ne of the strangest recurrences through film discourse is the idea that Sofia Coppola has a defining aesthetic – essentially perfume ad chic, full of wispy white women reclining in fields, sunlight bouncing off camera lenses and confessional narration straight out of a teenage diary. But anyone who has watched her career ebb and flow over the last 20 years will testify to her incredible range as a storyteller.
This week she returns with her seventh feature film, On the Rocks. It marks a reunion between her and Bill Murray, who she directed in the brilliant Lost in Translation, and is yet another string to her creative bow. A melancholy comedy about fathers and daughters and middle-age, it’s about as far away from the shimmering fatalism of The Virgin Suicides as, well… The Beguiled, the gothic psychological thriller she directed three years ago.
To mark On the Rocks’ release in cinemas (it will arrive on Apple TV+ on 23 October), we’ve ranked her seven feature films so far, along with her Murray-filled festive short.
8. A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
This could easily not be here – it’s an hour-long Netflix special deliberately formless and throwaway in its goals – but it’s still technically a Sofia Coppola movie, so here we are. Reuniting 12 years after Lost in Translation, Coppola and Bill Murray conjured this sweet little thing: an occasionally surreal, enjoyably silly Christmas event in which Murray is snowed in ahead of the taping of a TV special, and duets with stars including Miley Cyrus, Jenny Lewis and George Clooney to pass the time. Whatever its minor ambitions, A Very Murray Christmas is intensely likeable as these things go.
If someone was to make a parody of a Sofia Coppola film, it might come out a bit like Somewhere. Starring Stephen Dorff as a jaded movie star killing time at LA’s Chateau Marmont hotel, it’s a film that matches the temperature of its main character. Somewhere is full of static malaise and shots of bright, starry nothingness, its lethargy at times deafening. But because it’s a Coppola film, there are lovely moments of warmth here and there – an ice-skating routine set to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool” is especially blissful.
On the Rocks is Coppola’s least formally interesting film so far, but it’s still undeniably pleasurable. It takes the tone of almost a downbeat Woody Allen movie, with Rashida Jones recruiting her father (Bill Murray) for help when she believes her husband may be cheating on her. But the film is also about hitting an early-forties wall, staring into space and feeling incredibly dejected by life. It also brings to mind how often Coppola’s films match their star. If Somewhere seemed directly inspired by Dorff’s five o’clock shadow raspiness, and Lost in Translation was a tribute to Murray’s off-kilter singularity, this is Jones as muse – deadpan, beguiling, and grinning awkwardly through the pain.
Somewhere and The Bling Ring go hand-in-hand in more ways than one. Coppola’s second in a pair of films about the beasts and weirdos of Hollywood, The Bling Ring bears the same detachment as Somewhere, but is also louder, funnier and altogether meaner. Inspired by a real-life gang of LA teenagers who robbed the homes of tabloid stars like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, the film is awash in tacky splendour – fashion labels, selfies and Emma Watson licking her lips while Azealia Banks’s “212” blares through nightclub speakers. But then there are moments when the artificial noise suddenly stops, and Coppola lingers in horrified awe at a flat city dominated by large glass houses full of pink furniture and bad art.
4. Lost in Translation (2003)
Anyone who’s ever felt a pang of loneliness will find a home in Lost in Translation, Coppola’s acclaimed mood piece and quasi-love story. As a pair of equally adrift souls stuck in Japan, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are perfect opposites who unexpectedly heal one another. Their wonderfully warm and thankfully platonic dynamic remains the film’s key attraction. Murray, in particular, is at his career-best, but it’s easy to overlook is how brilliant Coppola is at staging and locations – there’s the comforting uncanniness of a hotel bar, a space both familiar and alien, as well as the freedoms somewhere like night-time Tokyo can provide.
The Beguiled calls to mind both the bodice-ripping eroticism of Mills and Boon and the soapy indulgence of an episode of Desperate Housewives. It is spectacular. A gothic thriller set during the American Civil War, it concerns the fragile inhabitants of an all-girls school who take in an injured Confederate soldier. Curiosity rapidly turns to lust, then obsession, and then finally revenge. It is also howlingly funny, full of bitchy asides, carnal jealousies and a plot that essentially revolves around a gaggle of sexually frustrated women all desperate to shag Colin Farrell. There’s a moment in which he tears open Kirsten Dunst’s gown in a fit of mutual passion, her pearls bouncing across the floor, and it is the most thrilling thing imaginable.
2. The Virgin Suicides (1999)
One of cinema’s all-time greatest debuts, The Virgin Suicides has the hazy ennui of a daydream and the nagging unease of a hangover. Adapting for the screen Jeffrey Eugenides’ celebrated novel, Coppola saw something in its quietly surreal quality, and how densely it explored gender, adolescence and sexuality. Kirsten Dunst is the most restless of five heartbreakingly suppressed sisters kept under the thumb of their controlling parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods). They are watched and talked about by the neighbourhood boys, and find solace in sex, rock music and death. Twenty years after its release, there is still something arrestingly intimate about this film. Not just because of its themes, but because it feels like a gaping wound at times, tackling subjects and feelings we’re often too scared to properly interrogate. There’s a reason an entire generation worships it.
1. Marie Antoinette (2006)
When Kirsten Dunst remarked in 2019 that a strange number of her most beloved films were loathed by critics upon release, Marie Antoinette was quickly earmarked as the one most galling in its early disrespect. The film was booed at Cannes, two years after Coppola became the third ever woman to receive a Best Director Oscar nomination, but its dismissive early reactions felt like a personal backlash disconnected from the movie itself. In the years since, though, the film has undergone a remarkable reappraisal. It’s arguable that it’s actually Coppola’s masterpiece.
Marie Antoinette looks, sounds and practically smells like nothing else. Dunst is breathtaking, a petulant, heartbreaking grotesque at the centre of royal extravagance. At her most daring, Coppola takes the template of a historical biopic and smashes it with a pink baseball bat, splattering the film in fondant colours, deliberate anachronisms and music by The Strokes, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam and the Ants. It’s aesthetically delicious, but also thematically complex. More than even The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette is Coppola’s grandest statement on the pains of girlhood – how often society undermines and belittles young women, while simultaneously expecting the world of them.