouvelle Vague mobilised the
politique des auteurs as part of their assault on mainstream French cinema,
Coppola's auteurism is embedded in the commercial operations of the industry;
it enables her to acquire creative capital that she can use in negotiations around
future projects.21 European style and aesthetics are commodities that can be
used in global and niche marketing.

[Slide 10] However, commodities have cultural power and significance as well as
commercial exchange value, and it is in this realisation that Coppola's resistant
voice surfaces - although in the context of commodity auteurism, that too can be
seen as strategic necessity. Her films question commodity fetishism while
celebrating counter-cultural impulses in fashion. The exquisitely beautiful
surfaces of their images mask dark, destructive social forces, exposing the limits
of commodity and celebrity culture. Her projection of an ultra-feminine style and
identity could be interpreted as a form of masquerade, a gender performance
that draws attention to femininity as a social construct along the lines argued by
Judith Butler. Here, I've been concerned with the way Coppola's gendered
deployment of the commerce of auteurism breaks down traditional barriers
between art and commerce, refusing to disguise cinema's and the artist's

foundations in business. I suggest that this is a radical revision of traditional


conceptions of cinematic authorship that position the (usually male) heroic
auteur outside or in conflict with commodity production. The example of Sofia
Coppola leads the way to an understanding of the auteur as gendered response
to specific industrial and cultural conditions rather than as an idealised figure,
enabling us to view it historically as emerging from dynamic interchange
between industry and consumers.





Notes
1

See Timothy Corrigan, 'The Commerce of Auteurism: A Voice without Authority',

New German Critique 49 (Winter 1990), 43-57.


2

Catherine Grant, 'www.auteur.com?', Screen 41, 1 (Spring 2000), 101-8.

For example, lifewithsofia, and the livejournal community profile i_heart_sofia,

http://www.jadoresofia.com; http://i-heart-sofia.livejournal.com/profile, accessed


September 22, 2011.
3

See discussion in the Film Forum on Mubi.com, accessed March 1, 2012,

http://mubi.com/topics/sofia-coppolas-somewhere/.
5

MilkFed website, accessed September 26, 2011, http://www.milkfed.jp/#/index/.

See Alisa Perren, 'Sex, lies and marketing: Miramax and the Development of the

Quality Indie Blockbuster', Film Quarterly 55, 2 (Winter 2001), 30-39.


7

Geoff King, 'Introduction: Indiewood in Contexts', in Indiewood, USA: Where

Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 1-46.


8

Pam Cook, 'Sofia Coppola', in Fifty Contemporary Film Directors, ed. Yvonne

Tasker (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2011), 131.


9

Lost in Translation was made on an estimated budget of $4,000,000 and grossed

more than ten times that amount, as reported on Internet Movie Database, accessed
September 26, 2011, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335266/business.
10

Sean OHagan, 'Sofia Coppola', Observer, October 8, 2006, accessed September

27, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/oct/08/features.review1.


11

Cook, 'Sofia Coppola', 130.


12
Evgenia Peretz, 'Something About Sofia', Vanity Fair, no. 553, September 2006,
237.
13

Peretz refers to this mannerism in 'Something about Sofia', 184.

14

Peretz, 'Something About Sofia', 184. Coppolas contemporaries Alexander Payne

and Wes Anderson are part of this group.


15

Jeffrey Sconce, 'Irony, Nihilism and the New American Smart Film', Screen 43, 4

(Winter 2002), 355-358.


16

See Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young, 'Marie Antoinette: Fashion, Third-Wave

Feminism, and Chick Culture', Literature/Film Quarterly 38, 2 (2010); Caitlin


Yunuen Lewis, 'Cool Postfeminism: The Stardom of Sofia Coppola', in In the
Limelight and Under the Microscope: Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity, ed.
Su Holmes and Diane Negra (New York and London: Continuum, 2011); Samiha
Matin, 'Private Femininity, Public Femininity: Tactical Aesthetics in the Costume
Film', in Gender Meets Genre in Postwar Cinemas, ed. Christine Gledhill (Urbana
and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
17

Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway?, 371, 376; Todd Kennedy, 'Off With

Hollywoods Head: Sofia Coppola as Feminine Auteur', Film Criticism 35, 1


(September 2010), accessed October 9, 2011. Highbeam Research.
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-241514974.html.
18

Isabel Stevens, 'A Kind of Softer Feeling,' Sight and Sound 21, 1 (January 2011):

19

Lynn Hirschberg, 'Sofia Coppola's Paris', New York Times T Magazine, September

24, 2006,
http://travel2.nytimes.com/2006/09/24/travel/tmagazine/24coppola.html?pagewanted
=all, accessed 2 July 2012.
20

Emily Holt, 'Sofia's Choice', Vogue November 2011: 165-6

21

For the concept of 'creative capital' see Pam Cook, Baz Luhrmann (London:

BFI/Palgrave, 2010), 26.