Enchanted by the Details

Orange jumpsuits with chainsaws. A dead oak tree on the front lawn. Midwest suburban house. Four teenage girls in white nightgowns and yellow hair race out of the front door of their middle-class home. The girls push away the men with chainsaws and circle around the tree with their arms linked together, like angels protecting the darkness and sadness of their short lives.

There are two important facets to recognize and appreciate in a Sofia Coppola film: the story and the atmosphere. The focus of the Cinema Femme inaugural issue is on Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), based on the book with the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides. As the founder of this magazine, I chose Sofia’s first feature film for the first issue because I wanted to set the tone as personal. “The Virgin Suicides,” specifically the work of this director, is special to me. Watching this movie, along with “Lost in Translation” and all of Sofia’s other directed films, has inspired me to look at film differently and more deeply. I’ve always loved a good story, but Sofia’s films have taught me that the medium speaks more when there is a captivating atmosphere—full of possibility, beauty, and poetry. And Sofia’s atmosphere is a powerhouse because of the details.

Sofia’s film adaption of “The Virgin Suicides” centers around the lives of the Lisbon sisters, five teenage girls who all commit suicide within a twelve-month period. The sisters are Therese (17), Mary (16), Bonnie (15), Lux (14), and Cecilia (13). The story is narrated by Sofia’s cousin Giovanni Ribisi. His narration is the adult recollection of the boys that grew up in same neighborhood as these girls.

To illustrate the power of the details in this story, I’d like to analyze the opening of the film. On first viewing, one can easily overlook all the intimate details. Here’s what we can initially grasp—the opening shot of the Lisbon sister Lux, played by a young Kirsten Dunst, standing in the neighborhood street sucking on a popsicle looking around absentminded. Then the camera takes quick shots around the neighborhood, then a shot of the Lisbon sisters’ bedroom windowsill, to a shot of Cecilia, played by Hanna Hall, laying in a bathtub in her own blood. Then we hear the first line of the film, by Ribisi: “Cecilia was the first to go.” All of that occurred in only the first minute of the film, so it’s easy to miss the details. When you slow the scene down, here are some gems you may have missed…

Shot one: Lux wearing a pink top, bordered in red lining. She is sucking on the last bit of the red-colored popsicle, then sucks up the rest, chews what’s left in her mouth, and holds the popsicle stick absentmindedly with her arm crossed over. We hear the sound of summer, cicadas, with the distant music of Air (who composed the music for the film). The sun is shining through the trees and the shadows reflect. Shot two: Distant side shot of a man in a red sweater and slacks watering his bushes in his front lawn bordered by a tree in the right of the frame.

Shot three: Distant shot behind two women walking on a sidewalk together in longer ‘70s-style dresses. At this point, we get the impression we’re in an upper middle class Midwest neighborhood in the 1970s. One of the women is walking a dog that looks like a Golden Retriever. The sun shines through the trees, with speckles of shadows on the street accompanied by the melancholy Air song becoming louder and in tune with the summer sounds. Shot four: Distant shot of two men in orange jumpsuits and hard hats hammering a notice on a large tree. One of the men has a blonde ponytail. Close up on the notice, we see “City of Gross Point Parks Department: Notice for Removal.”

Shot five: Distant shot of boy, maybe seven or eight, throwing a basketball at a hoop in a front driveway, next to his father cooking on a red grill. While we look at the boy and his father, we start to hear sirens. Shot six: Branches and leaves of a tree with the sun shining through. Shot seven: Summer sounds stop. We are now looking at a close-up of a windowsill: we see a Japanese fan, makeup brushes, lipsticks, mascara, lip gloss, a rosary hanging from a perfume bottle, stickers of butterflies, stars, moons, mirrored by a ‘70s floral curtain. During this shot, we hear only the drips of water and sirens, then the opening line: “Cecilia was the first to go.” Shot eight: Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon sister, laying in a bathtub full of blood with her eyes open and glazed, fully clothed. The sirens get louder.

I don’t know about you, but I get chills by the intimacy of the details. Her films vary in story, but no matter what the story is about—a seventeenth-century queen, spoiled teenagers in Hollywood, a middle-aged celebrity traveling in Tokyo—I know that I’m going to be enchanted by the artistry of the cinematic details that bring me deeper.

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