Whenever a filmmaker of note premieres a new film, it’s a good time to revisit that director’s first film to gauge how far he or she has come as an artist. With The Beguiled hitting theaters this weekend, we take a look back at Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. (Spoiler Alert: the following article contains spoilers for Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring and the main film under discussion.)
Sofia Coppola seldom tells us what the young women of her films are thinking. Not when it seems to matter most, anyway. In Lost in Translation, it is obvious that Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) suffers from disillusionment, but in the intimate final moments between her and Bob Harris (Bill Murray), we are denied access to the words he whispers into her ear and are thus uncertain about her thoughts at the end of the film. Similarly, Marie Antoinette, despite making patent its titular character’s feeling of suffocation through oppressively opulent mise-en-scène and Kirsten Dunst’s subtly expressive performance, turns the queen of France into an inscrutable blank in the film’s coda, which observes the high tide of the French Revolution crashing against the doorstep of Versailles. Confronted with what is probably the most dramatic event of her short lifetime, Marie Antoinette is, unexpectedly, less readable than ever, facing a moment of crisis without betraying an iota of her thoughts to us. And in the courtroom-set scene near the end of the The Bling Ring, the originally spirited Rebecca (Katie Chang), the ringleader of a group of teenage burglars, appears cold and expressionless, confirming what we’d suspected all along—that her previously charismatic demeanor was all a front, a way of hiding her true self from the eyes of the world.
The height of Coppola’s tendency to obscure the inner lives of young women, however, occurred at the start of her career with The Virgin Suicides, which doesn’t merely incorporate the female mystery present in her later works but thematizes it. In the film, a gaggle of slack-jawed teenage boys hanker after the five Lisbon sisters, whose enforced aloofness (courtesy of their ultra-conservative mother) and seemingly ethereal beauty make the girls objects of fascination and obsession. “We felt that if we kept looking hard enough, we might begin to understand what they were feeling and who they were.” This statement comes from the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi)—one of the boys, now an adult and reflecting upon his youth—and encapsulates the two-pronged approach that Coppola takes to explore the film’s central motif of female unknowability.
On one level, The Virgin Suicides is about the sisters, “what they were feeling and who they were,” but more specifically, it is about how those on the outside—boys and men, especially—can’t ever fully understand such things. It is about respecting the mystery inherent to any person but especially to young women, a demographic too often doubly marginalized on account of their gender and youth. At one point in the film, a male doctor expresses confusion at why Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon sister (Hanna R. Hall), tried to kill herself, given that she supposedly hasn’t yet experienced the trials of adulthood. In response, she looks him straight in the eye and says, “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” Coppola, still young at 30 when she made her debut, has. And from The Virgin Suicides onward, the enigmatic quality of her female characters seems to have been designed, at least to some extent, to honor the private lives of young women.
On another level, Coppola’s first film does something that her other movies haven’t since by exploring the people who seek to box in and define such women, those who feel that, if they “[looked] hard enough,” reality would appear, comfortingly packaged in terms that made sense to them. The motif of looking in from the outside is cinematographically evoked through voyeuristic shots that peer at the Lisbon girls and their family from behind trees, through windows and across streets. In all these cases, spatial distance between camera and unassuming subject is used to parallel the literal ways in which the sisters’ smitten onlookers observe them surreptitiously and from afar—at one point in the film, the boys actually turn a telescope to the girls’ house—but the cinematographic voyeurism also embodies a more general desire to know and the frustration of this desire, which in turn causes the desire to magnify. Often and justifiably, The Virgin Suicides treats this vicious cycle of yearning satirically, such as through depicting the boys’ fantasies about the girls—triggered by the reading of one of the girls’ diaries, an act that is itself a type of voyeurism—in exaggerated, capital-R romantic overtones. (Think sensual close-ups, warm colors, the presence of lyrical sparklers and the smooth, trance-like electronica of French music duo Air, who scored the film.)
It is true that the movie attributes a lot of the boys’ prurient behavior to youthful inexperience rather than sexism, and, as such, feels less condemning than it might have otherwise. Furthermore, the story told by The Virgin Suicides involves a devastating tragedy of a scope that exceeds anything the boys could have been responsible for. Within this context, there are no heroes or villains but only victims and witnesses, and appropriately, the film is less harsh in its judgment of the young male characters than it could have been, leaning more toward a tone of lamentation than one of censure.
That said, an edge of critique still exists, as does Coppola’s empathy for the Lisbon girls. For all the film’s flaws—e.g., inconsistencies in tone, the occasional subpar performance and unequal distribution of screen time between the sisters—The Virgin Suicides is brilliant in keeping the girls mystifying without succumbing to the fetishizing, exoticizing tendencies of its young male characters. The film maintains the mystery of these young women without negating their reality as nuanced, complex human beings, a balancing act that reaches peak poignancy in a scene where pretty boy Trip (Josh Hartnett), having lusted feverishly after the seemingly unattainable Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) for much of the film, finally sleeps with her. She falls asleep on their school’s football field with him by her side, but when she wakes up, he is gone. We learn that he had left because, having attained the unattainable, things felt, in his words, “different,” with the implication being “less exciting, more mundane.” In this moment, the film exposes the girls’ alleged mystique as being contrived by others; through Trip’s account of the evening, the film makes explicit the fact that the girls are human just like everyone else, not angels on earth as the boys imagine them to be.
Coppola does not use this demystification to devalue the girls, however. At one point during its depiction of Lux’s morning after, the film employs an extreme long shot that uses the pale green of the turf to dwarf the character’s tiny frame. In this shot, The Virgin Suicides simultaneously affirms Lux’s humanity—the spatial remove of the shot, in addition to communicating a powerful sense of aloneness, contrasts so ironically with the emotional devastation we know she must be feeling that the latter is made that much more potent—and sustains her mystery by literally and figuratively giving her the kind of space that she has likely been denied for most of her life. In the way it confronts the repercussions of selfish male desire while at the same time treating the young woman with empathy and respect, this one image, encapsulates The Virgin Suicides as a whole and captures why Coppola is one of the most vital and compassionate filmmakers working today.
Jonah Jeng is a writer and prospective film studies graduate student whose work has been featured in The Film Stage, Taste of Cinema and Film Matters magazine. For him, joy is found in the company of loved ones, the enchantment of cinema and the wholesale consumption of avocado egg rolls.