Sofia Coppola is slowly but surely establishing herself as the voice of girlhood in a world that has long misrepresented this phase of life. Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) in the eponymous film, The Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides (1999), and Nicki Moore (Emma Watson) of The Bling Ring (2013)—Coppola freezes these characters in the unique state of ‘girl’. Media is inundated with skewed, fantasy, or teeth-grindingly censored versions of what it truly means to be within some of the most terrifying yet wonderfully imperfect years of a woman’s life. Sofia Coppola offers a breath of fresh air, and a feeling of restitution to those who have watched girlhood massacred time and time again.
My first encounter with The Virgin Suicides was when I was around 12 years old. I stumbled upon the film whilst browsing and was immediately hooked by both the title and the whimsical image of Kirsten Dunst on the cover. Upon watching it, I found myself drawn to the surrealism with which Coppola portrays the Lisbon girls, in particular Lux (Kirsten Dunst). She became the object of my obsession, much like she did to the neighbourhood boys. Her air of effortless cool had enchanted me, and I was baffled as to why Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartlett) would not fall at her feet. It was only upon watching the film later in life, once I had aged out of all five of the girls, that I fully understood the intention of Coppola’s direction. The dream-like representation of all the girls, including Lux, was the lens of the boys who cared not for the true plight of the sisters, but only for their beauty. The close-up shots of Lux were her as imagined by the boys, and my trust in the narrator had been shattered. The overhead shot of Lux alone on the school field began to hold a new meaning as a mature viewer—Trip Fontaine had left Lux there because his only motivation to be with her was his lust. Coppola includes his somewhat remorseful confession in a flash forward to the future, but this only serves to emphasize that his feelings do not change her present or her fate. Lux is forever suspended in girlhood and never makes the transition to womanhood. Her beauty could not save her from the solitude that moving from childhood into girlhood holds—instead it doomed her to the clutches of man.
Girlhood signifies a transitionary period between childhood and adulthood—a purgatory before the mind can fully develop. Coppola’s films depict the ways in which this defining period can be derailed and take a fast-track journey to adulthood, no matter what measures we may try and take to avoid it. Her most recent release, Priscilla (2023), is once again a testament to her skill of representing girlhood whilst acknowledging that perhaps adulthood inevitably sabotages the state of ‘girl’. Jacob Elordi towers over Cailee Spaeny, emphasising the imposition of adulthood on 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu as she moves into a relationship with Elvis (Jacob Elordi). Coppola postures Priscilla as the story of a girl who enters into a relationship as a child, starstruck, with no power, and leaves as a woman; she reclaims her autonomy after years of being defined by the adult she looked to as both a partner and guardian. Coppola’s inclusion of murmurs from friends of Elvis places the audience in the mind of a girl—too young to be in the conversations directly, but old enough to understand and overhear. The entire biopic allows the viewer to be immersed in the mind of Priscilla herself as she grows from a girl into a woman and takes away their own conclusions after ‘experiencing’ it with her. The biopic does not present obvious bias or strong opinions but simply follows the story of the woman it promises to.
Upon viewing Priscilla at the London Film Festival, I began to think: what defines Coppola’s presentation of girlhood? What exactly makes it so enigmatic, yet universal, appealing to such a variety of women? Perhaps it is this: the girls in her films are like dreamscapes, beautiful fantasies, yet their struggles are so very ordinary in many ways. Despite Lux’s beauty, the fact remains that she suffers at the hands of a man when for so many years girls have been sold the lie that beauty would solve all their problems. The youngest Lisbon sister Cecilia (Hannah R. Hall) is consistently belittled by the narrator, who seems to believe that her attempts at suicide were nothing but a cry for attention because she couldn’t have the boy she wanted. Lastly, Priscilla, whose adolescence is defined by activities built for someone twice her age, stripped of any influence from her own age group. These harsh tales are representative of the common threat to girlhood—man—yet simultaneously allow an appreciation for the wonders of growing up as a girl through sisterhood and the novelty that comes with teenage years. Shrouded in a facade of lace, pink, pointelle and perfume, the girls of Coppola’s films are far rawer than many characters seen in other more realist media. Priscilla is the perfect example of Coppola’s dynamic ability to switch from the dreamscapes of The Virgin Suicides to a biopic format and concoct the perfect mixture of impeccable casting, narrative and beautiful visuals to tell a story that most of the world truly has yet to hear.
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Edited by Martha Knox, Co-Film & TV Editor