New Book Distills The Forever Magic of Sofia Coppola's Films

by Hetty Mahlich on 31 May 2022

Sofia Coppola: Forever Young is a testament to the enduring appeal of the American director's films. We meet the author, Hannah Strong.

Sofia Coppola: Forever Young is a testament to the enduring appeal of the American director's films. We meet the author, Hannah Strong.

Since her 1998 directorial debut Lick The Star, Sofia Coppola has gathered a comrade of fans who have resonated with the director's carefully crafted studies of love and loneliness; of the lifelong battle of growing up. Trying to find their place in the world, her characters explore transitional themes; the teenage Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides (1999), suffocated by American suburban living, kill themselves one by one; Marie Antoinette (2006) reveals the commodification of the female body; Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson's lonely Tokyo tourists in Lost in Translation (2003) bond over a search for meaning in their disparate lives. With a penchant for a hazy, candy-coloured grade and minimal dialogue, the Hollywood director's critics reduce her films to being about style over substance. A new book written by Hannah Strong, published by Abrams and illustrated by Little White Lies, is a triumphant testament to what Coppola's films have meant to her audience. SHOWstudio's features editor and fellow Sofia Coppola groupie Hetty Mahlich spoke to Strong to discuss the seminal impact of Coppola's work, and how the author distilled this into an objective biography.

We’re fortunate she's probably never going to do a Marvel movie. Nepotism is bad, but at least it means she doesn’t need to do that.
Sofia Coppola on set for The Virgin Suicides (1999). TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo.

‘It seemed to me that there hadn't been any kind of definitive work about Sofia Coppola,' Strong explains when we meet over a video call to talk about Sofia Coppola: Forever Young. Sure, there have been brilliant personal essays published online by Strong and other writers, notably Claire Marie Healy and Keaton Bell, together with books like Anna Backman Rogers' academic feminist study, which have helped to validate Coppola’s films for her audience. But Strong wanted a trusty, hardback book which was conversational and accessible. As a digital editor for Little White Lies, Strong was never formally educated in the medium and finds the elitist nature of the industry, together with the highbrow language preferred by film buffs, to foster an unappealing, exclusive environment. So, she jumped at the chance to write the fourth book in Little White Lies' series on filmmakers. Notably, it's the first about a woman.

Although Sofia Coppola: Forever Young is an objective biography, the book doesn't shy away from the fact that Coppola's films have played an instrumental role in Strong's life in order to make the case against the critics like Agnès Poirier, who argue that the director's work lacks meaning. 'There's so much of my personality and history wrapped up in her films; things that happened in my life were impacted by watching her films at a very informative time', the author says. The book's introduction takes the form of a personal letter by Strong, explaining how Coppola's work helped her to feel seen as young woman. 'I developed an obsession with art that reflected my own psychosis back at me...I found catharsis in Coppola’s muted melancholy and a sense of sisterhood in knowing I was not alone.'

As a fellow fan myself, who first discovered Coppola on Tumblr over a decade ago, and rented her films from the school library, unsure why exactly thirteen-year-old-me felt quite so much affiliation with Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of the Queen of France, I'm interested to hear how Strong approached filling 300 pages with a treatise on Coppola without slipping into fangirl mode. ‘It's a delicate art, blending criticism and biography, and I didn’t realise how hard it was until I did it. The only way to approach her work for me is to bring that personal element into it, and talk about how these films have impacted my life and also the lives of others. To not underestimate the power of the teenage girl,’ she explains.

Sofia Coppola: Forever Young offers an exhaustive account of the director's work, including her television productions, campaigns and music videos. The main bulk of the book, however, sees Strong revisit Coppola's independent films across four overarching thematic chapters. Beginning with Innocence & Violence, we move on to Celebrity & Excess, then Fathers & Daughters, ending on Love & Loneliness. ‘You can't talk about Sofia Coppola's work without talking about the idea of themes...they are quite explicit’, she explains of her choice not to approach the book in a linear, chronological way. She makes novel curatorial decisions, such as splitting up Coppola's unofficial trilogy about female subjectivity; The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006), inviting new readings for Coppola's work. ‘The ground with Sofia is so well trodden, I didn’t want to regurgitate what's already been said. The pairings that I've done are the more obvious ones to me; that's where I get to be self-indulgent.’

Andrew Durham, behind the scenes photograph from Marie Antoinette (2006). Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.
It made me think a lot about parasocial relationships and the way we imprint on certain artists, filmmakers and actors, whether that’s healthy or not.

Angsty teenagers are still discovering Coppola's films through the behind the scenes shots of cast members which frequently make the rounds on social media; Dunst in costume with a fag in one hand, hinched up petticoats in the other, is a personal favourite. Last year, the fashion designer Marc Jacobs launched a sell-out capsule collection paying homage to The Virgin Suicides, illustrating the enduring appetite for Coppola's powerful visual aesthetic. 'The people who love fashion, who love music, are into her films,' Strong offers. Sofia Coppola: Forever Young includes behind the scenes photographs by Andrew Durham, offering a visual accompaniment to the text, bringing costume design by Nancy Steiner and Milena Canonero to life.

'She’s so into art, she thinks as much in stills as she does in moving image', says the author. ‘She’s a great user of silence. I don’t think she’s a didactic filmmaker, she’s very interested in the gaps between what's being said, what's being shown, what you can infer.' Strong admits that upon first watch, she was on side with the critics of Marie Antoinette. Why did the actors have American accents? Why wasn’t it historically accurate? Now she recognises it as a personal choice by Coppola which resulted in a movie teenage girls could actually relate to. The film, which controversially set a historical narrative to the soundtrack of Coppola's own youth - including tracks by Adam & The Ants and The Strokes - has undeniably influenced period film and television as it stands today; The Favourite (2018), Bridgerton (2020) and The Pursuit of Love (2021) being prime examples.

Sofia Coppola helped to facilitate a series of interviews for the book which cement the director's skill as a filmmaker and storyteller. They show that every aesthetic choice has a purpose, with Coppola's collaborators offering a revealing insight into the atmosphere on set, the film editing process, and curating soundtracks with bands like Air and Phoenix. ‘She doesn't go in with a solid vision and want that executed absolutely; she's very open to what other people think, her films are the truest spirit of collaboration. It's amazing they all have this Coppola feeling, despite the fact that there's so much of other people in them as well. That's why I was glad to write a book about a female filmmaker. We talk so much about the male auteur, all these filmmakers making people do 200 takes and work these unending days, but she’s not like that at all. She’s kind of nailed it somehow. Even if that means we only get one film every three years, that's fine,' Strong tells me.

Sofia Coppola, Rashida Jones and Bill Murray on set for On The Rocks (2020). Album / Alamy Stock Photo.

Despite first discovering the films as a teenager, Strong reflects on how Coppola's cinema work still resonates with an older audience. On The Rocks (2020), for example, sees Rashida Jones and Bill Murray play a father and daughter duo attempting to recapture the anarchic spirit of youth. ‘I don't think you really stop being an adolescent in many ways. I think there’s this lie we’re sold as young women that it will get better in your 20s, and more so in your 30s. Those feelings of uncertainty, loneliness, heartache, yearning, will go away, but I don't think it ever really does for most people. In some ways I feel better than I did as a teenager, but in others I don’t’, explains Strong. ‘I’m fascinated by the way that her films can be kind of fluid in a way and change over time and the meaning can change to me and to other people. It made me think a lot about parasocial relationships and the way we imprint on certain artists, filmmakers and actors, whether that’s healthy or not.'

The book is underpinned by a revisionist approach, meaning Sofia Coppola: Forever Young isn’t a sickening suck-up fest. ‘It’s incredibly difficult when you care so deeply about a piece of art, to speak objectively about it. I acknowledge that I can't write objectively on Sofia Coppola, but I was very aware going into it that she isn’t beyond reproach, and she has made some mistakes or misjudgements in her career, and she has benefitted massively from being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola.’ The book takes heed of legitimate criticism around the director’s work, particularly in terms of her privilege as a wealthy white woman who rarely casts black main characters and has even written them out in the case of The Beguiled (2017). As a white woman herself, Strong took the opportunity to give space to critics such as Ira Madison who are better positioned to speak on the subject, whilst not forgetting that ‘Sofia’s work wrestles with ennui within the rarefied world she understands best.’ The reader will find connections between events in the director's own life, such as the breakdown of Coppola's first marriage and her relationship with her famous father, and the films she has produced as as result.

Strong even finds humour in the nepotism Coppola has clearly benefitted from, whilst also making a case for this privilege to not be allowed to undermine her skill as a filmmaker. ‘She's amazing at utilising connections to create these wonderful moments.' It’s particularly true of Marie Antoinette, which features a court of actors made up of Steve Coogan as Ambassador Mercy and Marianne Faithful as Antoinette’s mother. ‘It’s this film about nepotism, celebrity, the royal pomp and order of things, then she has all these massive stars coming in. There's such a meta-ness to this film,’ Strong chuckles. ‘She saw the comic timing of Rose Byrne back in 2006 when no one knew that Rose Byrne was funny. We’re fortunate she's probably never going to do a Marvel movie. Nepotism is bad, but at least it means she doesn’t need to do that.’

Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst on set for The Virgin Suicides (1999). PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

Whilst indulging in what she describes as the shared trauma of being a teenager, Strong makes a case for the adult Sofia Coppola devotee, in the hope that newcomers will discover the director for the first time. Just like Coppola’s films, this book is raw, honest, and a treasure trove of meaning that readers will want to return to again and again. Huddled up in my bedroom flicking through its glossy pages, I was transported back to being a teenager again, when I too discovered Sofia Coppola films and finally began to see something of myself reflected back at me.

You can find the book for sale online and at all good bookshops for £32.99.



Essay: Commodifying Feminism

29 October 2014
Girly: Bertie Brandes on the S/S 15 shows fetishising feminism.
Social Feed

Day 5: Youth Extreme Dreams

30 August 2021
Day five of M-C's takeover looks at how magical teenage desires create your electric self.

Q&A: 'Fille' Director Belle Smith

03 September 2021
Meet the director of our latest fashion film release.
Back to top