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Controversy, Fashion and the Power of Girlhood in Cinema: Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’

by Amy Walter

In the year 1999 Sofia Coppola’s debut film, ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ was released. 

Over time, the movie has become a cult classic amongst teenage girls due to its captivating aesthetics, 70s fashion and representation of adolescence. 

Cementing Coppola as a “director to watch”, the feature-length recorded the chronicles of the Lisbon girls' battle against the ‘male-gaze.’

Photo: © Paramount Classics / Courtesy Everett Collection

Though shot through the eyes of the ‘male-gaze’, subtle additions of messy rooms, prairie dresses and lipstick stains pay homage to the commonly ignored world of girlhood, a theme now deeply associated with Coppola.

Before this, Sofia Coppola was no stranger to the world of fashion and film up to this point. 

Previously having roles in films like ‘The Godfather,’ she soon went on to discover her own persona. This was first explored in her 1994 clothing brand Milkfed, which leaned into her own aesthetic of chic baby tees and effortless graphics. 

Though the brand was exclusively sold in Japan, Coppola was slowly becoming a stylized icon within 90s America and wanted to translate this to the screen. However, the landscape of early 90s cinema rarely had female stories centre stage and even less of a chance was that of a female director on set; but by the mid-90s, things were beginning to change. With success of female directed movies like 1995’s ‘Clueless’ and ‘The Parent Trap’ in 1998, producers were beginning to acknowledge the potential of female-led stories, and so came Coppola’s debut ‘The Virgin Suicides.’

Coppola’s first film delved deeper into more divisive themes when it came to “teenage-girl movies” like suicide and classism. Arguably paving the way for fellow creatives like photographer Petra Collins and director Greta Gerwig, who both followed suit in shedding light on female stories in a similarly aestheticized way.

The plot of Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’ remained closely routed in the original novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

Set in 1970s Suburban America, we are introduced to the five Lisbon sisters (Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia) as they grapple with adolescence. The film is narrated throughout by the neighbourhood boys who remain infatuated by the sisters twenty-five years on. We follow along as the family deals with the chain of events after the suicide attempt of the youngest sister, Cecilia. 

As the girls become increasingly isolated, under the notion of their restrictive parents, the mystery within their community only grows, particularly with the teenage boys. The last weeks of their lives show ones of desperation, till after one final meeting with the boys the Lisbon sisters collectively end their lives. The rest of the movie shows how the neighbouring community quickly moves on with their lives, whilst the boys remain haunted by the unsolved mystery they arguably created.

On the surface ‘The Virgin Suicides’ could be deemed a love story between Lux Lisbon and Trip Fontaine, shown to be the two key characters in the adaption. 

Lux stands out as an individual even against her sisters, she challenges the restrictions placed upon her and is far more sexually liberated. To Trip, she’s an unattainable “stone fox,” baffled by the idea a girl wouldn’t be interested in him. Like the other sisters, Lux is put upon a pedestal. 

This is reflected in Coppola’s saturated cut scenes of Lux beckoning the boys flirtatiously or winking, the scenes then are overlaid with clouds or passing streets, this dream-like imagery shows how romanticised Lux had become in the eyes of the neighbourhood boys. She was a mythical creature to them, but she didn’t have to be, the boys only wanting something to project their fantasies onto from afar.

The character of Trip Fontaine completely embodies the heartthrob archetype in cinema. The audience is introduced to him as he walks down the school halls to the song ‘Magic Man’ by the band Heart. 

Trip’s introduction of flirting with the receptionist and having girls turn up at his door is the opposite of Lux ignoring him on the school stairs. Trip begins to see her less as every other girl but something he now must win to prove himself as the ultimate ‘stud.’ 

The narration describes how “all the girls at [their] school were in love with Trip, all the girls except for Lux” to him, she’s special. But after they have sex, Trip leaves Lux alone in an empty field, arguing in his narration that something “changed” and he “didn’t care how she got home.” 

This facade he created of Lux quickly crumbling as he no longer deems her this pure and unattainable thing. 

Although in his retrospective narration Trip claims to have “loved” her, we can argue he nearly truly loved Lux just the idea of her. He remains haunted by the idea of Lux twenty-five years later yet fails to acknowledge how his actions may have negatively affected her.

Sofia Coppola has been renowned for her use of aesthetics and the ‘The Virgin Suicides’ identified her as this visual storyteller. The audience are welcomed to a picturesque town, the streets lined with trees, picket fences and grass lawns as ‘Playground Love’ by Air begins to play. Inside the Lisbon house, the sister’s rooms are filled with posters on floral wallpaper, perfectly cluttered drawers, lit candles, and a pink bra draped over a crucifix. 

Images destined to fill the Tumblr boards of a ‘sad girl’ tag or feature in the TikTok audio, “When a girl’s room is messy, its Sofia Coppola…” These seemingly contrasting things, like the rock posters covering dainty wallpaper, show the Lisbon sister’s internal fight of forced tradition versus their newfound adolescence and want for freedom.

Within the visual world of Coppola’s movies, fashion is always a focal point and ‘The Virgin Suicides’ is no exception. Working with costume designer Nancy Steiner, Coppola created an authentic, thrifted feel without parodying the era, using the clothes to hide the secrets of the Lisbon girls. 

After praying at dinner, Mrs Lisbon immediately tells Lux to cover up whilst wearing a dainty tank top, whilst the camera pans to her toes caressing their male guest under the table. The scene emphasises the two extremes of how the world viewed the Lisbon sisters, which remains a prevalent conversation in how girls are portrayed in media today, they can either be virgins or whores. Fabric hiding pudding sexuality rather than preventing it. 

Mrs Lisbon adds “two inches to the waist and hem” of the girls’ prom dresses, yet when Trip pins Lux’s corsage the movie reveals she has written “Trip” on the side of all her underwear, with the “I” dotted with a heart. Highlighting that though the world deems these girls as innocent, their clothing is a silent rebellion.

This hidden rebellion is continued through Coppola’s stylistic choices. Though the 90s were in a digital revolution, Coppola still opted to shoot the movie in 35mm film. Many filmmakers do this due to the film's natural ability to add grain, unique colouring, and vulnerability to a scene. 

The movie utilises the use of film through techniques like lens flares which force the film to feel more natural and intimate with the viewer. As well as wide shots, like Lux alone on the football field, highlighting a lack of control from the sisters, as if their destiny has already been decided for them. Before the prom, their father takes a photo of them in their matching prairie dresses, whilst waiting for the photo to be taken the girls awkwardly move their hands and elbows into positions unknowingly foreshadowing each of their deaths. Lux looks like she’s holding a cigarette, the same way she is found by the police, whilst Therese’s eyes are closed as she is the one who takes the sleeping pills. This demonstrating Coppola’s clear understanding of visual storytelling.

‘The Virgin Suicides’ received mostly positive reviews from film critics, praising her for the score of the movie, the cinematography, and the portrayal of such a sensitive story. However, some did criticise the intensity of the source material. 

The original author, Jeffrey Eugenides, received the same controversy with the book's initial release in 1993. Some were concerned that the book may romanticise suicide to the point it would encourage it. 

Eugenides argued in an Entertainment article that he “certainly never worried that [his] book would drive people to suicide, and [he’s] happy to say that hasn’t been the case in 25 years.” 

The author was also criticised for thinking he “’knew’ what it was like to be a teenage girl” yet Coppola takes this very issue and highlights why it works. 

Both the novel and the adaptation depict this disconnect curated by a misunderstanding between what men think women experience versus the reality.

Coppola spoke on why she thinks the film has struck a chord with modern audiences, saying “I think it’s the aesthetic of the film that speaks to them…and then, I think the film portrays a certain type of girlhood that is universal” and the movies rise on TikTok clearly highlights this to be true. 

The want to be a teen girl forever has been a rising desire amongst young women. Looking at ‘The Virgin Suicides’ as a beautifully tragic portrayal of adolescence that you never want to escape, being able to daydream with your head in the clouds and dance to 70s music. 

But underneath the film grain and sparkles, ‘The Virgin Suicides’ remains prevalent today as a story of the disconnect between boys and girls in modern society, and how these differences begin to show in adolescence. In the age of modern media and pornography the sexualisation of teen girls has only increased under the eyes of the ‘male-gaze,’ boys today watching girls from afar in a parasocial way reminiscent of the neighbourhood boys, making the film more relevant than ever.

Coppola has become increasingly popular since the initial release of her first film, credited for allowing a window to feminine adolescence through a sympathetic lens like never before, ‘The Virgin Suicides’ being only an insight into what was to come.

Edited by Emily Duff

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