Appreciating Sofia Coppola & The Lasting Effect of The Virgin Suicides

Despite having the name Coppola, which some would consider to be a shoo-in within the film business, Sofia Coppola has made an imprint all on her own. As a prolific female writer and filmmaker, she’s brought intellectually stimulating, beautiful stories to life.

There’s a style that makes her approach to filmmaking wholly her own. Her minimalist concepts and attention to the soft beauty of the characters, (often women) that are front and center in her films, creates a more intimate endeavor. She’s frequently using her formal training as a photographer with long vantages, framing, and an appreciation for light in each shot. Sofia has also made efficient work of sound, often concentrating on music and ambient sounds over extended dialogue. Many of her characters are portraying emotions through their body language, and the camera captures this.

“Primarily, she masters a feminine touch, something often lacking in some films. Sofia embodies the female experience so well, bringing viewers this with a contemporary eye.”

While the majority of her writing/directing projects have a woman at the center, there are some with men as well. Primarily, she masters a feminine touch, something often lacking in some films. Sofia embodies the female experience so well, bringing viewers this with a contemporary eye. A lot of her stories address issues with modern society and the negative POV’s often represented in films.

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On the set of “The Virgin Suicides”

Her use of colors or the lack thereof often makes for visually stunning pieces of work that capture a certain mood you can’t deny. A lot of her narratives also focus on loneliness and isolation. None more so than her first feature film: “The Virgin Suicides” (1999).

“The Virgin Suicides”

When I was a teenager, I first saw “The Virgin Suicides” and instantly fell in love. Much like the boys narrating the story, watching these girls through their windows and at school as if they’re mystical creatures, I was entranced. This somber dream-like tale has you riding on pastels and pain, but it is remarkably efficient in its power. This is a film that doesn’t have a happy ending, and if the title isn’t enough- you’re reminded in the opening remarks. There’s a tenuous feeling of dismay and dread that follows throughout the film even when we start with a group of sisters who are full of life and joy. There’s a consistent sensation of the ambiguity of adolescence, of longing, and of feeling trapped.

After Cecelia takes her life on her birthday, and under the strict eyes of their parents, the remaining teenage Lisbon’s sisters have trouble flourishing, fully developing. This is a significant time in a girl’s life, and everything about their life is stilted. The daughters are forced into obedient behavior, their restrictions making them desperate to be free. Their seclusion makes them resort to teenage fantasies, proving by the film’s end, to be irrevocably damaging.

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“We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.”

“The Virgin Suicides” continues to be a disarmingly compelling, whimsy story about the tragedies of youth. This one gets under your skin and doesn’t fade.”

What’s interesting about the film is the male perspective too. These boys are confused, their view of these repressed girls is really about their own starving need to understand. The ending is horrific, dark and harrowing, and they wish to comprehend why. Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Virgin Suicides” it’s narrated, shot almost like a documentary, but there is an underlying and affecting blend of repression and despair in a beautifully shot and resonating film. The dedicated performances by a stellar cast (including Kirsten Dunst, James Woods and Kathleen Turner) make it hard not to feel this deeply emotive film.

Even as I view it now, it is profoundly personal. As someone who has dealt with mental illness, there’s a certain level of understanding for me that I carry in my bones, even in its most ethereal moments.  It leaves me feeling empty and full at the same time, contradicting the very nature of its existence. I feel young and impetuous and yet soothed and reassured. It also reminds me how certain movies at various times in our life truly leave an imprint. It is an intricate and heartbreaking look at loss and love. When I hear Playground Love by Air, one of many terrific soundtrack choices, I get goosebumps. “The Virgin Suicides” continues to be a disarmingly compelling, whimsy story about the tragedies of youth. This one gets under your skin and doesn’t fade.

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“I just feel so alone, even when I’m surrounded by other people”

 “Lost in Translation” (2003)

“Lost in Translation” may be her most respected film, and it makes sense. She was awarded the Academy Award for screenplay, and the movie has a terrific duo at its center. (Bill Murray) and (Scarlett Johansson) meet unexpectedly in a Tokyo hotel. They are each strangers in a new land, lost amid the change in culture and language. He’s an aging, fading actor there to shoot alcohol commercials, while she’s there for her photographer husband. They each feel out of place, and their individual seclusions urns into a series of events together that are as funny as they are touching. “Lost in Translation” exudes Sofia’s common themes of isolation and despair, but it also captures connections and the lovely moments of quiet that can occur between two people. Sofia Coppola’s second movie is warm, inviting, and ultimately quite exquisite.

“Marie Antoinette” (2006)

Some audiences disliked “Marie Antoinette”, but as Sofia collaborated with Kirsten Dunst again, she made a biopic that wasn’t really one. At least not in the traditional sense. With each new piece of work, Coppola was expanding her territory and interests, and each time viewers gained something different. It’s another tale about a teenage girl, this one is given power and decadence. The movie is truly an experience in lavish extremes as we watch this girl out of her depths. Obviously, the tale of Marie Antoinette is handled liberally, it’s sexualized and over the top, but it is also funny and engaging. Sofia makes the choice to take this historical figure and make her relevant, trying to soften her and modernize through up to date musical choices and beautiful costume design. It’s excess, but it’s a colorful candy-filled tragedy.

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“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”

“Somewhere” (2010)

Johnny (Stephen Dorff) is a lonely actor, moving through his life in somewhat of a haze. Again, Sofia uses minimalism to portray the emptiness that Johnny’s feeling. She also uses excellent framing and color when he spends time with his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) to show the differences in his experiences. Those with his daughter shine and the liveliness is felt, as well as seen. While the story isn’t anything groundbreaking, the variations depending on the mood make for a quiet, thoughtful picture full of terrific compositional choices.

“The Bling Ring” (2013)

Occasionally, Sofia likes to ride the materialistic embroidery of the times. “The Bling Ring” is a perfect example of this. She doesn’t try to create something particularly new, but instead, captures the real-life story in a way that’s satirical, giving viewers a show of the fame hungry teenagers that it’s based on. These kids burglarized homes, taking clothing, cash, jewelry, and whatever they could find from celebrities. There’s a lot of handheld work, giving us a visual style much like selfies, a seemingly important aspect of modern technology. This is also filmed digitally, a new step for Sofia, and there’s a cool- glamorous sort of façade to the movie as you know what these teenagers are chasing is going to come to a bitter end.

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On the set of “The Beguiled”

 

“The Beguiled” (2017)

A remake of a 1970’s film, this was a different sort of film for Sofia, but it had her usual touches none the less. When a wounded union soldier shows up at a girl’s boarding house they take him in. In a lot of ways, it’s a study on the dynamics of a group of women, especially when a new factor is introduced I.E: a man, especially one who is the “enemy.” With stars like Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and returning favorites like Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, there’s an excess of talent in front of the camera. It is an exploration of the sexes, of sex itself, all with a subtle sort of horror intertwined. There are moments throughout the film that feel as if it is holding its breath, waiting to proceed. Suspense, morality, lust… it’s a beguiling feature, indeed.

Sofia Coppola, despite not having a large filmography of features, is one of the most notable writers and directors working. She’s subtle, nuanced, patient, and portrays emotional characters through a variety of resources and aesthetics. In 2020 she has a new film coming out “On the Rocks” and in the meantime, In Their Own League recommends catching up on her previous works.

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