I Laughed, I Cried: The Joy Found in Sofia Coppola’s Representations of Girlhood

By  · Published on December 13th, 2016

In Sofia Coppola’s work it is not just melancholy that shapes the portrayal of a girl turning into a woman.

Sofia Coppola’s short film Lick the Star opens with Christina Turley’s Kate staring out of a car window as the world, her world, passes her by. In Lost in Translation Scarlett Johansson is framed in close-ups while she gazes out of her hotel window, searching for what she is ‘supposed to be.’ A scene in Marie Antoinette shows Kirsten Dunst’s eponymous character floating on a river as she looks into its reflection, while Coppola’s first feature, The Virgin Suicides, watches the Lisbon sisters as they gaze into fields and out of car and bedroom windows. Notice a theme?

The images of a character staring out of a window has become as much a stylistic mark of Coppola’s films as the dollhouse shots used by Wes Anderson, or the carefully constructed crane shots found in Orson Welles’ oeuvre. However, Coppola’s scenes centered on gazing have left viewers focusing on the melancholic aspect of her filmmaking. By Coppola choosing to place the camera on the outside of windows looking in at her characters, the director showcases how these characters are watching their present turn into the past. Yet, Coppola contrasts the camera shots and cinematography with her characters’ actions, as they are also often attempting to immortalize some form of their present in order to preserve the joy experienced while growing up in a period of girlhood ‐ an aspect of her work that often gets overlooked.

In The Virgin Suicides, the group of anonymous teenage boys who gaze at the group of sisters describe Dunst’s Lux Lisbon by stating, “what we have here, is a dreamer.” The film is told largely from the perspective of these gazing anonymous boys. However, Coppola allows audiences to experience the mystery, wonder, and joy of being a Lisbon sister through on-screen elements such as the handwritten fonts that appear as a title card for the film and again as a title card for each sister. Through the handwritten details, viewers feel as though they are writing a diary with the sisters, which culminates in the scene when the neighboring boys begin reading the sisters’ diaries and “discovering” their lives.

Over fading montages of Lux dancing, the now-dead Cecilia writing her journal, and close-up, personal images of the sisters on a boat trip, the neighboring boys, in narration, describe how they “felt the imprisonment of being a girl,” not knowing that the very thing they are holding is what sets the sisters free. The Virgin Suicides could have easily been a film that is restrained by the male gaze, but through the fact that Coppola allows viewers to see the sisters’ lives in cross-fades and grants a facet of their story to be told almost word-for-word through Cecilia’s diary, it’s clear the film is more concerned with what the boys’ act of gazing means for the sisters rather than what their gazing means for them. Ultimately, the boys’ perspective of voyeurism in the Lisbon sisters’ lives grants the sisters the joy of being watched, with the reading of the journal ‐ the most recognizable signifier of a private life ‐ allowing them to live on in a world that is not weary of the act of girl-becoming-woman, but instead fascinated by it.

For Interview Magazine, Coppola describes how “when you’re a kid, you’re not really thinking,” yet in an interview with Tavi Gevinson for Rookie she talks about how being a teenager is a “time when you’re just focused on thinking about things.” Whilst opposing statements, this dichotomy of thinking versus not thinking has something to say for the joy presented in her films. In The Virgin Suicides, the sisters’ joy is more restrained and pooled in memory than say, for example, Marie Antoinette. This is because the former film’s joy is a type that is thought about and constructed, be it through a bedroom that externalizes everything the sisters hold important, or the act of building a narrative through journaling. For the sisters, they exchange experiencing joy in the present tense for the immortalization of their experiences together in the past. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette’s joy is freethinking, unapologetic, and as artificial as the pouf that adorns her head.

It is not that Dunst’s Antoinette does not think, but rather that her joy is more carefree than that of the Lisbon sisters. Unlike the sisters with their almost cult-status group, Dunst’s Antoinette has no real, deep connections that surround her apart from her children and Rose Byrne’s Duchesse de Polignac. In the scenes with Dunst and her children ‐ the ones away from the parties and the politics ‐ Coppola places her outside, with a focus on the natural: the birds, the grass, and her real hair. With Byrne, Dunst’s Antoinette is placed in parties, operas, and fittings. Her friendship here is presented through montages of close-ups on sweet foods, brightly colored shoes, and expensive jewelry, all set to 90s tracks such as Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy.

Where the Lisbon sisters have known each other all their lives, Dunst’s girl group are strangers and a lot older than her. The use of the out-of-place modern soundtrack and iconography (such as a pair of Converse in the above sequence) showcases how Dunst’s group, like her champagne and hairstyles, are a form of escapism from the expectations forced on her at a young age. When Dunst first arrives in France, the people comment on how “she looks like a child.” The joke here is that she is a child; a child, just like the Lisbon sisters, the characters in The Bling Ring, Chloe in Lick the Star, on the verge of becoming an adult. The joy created through girl groups in all films is a form of emotion that is fleeting and inevitably going to end, which makes it all the more magical.

The exploration of joy through girl groups does not end with Sofia Coppola’s films either. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, released in 2014, explores the feelings and experiences of growing up in France alone as well as with a group of girls. Karidja Touré plays Marieme, who explores many facets of herself as the film goes on. First, she is the motherly figure; then audiences see her experiencing what it is like to be a part of an experience that feels bigger than she can ever ‐ and will ever ‐ be through Assa Sylla’s Lady. And while accepting and exploring her femininity, viewers watch as she eventually comes to reject this femininity when surrounded by groups of men. Sciamma represents the importance the assigned or chosen groups role plays within characters’ lives. The most important scene in Girlhood establishes this in what feels like an alternative music video to Rihanna’s Diamonds: it begins with blue, neon lighting, and Sylla singing directly to the camera. What is presented here is an exercise in vulnerability as Sciamma reminds audiences these are girls on the brink of womanhood, connecting to each other through their shared loneliness.


Likewise, in Carol Morley’s The Falling the director explores femininity, sexuality, and growth through the subject of mass hysteria. Up-and-coming actress Florence Pugh dies after experiencing a series of mysterious fainting spells, which is then followed by her best friend Lydia, played by Maisie Williams, and the group of girls of the 1969 boarding school all experiencing the same type of illness. Through this mass hysteria (which is a real thing) Morley explores the same magical and mysterious effects coming-of-age has when experienced in a community as Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. From the strict uniforms and hairstyles to the way the girls have to sit and talk, The Falling shows how a group of girls are only allowed to experience joy through a controlled, uniform system. Once their pleasure and fantasies exceed this – once the girls themselves are in control – they become dangerous due to their newfound femininity.

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang uses the subject of siblinghood to explore the opression the five sisters central to the film face. Lale (played by Güneş Şensoy) narrates Ergüven’s debut feature in distanced bursts, describing how she and her four sisters are locked up in a physical representation of an oppressive prison, a prison in which a woman’s growth is ignored and rendered non-existent. The siblings, unlike the Lisbon sisters, have their pieces of girlhood ‐ represented in the form of mobile phones, diaries, CDs ‐ taken away from them. Where the Lisbon sisters are able to communicate their feelings through record players and journal entries, Mustang’s characters are left searching for external, spontaneous experiences to escape the patriarchal regime that surrounds them. The joy created though their collective spontaneity that allows them to enter the forbidden world of experiences is unsolicited, spurred on by the dread of loneliness and fear of watching the only people who understand them become an unwilling part of the patriarchal, misogynistic system.

What these filmmakers have in common, then, is that they all showcase the many facets the life of a group of girls has. In each of the films nothing really happens. In Girlhood Touré’s Marieme, despite what she has learned, is still in the same place she has been her whole life when the film ends ‐ the only difference being her experiences that have led her out of girlhood and into the realm of womanhood. Morley’s The Falling is similar, and spends the film emphasizing the importance and power found in being in a group, while Mustang begins and ends with Lale’s one figure of hope. The Virgin Suicides concludes the same way it began, in a suburban town, except this time the bright, vivid color the Lisbon sisters brought is taken out of the cinematography, and Marie Antoinette begins with her being forced out of an old life and into a new one, concluding with her “saying goodbye” for the final time.

The end of Lick the Star shows Chloe writing in her diary, narrating what she scribbles:

“everything changes, nothing changes, the tables turn, and life goes on”

The characters of Girlhood, The Falling, and Mustang are presented with no physical proof of their girlhood other than their respective groups, the Lisbon sisters are stuck in time, and Antoinette stuck with artificial experience. But what all have in common is that they each experienced ‐ and immortalized, through some aspect of being in a group ‐ joy.

With Coppola’s new film The Beguiled, starring Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, and Kirsten Dunst, set to be released in 2017, it’s clear the director still sees the importance in depicting the complexity of girlhood. In the video below, edited by Marta Colom, you can see for yourself the dynamic Coppola makes between joy and melancholy in her work of films.

Freelance writer based in the UK.