A Personal Essay by Rebecca Martin, founder of Cinema Femme magazine
I’ve followed Sofia Coppola’s career closely, ever since 2003. In 2003 I saw the film that became my gateway in to the cinephile world, Lost in Translation. Friends in college (where I was in 2003) felt that I possibly had an unhealthy obsession with the film and the director. My obsession came from my excitement of finding a director I so closely identified with in her style and her way of visually communicating. Also, story telling is very important to me, along with character development. All the characters in Lost In Translation were dynamic and well developed. The concept of the film was beautiful, the idea of what it is like when you meet someone unexpectedly and share a deep connection, was breathtaking. I realized at that point, I was a Sofia Coppola fan for life, and I wanted to see what else was out there that I’d be excited about. I also give Sofia the credit for giving me the desire to seek out more female directed films. Growing up I can only think of three films directed by females that I was aware of, A League of their Own (directed by Penny Marshall), Sleepless in Seattle (directed by Nora Ephron), and Clueless (directed by Amy Hecklering). It was time to open the floodgates of exposing myself to women in film.
It wasn’t until 7 years later that I saw The Virgin Suicides (1999) on DVD. I read the book first, written by Jeffrey Eugenides, and was so impressed with Sofia’s adaption, she nailed it. She took the visual essence of the book and brought it to life by bringing definition to the female characters, specifically the Lisbon sisters. It all starts from the beginning when she introduces each sister one by one, with their names and ages, Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Therese (17). As a catholic family it is believable to have so many daughters, so close in age, but to the teenage boys, who tell the story, it was like an anomaly with each girl being so beautiful born from a nerdy math teacher father (James Woods) and a stuffy strict catholic mother (Kathleen Turner).
The girls came alive to me through the details: the perfume bottles, the travel magazines, the lipstick, and the diary with the doodles and stickers. Remembering myself as a teenage girl I was transported to my own room, where I had pictures of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt on my walls, with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Christian Bale (big Newsies fan!). I was a bit boy crazy. Also, music was my life at age 12 and 13, I had all the latest, Weezer, Janet Jackson, Alanis Morissette, Oasis, and Lauryn Hill. That scene when Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is forced by her mother, to burn all of her rock albums, that would have broken me. It is a funny scene though when Kiss and Aerosmith is going up in smoke, and the the stench and the smoke of the fire starts making them cough, and Mrs. Lisbon just tells her to throw them out in the bin. It all seems a bit ridiculous at that point.
The film is meant to be like the book, the point of view of the teenage boys, that painfully loved the idea of the Lisbon girls, and mythologized that last year of their lives. The book and film is narrated from one of the boys grown, in the film it’s the voice of Giovanni Ribisi. What is different in the film is that visually you saw the girls, their sadness, their excitement when they got to go to the homecoming dance, and Lux’s deep love for Trip (Josh Hartnett). When Trip comes to watch “the tube” with the Lisbons in order to get closer to Lux, Lux walks Trip to the door after the TV watching concludes and shyly says goodbye. Trip goes to his car, smokes a joint, in anguish with his feelings for Lux. Cut to Lux running to the car and getting in at a racing pace in her night gown. The makeout session is intense. The whole scene is accompanied by Heart’s “Crazy on You.” It could not have been more perfect with Lux leaving her chewing gum in Trip’s mouth and leaves quickly so she can get back for bed check. It is that scene that teenage boy and girl alike fantasize about.
As a suburban girl who grew up in a less diverse town, middle/upper class, you can feel constricted. I had it a little different though, and I was fortunate, at 13 to live in Singapore and 16, London. During my time overseas I was surrounded by students from all over the world, all races and religion. I felt more free overseas then I ever did in Chicago suburbia. So I know the feeling of being trapped. The Lisbon sisters, at more of an extreme degree, were kept at home 24/7 after Lux’s failure to make “bed check” after Trip left her on the football field. It is understandable why the girls fell in to depression by being trapped in a house, but suicide by all the girls is the part where I feel is less realistic. The point of the suicide was for the story, it was meant to give these teenage boys the opportunity to romanticize and fantasize about their time on earth, when they were beautiful and young. By their mutual obsession and not being able to be with these girls in their day to day lives, left them thirsty for an intimacy that never existed.
The only boy who did get close to a Lisbon sister, for a little bit, was Trip Fontaine. And that ended after he left Lux on the football field after having sex with her, in a one-night stand fashion. When interviewed years later at a rehab center he compares his love for Lux unlike any love, and could not explain why he left her there.
But let’s be real, Trip was a teenage boy who got what he wanted, and was done with her after that. The sex broke the spell for him, and his treatment of Lux following their sexual encounter was unfair. But it wasn’t just Trip and the Lisbon parents who were unfair to the girls, but also the teenage boys who put them on a pedestal. For example, when they all watch Lux having sex with various men through a telescope on the roof of the Lisbon house, the male gaze is literal in this moment. Sofia acknowledges the unfair treatment by showing Lux’s pain and depression after she has sex with one of the men when she smokes her cigarette with a blank stare.
Sofia Coppola had a unique upbringing, with her father being Francis Ford Coppola and a mother, siblings and cousins that were all apart of the industry. But she was a teenage girl once looking for normalcy. When her brother Gian-Carlo died when she was a teenager in 1986, this tragically effected her. The loss of her brother made it difficult for her to be a “normal” teenager and this was a film for her to channel that. Being a “normal” teenager is all about the insecurities and the desire to belong. When you don’t get to share these experiences with your peers you feel lost and abnormal.
Over the years I’ve revisited Sofia’s films quite often, and they are inspiring to me visually and transport me to a higher place. I also love Sofia’s directing style, letting the film come from her vision, and letting that vision steer the way. She is a great director for actors, she is quiet in her directions, but is impactful. Sofia connects well with the female actors. Kirsten Dunst has been in three films of Sofia Coppola’s since The Virgin Suicides (Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring (only a cameo), and The Beguiled). Elle Fanning (who was not in The Virgin Suicides), has been in two of Sofia’s films (Somewhere and The Beguiled). Bill Murray, not a female obviously, but another one of Sofia’s muses, has been in two of her films (Lost in Translation and A Very Murray Christmas).
For some reason, I get her, although I agree with the opinion that there is a lack of diversity in her actors, and through Cinema Femme the plan is to explore diverse women in films (racially and sexually), but I chose this film with this director because of the impact and passion it has given me for film and women in film. I get Sofia through her visual sensibilities, her looking through the lens of the girl and young woman, and her music accompaniment choices that accentuate her visual story. The idea to bring Air in to do the soundtrack for The Virgin Suicides, brought a timelessness to the film. She did something similar in her film Marie Antoinette (2006) which was the 18th century accompanied by songs like Bow Wow Wow’s “I want Candy.”
Below are some stills from The Virgin Suicides that I feel capture the beauty of the work and Sofia’s vision. Looking forward to Cinema Femme‘s first issue that will explore this gem. And not all the writers contributing think of this film as a gem, but I welcome that as a conversation between women about the female film experience. Viva Cinema Femme!
Listen to me talk about my favorite director Sofia Coppola and her films on Director’s Club podcast with co-hosts Al Kwiatkowski and Brad Strauss: http://www.directorsclubpodcast.com/blog/episode134