Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999)

Notable Festivals: Cannes, Sundance

Some stories are so perfectly suited to a particular filmmaker that it’s inconceivable to think of anyone else sitting behind the camera.  Director Sofia Coppola’s 1999 debut feature, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, is such a film: a stunning harmony of source matter and artistic vision that immediately announced her as a major new voice in American independent cinema.  The film was adapted by Coppola herself from the 1993 Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name, which spun the nostalgic and melancholy tale of five sisters blossoming into womanhood one fateful suburban summer, hidden away from the world by their overbearing but well-meaning parents.  At the sprightly young age of 27, the music video director / budding fashionista / art world socialite reportedly hadn’t yet considered a feature filmmaking career for herself, but when she was given a copy of “The Virgin Suicides” by her friend (and Sonic Youth frontman) Thurston Moore, she knew she had the perfect story with which to make her feature debut.  Undeterred by the fact the book was already in development elsewhere, she went against the advice of her father, esteemed 70’s auteur Francis Ford Coppola, and wrote her own script anyway.  When she presented her draft to the rights holders, they agreed to make her version of the film instead of what they’d been developing on their own.  Soon enough, Coppola found herself in the suburban outskirts of Detroit, Michigan, shooting her first feature film with a budget of $6 million and the production oversight of her father’s company, American Zoetrope.

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is set firmly in the 1970’s, but the film’s perspective approaches the story from a point of hindsight, narrated in the present day by the curious neighborhood boys at the center of the film.  Now grown men with careers and family of their own, they can’t help but steal away to quiet corners whenever they’re back together, going over their old teenage obsession with the five Lisbon sisters who all took their own lives in a defiant act of rebellion against their strict parents.  James Woods and Kathleen Turner (who played Coppola’s older sister in father Francis’ 1986 feature PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED) play Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, an uptight religious couple who fear for their daughters’ collective chastity to the point that they are willing to seal them off almost entirely to the outside world.  As such, the five sisters– Bonnie (Chelsea Swain), Therese (Leslie Hayman), Cecilia (Hannah R. Hall), Mary (AJ Cook), and Lux (Kirsten Dunst)– have taken on an enigmatic, almost-ethereal air that captivates the neighborhood boys.  Their focus (and Coppola’s) converges on Lux in particular, played by Dunst with a flirty, knowing sensuality.  This may be Coppola’s first film, but this isn’t the first time she’s worked with Dunst– the actress previously appeared in Francis Ford’s LIFE WITHOUT ZOE, a segment for the 1989 omnibus film NEW YORK STORIES that she co-wrote with Dad.  This particular summer coincides with Lux’s sexual awakening, sparked by a romance with the school stallion Trip Fontaine, played by a gangly Josh Hartnett in an aloof, cocksure performance.  The revelation of this development causes a crackdown on the girls’ freedoms, leading to the mysterious group suicide that will captivate the neighborhood boys’ attention for the rest of their lives.  THE VIRGIN SUICIDES places an emphasis on its cast’s performances in lieu of sweeping turns of narrative, a challenge to which the members of Coppola’s cast ably meet– including short cameos from Danny DeVito as a psychiatrist and future Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen, as a moody member of Trip’s football team.

Edward Lachmann’s cinematography ably evokes the summery, nostalgic vibe that Coppola aims for, and in the process helps to establish the foundations of Coppola’s signature aesthetic.  Exterior scenes are lathered in warm, saturated tones, golden highlights and lens flares, while interiors are rendered with pops of bright color against the beige florals of white suburban domesticity.  Coppola and Lachmann manage to imprint a palpable sensuality on the 35mm film image, imbuing it with a soft, creamy texture not unlike sun-kissed skin.  She frames the action primarily in wide, thoughtfully-considered compositions, making full use of the 1.85:1 frame while accentuating the potency of her closeups by virtue of their relative scarcity.  The camerawork adopts a classical, period-appropriate approach, utilizing dolly moves, locked-down one-offs, and languid traveling shots from the perspective of a car’s backseat (something of a signature shot within Coppola’s features).  Other aspects of the film, however, suggest more of an impressionistic, contemporary vibe– seen most visibly in the use of double exposures, 8mm home movie footage, timelapse photography, and even a present-day, documentary-style testimonial from a middle-aged, burned-out Trip Fontaine.  The most effective of these techniques is the staging of key conversations behind closed doors, reinforcing the film’s central themes of isolation and secrecy while subtly placing the audience in the same space of physical remove and unknowable speculation experienced by the male narrators.  Production designer Jasna Stefanovic rounds out Coppola and Lachmann’s approach with scene dressing, props and costumes that authentically evoke a vintage 70’s, yet timeless, feel.

While Coppola might embrace a subdued application of period iconography, she uses the opportunity afforded by the film’s soundtrack to indulge in some iconic 70’s-era jams.  Whereas other 70’s-set films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) embraced the glitzier disco aspects of the era, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES explores rock-and-roll’s contributions to the musical landscape.  Well known tracks like Electronic Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic”, or Heart’s “Magic Man” and “Crazy On You” round out a suite of needle drops sourced from artists like Todd Rundgren, Al Green, and The Bee Gees.  French electronica band Air crafts a laid-back and melancholy mix of xylophones, beat kits, and other synthesized elements into an original cue called “Playground Love”, serving as the film’s de facto theme song while evoking the feel of a languid summer afternoon.  Like her generational peer Quentin Tarantino, Coppola isn’t afraid to abruptly silence a moment of non-diegetic music when she transitions to the next scene with a hard cut.  The soundtrack works in perfect harmony with Coppola’s dreamy aesthetic, establishing her reputation as a filmmaker with a strong ear for sublime music.

The feminine mystique is a common concept present through Coppola’s work, perhaps none more so than in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, which is literally drenched in it like humidity.  The male narrators can’t seem to figure out what drives these enigmatic young women– their detached emotionality bears nothing in the way of clues or insight as to how they’re really feeling, which is why their dramatic group suicide comes as such a shock.  The artifacts of their lives– magazine clippings, records, hairbrushes, etc– become objects worthy of intense scrutiny and study.  Their bedrooms become sacred shrines to girlhood.  The process of puberty, of flowering into womanhood, is a magical, mysterious phenomenon to these boys.  The girls are fully aware of the mystery of their inner lives, evidenced early in the film by Cecilia’s response to a doctor who asks her why she would attempt something so drastic of suicide: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.”

The quiet, observational femininity that drives Coppola’s worldview dovetails nicely with THE VIRGIN SUICIDES’ themes of teenage suburban angst.  Like her approach to her 1998 short LICK THE STAR, Coppola walks the fine line between empathy for her characters and a wider perspective.  The reasons for the girls’ group suicide are ultimately trivial– a permanent solution to a temporary problem– but she never discounts the sincerity of the personal stakes that the girls have staked to their situation.  When hormones are running rampant, emotions have a life-or-death immediacy– a notion that’s amplified in a privileged suburban setting, where there’s the time and the luxury to dwell on heartbreak and despair, and true love is the only thing that money can’t buy.  The punk flare that also ran through LICK THE STAR surfaces throughout the VIRGIN SUICIDES, most visibly in the hand-drawn title treatments, which resemble the daydreaming doodles of a teenage girl’s school notebook.  Behind the camera, Coppola also adopts her father’s tendency to mix work and family– recruiting her brother Roman as the 2nd Unit Director and bringing on Francis Ford as a producer and on-set source of sage advice.  

Many directors’ first features are plagued by a variety of production difficulties and challenges, especially on the independent level.  By most accounts, Coppola’s experience on THE VIRGIN SUICIDES was a relatively smooth one– she proved herself a hard worker and a confident visionary.  The biggest challenge she reportedly faced was a shortage of film stock, often hitting the allotted daily maximum by lunch.  Her name and American Zoetrope’s backing may have played a part in securing a coveted slot at Cannes and Sundance, but the warm critical reviews made it quickly apparent that the film’s strengths were entirely a product of her own.  THE VIRGIN SUICIDES’ modest indie success proved that a talent for filmmaking ran in the family, establishing Coppola’s feature career with one of the best films of the 1990’s.

large

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is currently available on standard definition DVD via Paramount.

Credits:

Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Julie Costanzo, Dan Halsted, Chris Harley

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Director of Photography: Edward Lachmann

Production Designer: Jasna Stefanovic

Edited by: Melissa Kent, James Lyons

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page