Anna Backman Rogers, Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019).
The Coppola who emerges from Rogers’s study is therefore something of a double agent. On the one hand, she is completely imbricated in Hollywood privilege, the daughter, no less, of one of its kingpins. On the other hand, she has spent her entire career questioning the priapic authority of the very same business. Coppola’s may not be a radical counter-cinema, but its implications, for Rogers, amount to a thoroughgoing feminist deconstruction of American narrative film’s abidingly patriarchal frameworks.
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I have something in common with Anna Backman Rogers. When I was a teenager, I watched a Sofia Coppola film, and like Rogers “it has taken me most of my adult life to comprehend the profound impact that this film has had on me” (12). In my case it was Lost in Translation (2003), which was unlike anything the sixteen-year-old me had seen before – at least, anything starring Bill Murray. For Rogers it was Coppola’s debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), that left her “changed incontrovertibly” (180), with the realisation “that my internal psychic and emotional structures had been altered and shifted around by those images” (180). If these sentiments sound overblown, it is a charge I suspect Rogers would welcome. She admits to being a “cultural dupe” (12) when it comes to Coppola, at least in the sense Tania Modleski describes, whereby academics (Rogers is a Professor in feminist philosophy and visual culture at the University of Gothenburg) are just as susceptible to ideological manipulation as anybody else. Duped or otherwise, with Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure, Rogers has produced a sophisticated and impassioned analysis of Coppola’s work from The Virgin Suicides to her 2017 remake of The Beguiled. While critics have tended to pooh-pooh Coppola’s films for being all style and no substance, Rogers looks behind their alluring surfaces to find a feminist project. In short, she argues that Coppola deconstructs male-dominated Hollywood cinema from within, creating “images that reveal, upon close reading, radical critiques of the gilded worlds in which her films are set” (18).
Rogers explains how this process works in her introduction, which she appropriately titles “The Surface of the Image Is Political” (12). She begins by detaching Coppola from the two rubrics through which scholars usually interpret her work – celebrity and postfeminism. For Rogers, the preoccupation with Coppola’s celebrity leads to the misogynist adage that as a woman, she “is too bound up in her own experience and her own thoughts (in fact, far too narcissistic) to make work about anything other than her own life” (16). Postfeminism, meanwhile, in addition to being something Rogers loathes “as both principle and lifestyle choice” (15), cannot register Coppola’s critique of the very consumerist, neoliberal ethos this term designates. This critique lies in Coppola’s skill at using pleasurable images for paradoxically disconcerting ends. In other words, through her “powers of beguilement” (18) Coppola “draw[s] us with ease into worlds of psychic fracture, loneliness and abjection” (18). A heady mix of feminist philosophy informs Rogers’s thinking here, but most important is Rosalind Galt’s 2011 book Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. For Galt, prettiness is a productive terrain on which to rethink film studies’ traditional investment in “masculine” depth rather than “feminine” surface, and it can be put to “critical, even political use” (quoted in Rogers, 33). By applying Galt’s insight to Coppola, Rogers turns the most common objection made against her films – that they are preoccupied with surfaces – into their most potent virtue.
Coppola’s interest in critique also sets her apart, for Rogers, from the “ironic styles of the contemporary ‘brat pack’” (19) filmmakers, best exemplified by Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Todd Solondz. As she puts it, these men’s “tone of hipster irony is not something, I would suggest, that Coppola brooks in her deeply serious and engaged work” (19). Rogers argues that Coppola has more in common with European filmmaking and American independent cinema of the 1970s, particularly with Robert Kolker’s description of the latter as a “cinema of loneliness” in his classic 1980 book of the same name. However, if for Kolker directors such as Altman, Scorsese, and Kubrick “perpetuate the passivity and aloneness that have become their central image” (quoted in Rogers, 19), then Coppola questions such apathy, in part by accounting for how this cinematic tradition fails to consider female experience (19). The Coppola who emerges from Rogers’s study is therefore something of a double agent. On the one hand, she is completely imbricated in Hollywood privilege, the daughter, no less, of one of its kingpins. On the other hand, she has spent her entire career questioning the priapic authority of the very same business. Coppola’s may not be a radical counter-cinema, but its implications, for Rogers, amount to a thoroughgoing feminist deconstruction of American narrative film’s abidingly patriarchal frameworks.
As these comments suggest, Rogers is not afraid to make big claims for Coppola’s importance. The consistently high quality of her readings, though, more than justifies this boldness. She arranges her chapters in a way that deftly picks out the key thematic threads that tie Coppola’s films together. Part One examines The Virgin Suicides (1999) and The Beguiled (2017) for their representations of abjection and the female gothic. Part Two considers Lost in Translation (2003) and Somewhere (2010) as shared meditations on empty subjectivities and masculine void, while Part Three, which closes the book, connects Marie Antoinette (2006) and The Bling Ring (2013) in their treatment of the commodification of female bodies. By devoting a chapter to each of Coppola’s films (except for 2020’s On the Rocks, which was released a year after the book’s publication), Rogers has produced the most comprehensive, theoretically rigorous study of Coppola’s oeuvre available. Indeed, the breadth of Rogers’s theoretical knowledge is dazzling. She thanks Coppola for providing her with this eclectic sophistication, as “the philosophical framework[s] I employ here” (34) – which include the work of Irigaray, Kristeva, Debord, Auge, Camus, and Sartre – “become meaningful to me because I have interpreted these thinkers though Coppola’s images” (34, italics in original). This philosophical diversity can at times make for challenging reading, but Rogers always grounds these approaches in her close reading of the films themselves.
Highlights in this respect include her analysis of The Virgin Suicides as “a horror film from which all signs of horror are eradicated” (41). Drawing on Kristeva’s theory of abjection and Barbara Creed’s notion of “the monstrous feminine” (quoted in Rogers, 42), Rogers argues that Coppola presents the female body in this film as “an otherness that must be ‘cleaned’ of its abject core in order to be acceptable or useful for narrative purpose” (42, italics in original). However, this abjection returns in the spectral form of dreams, fantasies, and trauma for the film’s male characters, creating a “feminist hauntology” (42) that disrupts their attempts to narrativize and thereby control the women whose deaths give the film its title. An invigorating anger informs Rogers’s writing when she focuses on gender iniquities, particularly in her chapter on The Beguiled, but elsewhere her tone is meditative, even moving. For example, in her analysis of Lost in Translation, Rogers argues in part that the film “reworks the existential notion of alienation from a feminist perspective” (101) and thereby “asks how one may reckon with a sudden loss of meaning” (83). The relationship between Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), and its famously enigmatic denouement, “reminds us that there is always a gap in life that cannot be filled or satisfied. Yet it is perhaps in opening oneself up to nothingness and to drift that life is also found” (103). Prose such as this can be as beguiling as the films Rogers writes about, and her mellifluous explanation of serious, complex ideas does indeed mirror Coppola’s own sprezzatura.
Rogers is aware of the dangers this overidentification poses; namely, that by writing about a beguiler, she has herself been beguiled, or duped: “all failures and faults of this text […] are borne out of love and the limitations of my place as a feminist film scholar (a cultural dupe) in this world – and these are failings for which I alone take full responsibility” (12). Nevertheless, one wonders whether a less enraptured approach would have helped her to interrogate Coppola’s blind spots more closely, especially as regards race. Rogers is not ignorant to the fact that Coppola’s interest in the plight of “white, rich, privileged, Western women” (183) can strike many as simply “spoilt privilege” (183). For example, she carefully navigates the accusations of whitewashing that met Coppola’s decision to cut the black female slave character Hallie from The Beguiled. But there is still much to be written on the perennial whiteness of Coppola’s films, and it is disappointing that apart from an early engagement with Richard Dyer in her chapter on The Virgin Suicides, Rogers generally lets the subject drop. Furthermore, Rogers’s determination to explain Coppola’s films through complicated theoretical frameworks means that she can sometimes miss more pedestrian meanings. In her detailed exploration of how Somewhere accords with Marc Auge’s theories of the non-place, for example, she barely mentions the film’s central relationship and emotional crux; actor Johnny Marco’s (Stephen Dorf) strained relationship with his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning).
Notable gaps in focus are to be expected in a book of such verve and ambition, and they should not take away from what Rogers has achieved here. Having read Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure, it is hard to fathom why Coppola’s work has been dismissed for so long as “charming, light soufflé” (180). Rogers leaves one in little doubt of how committed Coppola is in her attempts to slyly corrode Hollywood’s patriarchal underpinnings. Whether or not this constitutes a “radical form of feminism” (16) is up for debate, especially given how embedded Coppola is in the same privilege she seeks to trouble. That said, Rogers’s main argument – that Coppola manipulates pleasurable images to unsettle rather than mollify us – is utterly convincing. If nothing else, this certainly hits home in relation to my own enchantment with Coppola’s work. The teenager who first fell under the spell of Lost in Translation is long gone, but the peculiar ache of that first viewing still lingers. Rogers has helped me to see more clearly who I was then, who I am now, and just why and how the films of Sofia Coppola continue to beguile me.