“You take a look around your college campus, and the world, and politics, and one season of summer stock, and you listen to the conversation of a bunch of nitwit college students, and you decide that everything’s ego, ego, ego, and the only intelligent thing for a girl to do is to lie around and shave her head and say the Jesus prayer and beg God for little mystical experience that’ll maker her nice and happy.”
- J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
So, in continuation of my last post, let’s keep in theme with adolescent unhappiness. Here’s an analytical essay I wrote about Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. I hope you enjoy it, and PLEASE comment. Not everyone can agree with what I have to say, so tell me why. Speak to me.
Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides: The Constraints of Being a Teenage Girl
The Virgin Suicides by director Sofia Coppola is a look at five beautiful teenage girls as seen through the eyes of four teenage boys. It was adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ hauntingly disturbing novel about the mystery of teenage girls in 1970s suburbia. In essence, the film, which was Coppola’s directorial debut, is about the struggles young women face in trying to break away from the expected restrictive model of women. The film shows the male gaze, but also the boys’ struggle to understand the inner workings of these mysterious and deeply unhappy females. The Virgin Suicides struggles to separate the scopophilia surrounding the girls, and their longing for independence. It seeks to place us in the world of repressed teenage girls, all the while keeping us outside of their minds so that we can try to sort out the mystery of their struggles for ourselves. Coppola provides us with clues, but no hard facts.
I spent quite a bit of time mulling over IMDB message boards and blogs, and was taken with the impact that The Virgin Suicides has had on its audience. The film has generated quite the cult following, mostly due to its morbid themes, dream-like quality of filming, fashion, and unanswered mystery. Coppola attempts to go against traditionally formalist and dominant Hollywood cinema styles, therefore categorizing The Virgin Suicides as counter-cinema. The film opposes mainstream cinema by going in an alternative route with the characters and story-line. The plot is fairly abstract; or rather, there really isn’t a set plot. The films is about feelings, emotions, and the repression of human, or particularly adolescent girl, suffering. The Virgin Suicides distances the viewer by challenging what he or she has come to see as the norm, thanks to mainstream cinema. Usually counter-cinema is low budget and independently funded, so it may seem odd that the daughter of such a renowned director as Francis Ford Coppola (of The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now fame) would take on such a project with all her advantages, but with a self-reflexive and transcending style. Coppola does not tackle racism or homosexuality, as many other counter-cinema films do. In fact, there is not the slightest hint of either. But that itself is intriguing, and can also be seen as a comment on the “perfect” and “flawless” environment the Lisbon girls were supposedly brought in to by their parents. This plastic world is the perfect setting for Coppola’s vision of gruesome and desperate unhappiness among young women. Coppola specializes in capturing complex characters, without really explaining anything about them. She also does this exceptionally in her more recent films Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Coppola thrives with material involving sexuality, repression, resentment, and being in a state of limbo, so to speak.
Since the boys are doing the narrating in The Virgin Suicides, everything we learn about the girls is simply just the boys’ perception of them. The narrator of the film does not seem to have any particular insight, and we don’t actually get to know what the Lisbon girls are thinking or feeling. In fact, there is a consistent sense of alienation, prompting the audience to make its own assumptions about the girls and generate its own theories. This seems to be what Coppola was going for, in keeping with the idea of counter-cinema techniques within the film. The boys idealize the girls, and the females come off as angelic and mysterious. Mary G. Hurd speculates on Coppola’s attraction to Eugenides’ story in Women Directors and Their Films, and the attraction seems to be due to the sense of alienation between the audience and the story. When the girls commit suicide, the boys are “frozen in time with their adolescent perceptions of the girls” (Hurd, 132). These perceptions may or may not be accurate, making the girls forever perfect and saint-like in the boys’ minds. This can be regarded as a version of the male gaze. The boys do not want to see any imperfections, so they focus on the girls’ beauty and mystique. They never find out why the girls committed suicide, even though they were aware of their strict parents and the prison-like home they were forced to stay in. In actuality, the boys romantized everything about the girls, and therefore became victims of their own “feverish, adolescent longings” (Hurd, 132). This does not end with the disintegration of youth, as the narrator says that over the years up to adulthood the boys still go over the facts and try to make sense of the tragedy. This is an interesting reversal of power, feminism-wise, as the girls have life-long control over the boys even though they themselves are actually dead. The girls do not need the boys, but the boys convince themselves that they do. When in actuality, it is the other way around. It is misogynistic that they should think they are needed, and they want to take care of the girls and rescue them. But the girls don’t want to be rescued; they want to rescue themselves, and decide to do that through the misguided avenue of suicide.
The structure of Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides is linear. It is set in the 1970s, and sporadically jumps to the present. Coppola tries to “recreate the story on film in order to draw on the innocence and sweetness she found in the book” and to “try to visually reproduce the elegance of Eugenides’ writing” (Hurd, 131). By observing the mother’s relationship with her daughters, we can see the contrast between the young ladies’ budding modernist seventies feminist views and the mother’s old fashioned religious mentality. Interestingly, the issue of suicide is ironic in their fifties style home. The girls’ ambitions and modern beliefs are constantly rejected by their mother. The fifties were a time when women felt so repressed and trapped in their homes while their husbands were off at work, that many committed suicide. By limiting her girls’ experiences with their peers and keeping them on strict and religious schedules, the mother is bringing this type of attitude into their home. According to “Love Story, or Coppola vs. Coppola” by Bert Cardullo, the girls’ collective suicide is an “anomic act in the face of ambiguous and restrictive behavioral models for women in the 1970s.” In other words, they simply cannot move past their current situation of deep restriction, so they resort to suicide.
By researching viewers’ comments and female bloggers, like the highly successful teenage fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, one can determine whether Coppola has succeeded in causing people to consider the tumultuous lives of young women with an open mind. Gevinson’s websites for young ladies feature extensive conversations about the Lisbon girls of the film, how they could do something so selfish, and the obsessive response the young viewers all feel towards the film, further proving that Coppola has succeeded in captivating an important audience. The girls on these sites are learning from Gevinson and their peers how to be independent and artistic, avoiding repression and the confines of classic female expectations. The Virgin Suicides is more of a feeling film than a plot-driven film, so it is easy to be emotionally captivated by it. This pushes the film further into the counter-cinema frame, as it can teach a lesson, but does not make that it’s main theme or goal. In fact, the film does not have a purpose, except to make the viewer feel uncomfortable and to make he or she think.
Through transcendence, Coppola paints a very different picture of young womanhood than previously shown in other films. She doesn’t directly deal with the negative experiences of the Lisbon girls, but rather expects a level of intelligence from the audience as she leaves the subtle clues through out the film. Coppola transcends the negative construction of females in cinema by not playing on the stereotypes. Jouissance is incredibly evident within the film, as the Lisbon girls are basically commanded to enjoy as little as possibly. They are denied pleasure, and therefore seek it desperately, most notably Lux through her sexual encounters with the various boys in her life. But after a certain point, which may very well be the evening with Trip in the football field, her pleasure becomes pain. All the pleasure Lux experiences only generates more pain and intensifies the pain she already feels with her home life. Therefore, she’s enters a state of suffering, which, in essence, is what jouissance is. We know more about Lux than any of the other girls, even though we barely know anything about her at all. The viewer can only assume that the other Lisbon sisters are experiencing similar issues that probably involve the seeking of pleasure and the onset of depression. When the youngest Lisbon girl and first sister to commit suicide, Cecilia is in the hospital after her first attempt, she is approached by a doctor. “You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets,” says the doctor. “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year-old girl,” replies Cecilia. The mystery is introduced, and the viewer is left with questions as to why a young, beautiful girl could do such a thing. Another cause could be the male-dominated society of the 1970s, but that is very never made evident within the film.
When viewing The Virgin Suicides, it is important to notice the symbols, as the film is driven my symbols and feelings, these being the subtle hints that make the film so effective. The dying tree in the Lisbon front lawn could symbolize the slow “decaying” of suburbia (Hurd, 132). As the tree dies, so does the girls’ will to live. To most people, there is the idea of a golden era. We idealize the past, and Coppola uses this to create a dreamy setting. The Virgin Suicides is a very beautiful film in that it emphasizes nature and teenage beauty. The only time the film seems at all uncomfortable or ugly is when Cecilia is in the hospital. The suburbs are escapist and protective. The girls bring ugliness into the perfect world when they commit suicide. For some reason unbeknownst to the viewer, Trip leaves Lux in the school football field after they have sex, and never sees her again. As a result, “Lux surreptitiously begins to seek other outlets” (Hurd, 132). This involves secretly having numerous sexual partners on the roof of her home. She does not know that the boys that eagerly try to decode the girls’ lives are watching. This makes her seem like a spectacle and an object. But when she is alone, the boys can see the complexity on her face, and she is therefore transformed from sexual object to emotional and deeply injured human being. Ones the boys and girls connect, they comfort each other with “plaintive messages of solitary longing wafting across the airwaves” (Hurd, 131). The music is their common ground, and also allows escapism in the form of the girls being free from the binds of their overbearing parents, even if only for a short time. The Lisbon girls never quite show respect for the boys. In fact, one could say that they are rude and manipulative towards them, both at school and in their home. This is a feminine approach, hinting that the girls don’t find the need for men in their lives, but rather the need for freedom, both sexual and emotional.
To conclude, according to Cardullo, “the girls’ movement towards and within [the becoming-woman] passages are stilled, made dysfunctional, and their only lucid movements are the ones towards death.” Through her style of filming, the dreamlike music, and mysterious characters, Coppola offers a film without feminist bias or comments on the confinements of society. However, feminist themes, though they may be unintentional, seep through. The boys in the film are captivated by the Lisbon girls, and some may say they are under the girls’ power. The Virgin Suicides is open to interpretation, which I believe Coppola did on purpose in order to have her first film captivate and stimulate audiences in a way that would make them dwell on the film’s themes. Even though the film was not made to be feminist, it has some pretty strong feminist points that cannot be ignored. Lux has been hurt by Trip, the only boy she allowed herself to trust, and he hurts her. This causes her to use boys simply for her own sexual satisfaction, and to continue to use her sexuality as a tool to amuse herself and to get what she wants. In feminism, female sexuality is seen as empowering, and The Virgin Suicides is full of it. Even though the true cause of their suicides is never made clear, there is not enough evidence to suggest that they had to do with males or any kind of rejection the girls might have felt. Rather, the blame seems to fall on their upbringing, although the viewer does not even have enough evidence to be sure beyond a doubt that that it truly the case. Through out the film, the girls are constantly teaching the males lessons, but never the other way around. Still, the viewer is made to feel that being a teenage girl can be dark and conflicting with anti-feminist factors around her like a conservative upbringing, dominating and gazing males, and constraints placed specifically on females.
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I love minimalism. Here’s a piece I wrote. Please read it and let me know what you think.
In an attempt to relax after a long and tumultuous day at work, I have decided to make my way over to that old run-down theatre on James Avenue and waste the evening. My therapist keeps telling me that I’m letting the world hammer me into the ground and that if I’m not careful, I could become very ill. Her eyelashes are very long and she has a new picture of a different pet on her desk nearly every month. Last month it was a Collie Rottweiler cross and this month it’s a tiny calico kitten. Charade is showing today, and I’ve taken seven Aspirin, so my migraine is subsiding. My therapist prescribed me some medication to calm my nerves, but it makes my toes go numb, and I like to feel my toes.
The theatre is nearly completely empty, which isn’t surprising I suppose since the other theatre in town is showing a recent blockbuster. Kids like those sorts of things; they make them feel alive I think. There is a middle-aged couple behind me making out and I can hear the smacking of their lips in between Cary Grant’s suave lines. The woman four rows to the left of me is crying, even during the funny bits. I wiggle my toes and notice, as usual, the fast beating of my heart within my chest. So I breath in and out very deeply, but try not to be loud since I hate it when people breath loudly in theatres. My therapist breathes loudly and never crosses her legs. Her dresses are always too short and the breathing makes my heart beat even faster.
The boy in front of me is carving the seat upholstery with a switchblade and the weeping lady is eyeing him nervously. Audrey Hepburn screams and the lip smacking stops for a moment. The boy stops with the knife for a second, and then looks at his arm. For some reason my heart isn’t beating anymore; it just sort of stopped. It may never start up again, and I guess that’s for the best. It will certainly make work a whole lot easier. The couple is getting louder now, and the woman is crying harder. I’m out of popcorn and without the beating of my heart keeping time, things seem a little too quiet. The weeping woman isn’t eating her popcorn and I suppose I could ask her for some, but she seems too busy being sad. The couple keeps kicking my seat and I don’t think the woman has a bra on anymore. I once had sex in a theatre, but I was seventeen and the movie was so dull I don’t even remember what it was called. I don’t think I’d ever have sex during Charade; it’s not really that kind of movie. The couple is so loud that I can almost hear their heartbeats, so I don’t really mind not having one myself.
Grant and Hepburn have their final kiss and I still want more popcorn. I always look underneath my seat when I leave a theatre to make sure I never leave anything behind. I have a tendency to leave things everywhere I go, sort of like a trail; a wallet here, a hat there, and a lighter somewhere else. There’s some red lacey underwear under my seat, but nothing else. So I go to the concession for some more popcorn and ask for extra butter. The theatre is showing East of Eden next.
By Laura Sciarpelletti.