CineWomen: Sofia Coppola echoes ‘Lost in Translation’ with ‘On the Rocks’
Plus ‘The Lie’ by Veena Sud, ‘Jeanne Dielman’ by Chantal Akerman and ‘Daughters of the Dust’ by Julie Dash
This month’s column looks different from when I first started planning it. I’d intended to review Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 and revisited Wonder Woman in preparation. And I’d slated Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake in deference to Halloween.
But the coronavirus had other plans, and Wonder Woman is currently scheduled for Christmas Day — at least for now — and Candyman for next August.
In the meantime, like last month, streaming services are filling the void, with a new Sofia Coppola movie moving quickly from a limited theatrical release to Apple TV+ and a psychological thriller from Veena Sud arriving from Blumhouse for All Hallows’ Eve.
Not included in this month’s column are a couple of crackerjack new titles on Netflix: Kirsten Johnson’s documentary about her ailing father, Dick Johnson Is Dead, and Radha Blank’s autobiographical 40-Year-Old Version — both of which will be in the year-end awards conversation for me.
The theatrical movie industry may be in tatters, but there’s no shortage of new films by women finding their way into the marketplace.
‘On the Rocks’ and ‘Lost in Translation’
I’ve rewatched Lost in Translation twice this year — after not having seen it probably since around the time it was first released — and it remains mesmerizing all these years later, even upon repeat viewings just a few months apart.
Sofia Coppola’s second feature serves as a kind of mutual fantasy — more obviously for middle-aged men, with Bill Murray’s unhappily married movie star Bob Harris frolicking in a Tokyo playland with a nubile Scarlett Johansson. But for educated young women too, yearning for meaning and purpose in a culture that rewards vapidity, and trading witty banter with an older man who appreciates her light sarcasm. Their flirtation yields jealousy but stays platonic, leaning into the powerful human connection that can occur when one is overwhelmed in a foreign land.
There are echoes of this relationship in Coppola’s most recent film, On the Rocks, not least because it also stars Murray as a father figure — in this case, actually the father of Laura, played by Rashida Jones, who helped Coppola workshop her script for Lost in Translation in the role that Johansson ended up getting all those years ago.
Like Charlotte from the earlier film, Laura is artistic and privileged, largely left to her own devices while her work-obsessed husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) stays out late and goes on business trips with hot young female colleagues. The difference is that Laura is seventeen years older — now that I think about it, the same number of years since Translation came out — with a couple of kids in tow.
She suspects Dean is having an affair — specifically with his hot young assistant — and makes the mistake of telling her dad Felix (Murray), a retired art dealer and notorious playboy who regales his grown daughter with biological rationalizations for his debauchery. Given his own history of adultery, Felix isn’t inclined to give Dean the benefit of the doubt and launches a private investigation that swiftly spirals out of control.
As in Lost in Translation — really, any film he’s in — Murray is effortlessly charming, smooth-talking even a traffic cop out of giving him a ticket for his clunker vintage convertible. But the chemistry between this father-daughter pair lacks the sizzle of the earlier film. And in a broader comedy like On the Rocks, their banter isn’t as sharp as it should be.
The ending On the Rocks really suffers in comparison to one of cinemas great denouements. All the drama stirred up between Laura and her husband and Laura and her dad culminate in banal outbursts, then ultimately shrugged off.
By contrast, Lost in Translation ends with the whisper — the contents of which still aren’t known as far as I can tell, though I didn’t dig too deep because I don’t want to know. After an unsatisfactory farewell in the lobby of the hotel, crowded by flunkies and fans, Bob gets a second chance to say goodbye when he spots Charlotte on the Tokyo street. In a river of humanity, their embrace is a private island, and whatever he says in ear is ambiguous yet deeply satisfying.
On the Rocks (2020), directed by Sofia Coppla (Apple TV+)
Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Sofia Coppla (various streaming and digital)
Veena Sud developed one of my favorite television series, The Killing, and for her second feature film The Lie, she mines some of the same territory, not least because the TV show’s Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard, who appeared in the third season, play the divorced couple at the center of the plot. Here, too, a teenage girl has been murdered, and the events unfold in the days following her death.
Here, though, the perpetrator is known to viewers from the outset: It’s Kayla (Joey King), the fifteen-year-old daughter of icy corporate lawyer Rebecca (Enos) and her rock star ex Jay (Sarsgaard). Jay and Kayla pick up her bestie Brittany (Devery Jacobs) on their way to dance camp, and during a bathroom break in the snowy Canadian wilderness, Kayla admits to impulsively pushing Brittany into a raging river.
It’s frustrating in this moment that Jay and Kayla don’t do the most obvious thing, short of calling the police: Report that Brittany slipped. But other than puzzlingly eschewing that option, Sud’s script compellingly, and controlled use of focus, builds tension as Rebecca and Jay clumsily attempt to protect their daughter, including — in subtle critical framing of white privilege and racism — by framing Brittany’s dad, who is of South Asian descent.
Meanwhile, Kayla’s behavior grows increasingly mercurial, lashing out at her estranged parents in one scene and reveling in their newfound closeness the next.
Set against the monochromatic background of the Canadian winter, and in a house with walls of glass, The Lie exposes more than one impetuous act.
The Lie (2020), directed by Veena Sud (Amazon Prime Video)
‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’
Google “best films by women,” and the 1975 feminist classic Jeanne Dielman will appear at or near the top of the list, and rightfully so.
For nearly three-and-a-half hours we watch the titular single mother played by Delphine Seyrig (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise) make beds and wash dishes and run errands and set the table and scrub the bathtub and prepare meals — so. many. meals. — in real time. We also, after her obnoxiously oblivious adolescent son has left for the day, watch her admit men into the apartment (whose address also comprises the title), shut the bedroom door and emerge after the light has changed.
She does all this while barely uttering a word and with such routine precision that within 15 minutes, the rhythm of the click of her heels, the switch of lights on and off, the light squeak of doors opening and closing beat in the viewers’ chest and infuse their own movements. And when her habits change — when she fails to replace the lid on the tureen on the dining room table where she keeps the cash her visitors give her, for example — you know immediately that something is deeply, irrevocably wrong.
Chantal Akerman, who tragically died by suicide the same year the #52FilmsbyWomen hashtag started, was 25 years old when she directed her hypnotic, enigmatic magnum-opus portrait of domesticity.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), directed by Chantal Akerman (Criterion Channel)
‘Daughters of the Dust’
The career of Julie Dash is one of Hollywood’s great travesties. Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film by a Black woman to get a general theatrical release in the United States. A foundational film in Black cinema, inspiring imagery in Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, it was also Dash’s last.
Set in 1902, and loosely based on her own father’s family, Daughters of the Dust introduces the Peazant family, which for generations has lived on a Sea Island off the southeast coast of the United States. The Gullah — aka Geechee — clan gathers for one last reunion before some of them depart for the mainland to migrate north.
Key characters include the Unborn Child, who narrates the film’s poetic visuals and circuitous narrative; cousins from the mainland Viola, a devout Christian with a photographer in tow, and Yellow Mary, a free spirit who brings her lesbian lover; and their matriarch Nana, who conducts African spiritual rituals. In dreamy vignettes, the family bonds and bickers, reminisces about the past and prepares for the future in Gullah creole, sans subtitles, that submerges viewers in another place and another time.
Dash has directed TV movies since Daughters, and music videos and television and shorts, but not another theatrically released feature, and cinema is poorer for it.