When it was announced that “The Virgin Suicides,” Jeffrey Eugenides’ celebrated 1993 novel, was going to be adapted for the directorial debut of Sofia Coppola—at the time most (in)famous for her critically derided performance in father Francis’ “The Godfather Part III”—there was no small amount of criticism that suggested she only got the job because of her famous name. But when those same naysayers (and I confess I was one) saw the movie, they were knocked out by one of the most stunningly self-assured directorial debuts in American film history. Instead of merely recreating the book's events, Coppola transformed the material into something far more personal and deeply felt, while demonstrating the kind of distinct cinematic style most filmmakers struggle to develop throughout their careers.
Coppola went on to have one of the most startlingly impressive runs by any filmmaker in our time—“Lost in Translation” (2003), “Marie Antoinette” (2006), “Somewhere” (2010), “The Bling Ring” (2013), “The Beguiled” (2017) and “On the Rocks” (2020). With each project, she has grown and developed as a filmmaker, and the combination of dream-like visual aesthetics underscored by touches of melancholy has given it a distinct and instantly recognizable feel. Coppola's embrace of unabashedly female-centric narratives has also proven to be unique and influential. By telling stories about young women and their hopes and desires, she blazed a path that would be followed by artists ranging from Greta Gerwig to Taylor Swift. If one was going to list the key American filmmakers to emerge during the first quarter of the 21st century, her name would be right at the top.
Now, with the imminent release of her latest film, “Priscilla,” her adaptation of the memoir by Priscilla Presley about her relationship with Elvis Presley, and which will be screening as the Centerpiece Selection of the New York Film Festival on October 6 before opening commercially in November, Coppola has elected to take a look back with “Archive by Sofia Coppola 1999-2023” (Mack Books, $65). This massive 488-page career overview is made up of hundreds of stills, behind-the-scenes photos (including a priceless one of her at work on the set of “Marie Antoinette” sipping a can of the wine that also bears her name), script pages, and assorted ephemera that she has accumulated over the years during the making of her films, along with some annotations here and there. There is also an interview conducted by Lynn Hirschberg.
Of course, some might question the notion of making Coppola the subject of the kind of giant retrospective tome usually reserved for titans like Hitchcock or Kubrick. And yet, leafing through these pages has only strengthened my conviction of her greatness as a filmmaker. In this career overview, we witness how she has depicted the oftentimes fraught period between girlhood and womanhood that has been the central theme of nearly all of her films, chronicling this time in an unusually emphatic manner. No matter if the milieu is Seventies-era suburbia (“The Virgin Suicides”), Versailles (“Marie Antoinette”), or a remote mansion in Civil War-era Louisiana, she taps into the hopes, fears, and often-repressed desires of her female characters with an unusual degree of empathy that is almost startling in its directness. In the cases of “The Virgin Suicides” and “The Beguiled,” Coppola took stories that had been told mostly through the eyes of their male characters and flipped things around by relating them through a feminine perspective, providing fresh and fuller takes on familiar material.
We also get a fuller sense of Coppola's unusually strong ability to give her films a real sense of place in which the settings are practically characters themselves. After flipping through the book, one realizes that Coppola’s narratives can be divided into stories based on homes and hotels. In the films set around homes (“The Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette,” “The Bling Ring,” The Beguiled,” “On the Rocks” and, presumably, “Priscilla,” which is set largely in that most famous of homes, Graceland), the ostensible comforts and security prove to be anything but. Her characters become restless, isolated, and yearn for something else that proves to be elusive. On the other hand, the ones set around hotels (such as “Lost in Translation,” “Somewhere” and her lovely Netflix Christmas special “A Very Murray Christmas”) find their characters taking advantage of their new surroundings to genuinely connect with others in unexpectedly touching and intriguing ways. (As she says in the Hirschberg interview, “I spent a lot of time in hotels growing up, and I always loved how they become a world of their own.”)
The book also offers glimpses into the extended working relationships with several actors Coppola has turned to for inspiration over the years. There's Kirsten Dunst, who delivered her first genuinely great performance as the mysterious teen queen Lux Lisbon in “The Virgin Suicides” and who, according to Coppola, helped inspire the screenplay for “Marie Antoinette,” in which Dunst proved to be the ideal representation for Coppola’s poppy and endearing take on the often-reviled historical figure. In “The Beguiled,” Dunst perfectly embodied the film’s notion of how cherished notions of innocence and beauty can curdle and turn into something terrifying when mistreated.
A similar artistic relationship can be seen developing between Coppola and Elle Fanning, who had one of her first major roles as a young girl who pays a surprise visit to her estranged celebrity father (Stephen Dorff) during a stay at the Chateau Marmont in the criminally underseen “Somewhere” and also went on to appear in “The Beguiled.” Of course, there is also Bill Murray, who turned in two of the best and most soulful performances of his entire career in “Lost in Translation” and “On the Rocks.”
There are a couple of minor quibbles one could have “Sofia Coppola Archive.” Although the Hirschberg interview and Coppola’s annotations are articulate and filled with interesting information, I wished there had been more of it—the interview only adds up to about five pages in total. I also wish that the book had examined some of the side projects that Coppola has embarked on in between films, ranging from the aforementioned Christmas special to her 2016 staging of La Traviata to her video for The White Stripes’ cover of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” which is arguably the greatest music video ever made. That said, this book is a fascinating look at the evolution of a true cinematic artist that is as striking, enigmatic, and eye-catching as the body of work that it chronicles. Archive will leave you eager to revisit her filmography and see what she will come up with in the years to come.