The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s Extraordinary Debut Feature; A Good War Film

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



The Virgin
Suicides
Directed
by Sofia Coppola

The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s extraordinary
debut feature, reminded me of a film to which it bears little outward resemblance,
Terrence Malick’s Badlands. No doubt some will find that comparison
a little strange. Malick’s masterpiece is largely identified with its subject
and story, which effectively launched a whole subgenre of similar films. As
Matt Seitz has joked, one day soon we’re sure to see the emergence of a
cable channel–BLTV–devoted to all those myriad Badlands imitators,
violent, supercool road movies about beautiful young criminals on the lam.


To extend the comparison
as far as it need go, Malick’s and Coppola’s films both concern memory,
self-consciousness and the American past. Where Badlands looks back on
the late 50s from the vantage point of the early 70s, The Virgin Suicides
(which is set very near the time Malick’s film was released) looks back
on the 70s from the late 90s. In the earlier movie, a male director adopts the
viewpoint of a female narrator who recalls a lost (male) love; in the new film,
that configuration is reversed. And gender clearly has something to do with
the fact that the male-envisioned film centers on homicide and possession, the
female on suicide and renunciation.


Scripted by Coppola from
Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides takes place in a Grosse
Pointe, MI, of the mind, a remembered world of longing and repression. The family
at its center, the Lisbons, has five flaxen-haired daughters: Lux (Kirsten Dunst),
Cecilia (Hanna Hall), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook) and Therese (Leslie
Hayman). Headed by a doofy high-school teacher (James Woods) and his uptight,
iron-willed wife (Kathleen Turner), the Lisbon household has an outward look
of complete normalcy; indeed, their home is the very archetype of a typical
two-story family house on a leafy, suburban street.


Observed from across that
street–and through the glowing scrims of memory–by the boys of the
neighborhood, the girls are all dewy complexions and reticent smiles. What their
gentle demeanors barely betray is that Mrs. Lisbon’s strictness and fear
of the outside world has made the Lisbon domicile an airtight enclosure, one
that’s becoming increasingly insufferable. Still, it seems as anomalous
as it is awful when little Cecilia is discovered in the upstairs bathtub, dead
by her own hand. After the funeral, the family goes on in kind of a hushed daze;
if the departed girl screamed, it wasn’t heard.


What could possibly happen
next? Actually, the film seems to operate in a state of suspended animation,
where "what happens" is almost incidental to the mysteries it encloses.
But if the story’s moods are described in terms of acts, what happens next
is Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the school’s square-jawed star athlete
and leading dreamboat. He could have any girl, but he sets his sights on Lux,
the nerviest and most vividly sensual of the Lisbon sorority. Of course, she
can’t date, is barely allowed to walk onto the front lawn. But he’s
more resourceful and determined than his lazy beauty might suggest, and he appeals
cleverly to the divided sympathies of Mr. Lisbon, offering to provide all of
the girls dates at a prom that he, the teacher, will be chaperoning. The one
thing the father doesn’t consider, it seems, is that one taste of romantic
freedom might be more dangerous than none at all.


Trip wears a red velvet
tuxedo; long hair and bell-bottoms are ubiquitous. Kiss and Aerosmith are on
everyone’s turntables. Yet the film doesn’t fetishize the period or
its details. Likewise it seems to care far less than most serious movies about
individuating its characters (a choice that’s perhaps its most risky and
distinctive move): apart from Lux, the girls are as interchangeable as figures
in a Greek frieze or a painted Renaissance allegory. Apart from Trip, the boys
are much the same; you forget their faces even before they leave the frame.
(Given this strategy, it was wise for Coppola to cast mostly anonymous young
unknowns in these roles.)


Remove the normal emphases
on character, plot and setting, and what’s left? Only the evanescent conjurings
that turn the best movies into rich sanctuaries of feeling and reflection, which
here both hinge on the link between cinema and adolescence. The latter is so
often betrayed by the movies, by all the fictional machinations that forget–or
deliberately ignore–how full of longing and intimations of loss every teenage
heart is. Coppola gets this exactly right, in a way that’s so unusual as
to be almost uncanny; her film bypasses all the usual formulas and cliches to
arrive at something that’s remarkably close to pure emotion and rapt reverie.


That achievement is mesmerizing
even if its precise nature is difficult to convey because it is such a matter
of delicate balances. A little too much poetic vagary in the mix and the whole
thing becomes as precious and weightless as one of those many bad French films
about adolescence. A little more conventional specificity, on the other hand,
and it sinks into case history and sociology. Clearly, Coppola isn’t interested
in passing judgment on Nixon-era America (what a yawn that liberal hobbyhorse
is). In fact, if you take the movie as a statement about "repression"
or "the patriarchy" or some such, it’s hardly worth bothering
about. Its originality comes not in what it looks at–givens, archetypes–but
in its way of looking, a quicksilver, elegiac gaze that captures the
magical and the unforgettable in the everyday. (Coppola gets sure assistance
here from the great cinematographer Ed Lachman, who so far is this year’s
champ lensman; he also shot Erin Brockovich.)


Besides being the daughter
of Francis, Sofia Coppola’s the wife of Being John Malkovich director
Spike Jonze. Given the support and resources available to her, one might easily
suspect that her debut would be a slickly mounted vanity project. And that’s
finally what’s so surprising and impressive about The Virgin Suicides:
More than just a fascinating, intelligent and very original movie, it’s
one that depends from first to last on a purely cinematic vision, a sense of
stylistic expression that can’t be bought or faked. Regarding first films,
I don’t bestow compliments any higher than invoking Terrence Malick’s
debut. The haunting Virgin Suicides is the rare film that earns that
comparison.



U-571
Directed by Jonathan
Mostow
Reviewing
William Friedkin’s Rules of Engagement here last week, I forgot
to note one thing: what Friedkin’s rancid, suck-ass war movie is really
about. Ostensibly, it’s about the military and a Marine commander (played
by Samuel L. Jackson) who’s excused for murdering his prisoners or innocent
civilians whenever he feels like it. But let’s tear that flimsy mask off.
Rules of Engagement has nothing to do with the military; it’s about
Hollywood. Its unapologetically homicidal commander is an exercise in projection
and self-exculpation on the part of lunatic, irresponsible egomaniacs like Friedkin
and the other bigshots who made Rules.



If you have any doubt of
that, be sure to see the terrific submarine movie U-571, which is about
the actual military and the world beyond the Hollywood jungle. In Rules of
Engagement
, a U.S. commander kills the helpless and excuses himself. In
U-571, the Nazis do that (it’s how you tell they’re Nazis).
Americans are the ones who retain a sense of honor, decency and clear moral
boundaries. (You remember real war movies, don’t you?)


Actually, at U-571’s
heart is a very compelling meditation on the difficulty of command. Matthew
McConaughey (who’s pretty good here) plays a submarine second-in-command
whose commander (Bill Paxton) has denied him a chance to command his own vessel
because he doesn’t think he’s ready. It’s 1942. The two men and
their crew are sent into the Atlantic to retrieve a top-secret coding device
from a disabled German sub. Paxton tells his subordinate that the real measure
of a commander is his ability to send men into the face of likely death without
flinching or hesitation. Here, leadership is just the opposite of what it is
in Friedkin’s atrocity: it’s the ability to control men by controlling
oneself, as opposed to acting criminally in the delusional hope of saving the
day.


Its thoughtful core aside,
U-571 rivals Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot as one of the most
electrifying submarine movies ever made. Brilliantly kinetic and hugely exciting
from the time it puts to sea till it fires its last torpedo, the film is something
you almost never see from the majors anymore: a straightforward, old-fashioned
genre picture done to perfection, abounding in stylistic punch and unblinking
conviction. (Hey, it can’t be an allegory of Hollywood: it’s about
guts, honor and competence.)


Credit here goes to director
Jonathan Mostow, who also wrote the screen story and coauthored the screenplay.
Mostow’s last film, the Kurt Russell road thriller Breakdown, showed
him to be an absolute ace at directing highly charged genre material. U-571
confirms that distinction in spades. No, the film doesn’t go beyond genre
(that last torpedo is a foregone conclusion). But it acquits itself so beautifully
in serving up the action and military spine you expect of a classic war movie,
that its adherence to expectation ends up being as satisfying as it is unusual.


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