Genius Contemporary Directors and the Women Who Became Their Muses: Vol. 2

Pedro Almodóvar & Penélope Cruz at Premios Goya 2017. Photo by Ruben Ortega.

Only a couple of directors are lucky to find them: actresses that understand their vision so profoundly that in return, they elevate their films to another level. Hand in hand, they have co-created multiple movies together, ”the muses” immersing themselves into a different character created by the same person over and over again.

We have already explored some of these (seemingly) symbiotic relationships. Now let’s take a look at more duos that have shaped and transformed each other’s lives.

Sofia Coppola & Kirsten Dunst

Collaborations: The Virgin Suicides (1999), Marie Antoinette (2006), The Bling Ring (2013), The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola might be one of the most well known female directors today, but that was something she could only dream of back when she met a 16-year old Kirsten Dunst. She was preparing her first feature film, The Virgin Suicides, on a modest budget and with a lot of doubts, and Dunst was about to become her leading lady. “I remember being struck by her bubbly, all-American cheerleader look — and then this depth in her eyes, a wise sadness combined with all her effervescence,” she wrote for The Guardian.

Dunst explained that Coppola has always had a positive influence on her, giving her confidence that she might not have had otherwise. “She said to me, ‘I love your teeth; don’t ever fix your teeth.’ I remember doing a ‘Spider-Man’ movie later, and one of the producers was like, ‘I need to take you to the dentist!’ But I just knew I was never doing that. Sofia is the chicest, coolest girl, and she thinks my teeth are great,” she recalled for Variety.

Coppola continued to develop her very own distinct visual and narrative style that remained unapologetically female throughout the years, and Dunst remained a part of the journey. The director thoroughly enjoys exploring the actress’ melancholic, “steely” depth: something she’s done masterfully in their newest collaboration, The Beguiled. “I like casting her in this because it’s so opposite her personality. This character is so oppressed, and she’s not at all,“ Coppola said.

Pedro Almodóvar & Penélope Cruz

Collaborations: Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2009), I’m so Excited (2013), Pain and Glory (2019)

Pedro and Penélope: already a legendary duo — they understand each other so well that they seem like a couple, although Almodóvar is openly gay and Cruz is married. The actress admitted that she was obsessed with his filmsever since she was a teenager. “He changed the way I looked at the world before I even knew him. There is no one even close to him. I am always comparing everything to working with him,” she said.

Their collaboration started with a small role of a prostitute in Live Flesh (1992), and it didn’t take long until the stunning actress conquered Hollywood, won the “pretty girl” parts in big studio films and filled the tabloids. Almodóvar went as far as stating that he has saved her from Hollywood, as “they don’t know how to use actresses“.

He publicly admires her looks and talent and has created unforgettable characters for Cruz. Under his direction, she became an HIV-positive nun, pregnant by a transvestite in All About My Mother, a fearless matriarch of a broken family in Volver and an aspiring actress in Broken Embraces.

Does Almodóvar consider her a muse? “She is a muse for me in the sense that a muse is someone who makes you better than you are. I think I am a better director with her, because she believes that I am better than I am, and that blind faith gives me a lot of strength,” he concluded.

François Ozon & Charlotte Rampling

Collaborations: Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2003), Angel (2007), Young and Beautiful (2013)

“Each time I’ve worked with Francois we’ve started out with only an idea of the film,” Rampling explained. “And then he goes off and writes, and I see him very regularly while he’s writing. We don’t even have to talk much about the role, but he tailors it to me like haute couture,” she said.

Ozon ever wrote their first collaboration, Under the Sand, specifically for her. Rampling used to suffer from depression as a result of her sister’s suicide that she kept secret in order to protect her mother. In Under the Sand, she revisits this trauma — she portrays a woman whose husband goes for a swim during their vacation and never returns. Instead of coming to terms with his probable death, she refuses to acknowledge it, even when his badly decomposed body is eventually found. She acknowledged that this role was cathartic“I’d been through many different periods of self-doubt and depression. It was really Under the Sand that cemented my coming back. I said — yeah, I’ve still got things to say on screen.”

The actress known for her bold movie choices keeps regularly appearing in Ozon’s films. Her performance in Swimming Pool was celebrated at the European Film Awards, where she won the title of Best European Actress.

Ava DuVernay & Oprah Winfrey

Collaborations: Selma (2014), A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The first female African-American director who worked on a movie grossing over 100 million USD (A Wrinkle in Time) met Winfrey in 2012. DuVernay caught the attention of the famous TV host after she watched her first film, Middle of Nowhere. “I don’t have a lot of friends but I’m going to be friends with her. I ended up having a big luncheon at my house just so I could invite her,”Winfrey recalled.

Their relationship goes beyond the director & muse combination: yes, Winfrey starred in DuVernay’s films, but she has also become her producer. Together, they have used their power and influence to diversify their crews and tell important stories: such as the mini-series When They See Us, the true story of five teenagers of color convicted of a rape they did not commit.

Luca Guadagnino & Tilda Swinton

Collaborations: The Protagonists (1999), Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory (2002), Io sono l’amore (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015), Suspiria (2018)

Tilda Swinton is arguably one of today’s most fascinating, versatile and creative actresses — directors such as Wes Anderson, Bong Joon-ho, Jim Jarmusch, and Coen brothers often rely on that in their work.

Among the filmmakers that admire her, one seems to be Swinton’s ultimate soulmate: Luca Guadagnino. As he explained for Screen Daily, he views her as a filmmaker, not solely an actress, as she helps co-create his films. “I’m a little bit prudish about it because we’re so united and we have such a deep bond. It’s almost like talking about something very private, something very intimate,” he said. Swinton agrees: “We’re like a pair of six-year-olds in a sandbox. We just have such fun dreaming up these adventures for each other. We trust each other.”

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