Sofia Coppola’s oeuvre dramatizes the emotional reality of adolescence without the condescension that comes from age.
Before she could escape her teens, The Godfather III made Sofia Coppola shorthand for Hollywood nepotism. Since then, her output from on the other, perhaps safer, side of the camera has seemed to steer hard into that skid. Diving headlong into the daydreams of rich dilettantes, movies like Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were themselves called unserious. Critics accused them of picking easy marks (celebrity vacuity, Tinseltown ennui) with an aim skewed by privilege.
Any assessment of a given Coppola film devolves into a referendum on her insider status, and whether she comes by her indie elite disaffection honestly. In critic Nathan Heller’s grand unifying theory of Coppola’s filmography, he posits that her central narrative pits independent feminine creativity against the masculine Hollywood machine. Combined with her biography, this oppositional stance has made her the perfect lightening rod for the American preoccupation with authenticity. It’s the old argument, refurbished: father Francis executive-produced all five of her features; pedigree defangs her bite at the hand that feeds. Though Coppola abandoned acting decades ago, that image of her seems etched onto the public’s retinas—44, yet forever the beloved only daughter, the indulged adolescent.
Yet that portrait of the artist can’t incorporate Coppola’s freshman effort, and her tenderest: The Virgin Suicides (1999). Adapted from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel first serialized in The Paris Review, it evinces no interest in the biz, and men hardly figure in at all. The film follows the demise of the five Lisbon sisters, raised in a stifling Catholic household in the 1970s Midwest. Starting with the defenestration of 13-year-old Cecilia, the sisters all kill themselves before the school year’s out. The story is recounted by the neighborhood boys who, watching from afar, nurse an obsession with the girls that long outlives them.
Layering the flat male narration with peach-hued cinematography, Coppola gives her film a collage-like texture, its story pieced together from detritus: a diary fished out of the pipes by a plumber’s assistant; the magazine cut-outs pasted on the teenagers’ bedroom walls; snippets from neighbors’ tinny phone calls and blaring news reports. From scene to scene, the camera’s gaze shifts modes from soft-eyed reverie to surveillance. With this impressionistic approach, The Virgin Suicides sounds out the dimensions of intersubjective experience. Allowing her film’s plural perspectives to freely interrupt each other, the director leaves meaning unfixed, blurring differences between collaboration and victimhood. Some would say that no director who debuts at Cannes gets to cast herself as misunderstood youth, but to dismiss it on that basis is to elide the complexity of its sympathies.
The boys attempt to make meaning from a chain of incidents: the withering of the local elms; basement parties; clandestine dates. Paging through Cecilia’s diary, they skip the entries that complain about frozen pizza and dental appointments, to home in on a lone couplet about elms. “Basically, what we have here is a dreamer. Someone completely out of touch with reality,” they declare. “When she jumped, she probably thought she would fly.” Describing her as an aspiring artist, the TV anchor picks up the Plath thread.
Yet the film also countervails this archetype with the girls’ own responses to events. Lux may be heartbroken about Trip’s eventual abandonment, but she really cries over her Kiss album. At the prospect of being allowed to go on a group date to homecoming, Therese acidly observes, “They’re probably going to raffle us off.” With this moodiness—their free exercise of the full range of silly, sullen, and sarcastic teen behavior—the Lisbons both play into and resist expectations. They make for unruly inhabitants of others’ narratives. Ultimately, the sisters manipulate their watchers’ desire to know them, turning that wish for co-conspiracy to their advantage: They lure the boys to the house, making them accessories to their final, dramatic act.
It’s lost on no one just how beautiful this movie makes its corpses look: As the sisters had once taped bead bracelets over the youngest’s wrist bandages, Coppola shows the girls as they would’ve wanted to appear—nothing gruesome, just elegantly dangling limbs. The movie finds romance in unknowability, its reticence allied to the primacy of the teenage girl’s internal experience. When, after Cecilia’s first suicide attempt, a well-meaning doctor asks, “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets,” her self-serious answer seems like a joke at her expense: “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” Only at the end do we understand this one-liner as a brush-off.
Coppola doesn’t make teen feelings into allegory for auteur integrity. She’s interested in them for their own sake, and their own aesthetic terms: their bigness, their haze, how they’re communicated like a fever. Whose imagination we live in, the doomed Lisbon girls or the neighborhood boys who outlived them, the ghosts or the haunted, is forever in flux. The narration is obviously the boys’; the bubbly white lettering of the title credits belongs to the girls. Ditto the unicorn. But who conjured the sight of Lux superimposed on a blue sky, flowers in her hair? Who stares at Trip Fontaine’s hair swishing in slo-mo? Who chooses Electric Light Orchestra as a make-out soundtrack? Collective memory defies easy judgments about custody. The Virgin Suicides doesn’t angst about who owns the story. Flitting between points of view, it leaves those boundaries porous.
For Coppola, generative ambiguity and the insurgent energy of teen feeling disarms judgments of authenticity. Her film exposes the authenticity question as a dead end, irrelevant to determining what should be considered significant or impactful. The Virgin Suicides includes a news segment about a girl who, in a fit of pique, had baked a rat poison pie which her grandmother had unwittingly eaten. Though this bit is played for laughs, it also presents an irresolvable standoff over what should be taken seriously. Adult condescension and cynicism can’t neutralize the threats made by teen hyperbole; teen emotionality grows more determined to prove its gravitas. One scene after Lux warns her mother, “We’re suffocating. I can’t breathe in here,” she fills the closed garage with carbon monoxide. The tempest breaks out of the teacup.
The rise of the young-adult blockbuster shows that Hollywood still gets a lot of mileage out of the authenticity obsession. The post-apocalyptic adventure and the high-school weepie are predicated on the integrity of their protagonists’ emotional state. Continually relitigating the conflict between authentic teen experience and oppressive adult priorities, they ratchet up the stakes. In the young-adult dystopias—the system depends on suppressing a teen’s right to complexity. Of course the personal is political; the characters fight for sovereignty over their inner states. Divergent’s regime is toppled by rebels too multitalented to be pinned down by a personality test. For The Hunger Games’s Katniss, private angst has terrifyingly broad public consequences; first her survival, and then society itself, depends on her ability to emote.
Meanwhile, melodramas like The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now garner praise for being appealingly small and reassuringly real; they’re billed as counterprogramming to these action epics. But for all their claims to life-size, raw naturalism, they too play slippery games with scale. That they draw from the same stable of tawny-haired, round-faced Everyteen actors as their sci-fi counterparts is a tip-off: Here too, the movies trade on vexed identification, the feelings of individuals made purposefully nonspecific and gauzily universal. The last thing they lack is grandiosity.
The TV anchor in The Virgin Suicides warned that young people lack a proportionate relation between their interior life and the outer world. Enthralled by their own turmoil, they take drastic actions “whose reality the adolescent cannot separate from its intended drama.” Her round-eyed disapproval seems quaint now, when teen franchises bank on the mass appeal of that outlook, in which feeling is first and that drama is the realest thing around.
Now that every blockbuster (regardless of body count) cramps itself to fit a maximally profitable PG-13 worldview, it’s funny to remember that Coppola’s first young-adult movie was rated R, no children admitted without parent, for what the MPAA called “strong thematic elements involving teens.” Her next teen flick, The Bling Ring (2013), had more concrete transgressions: drugs, alcohol, sexual references. Rather than capitalize on a book’s built-in fan base, it’s inspired by an article about a gang of L.A. high-schoolers who committed a rash of burglaries in the Hollywood Hills. When the story originally ran in Vanity Fair, it played into the magazine’s ethos of conscientious consumption of celebrity. The film version rolls its eyes at such up-market pretensions. Rejecting the patina of prestige, her movie is pure trash talk.
Over a decade after The Virgin Suicides, teen spirit has become a vacuum. Marc, the new kid at school, conspires with the rebellious Rebecca to break into the homes of tabloid socialites, Equipped with nothing but gossip blogs, Google Maps, and their own brazenness, they make off with cash, cocaine, and custom designer goods. These exploits prove the perfect entrée to the Calabasas in-crowd, a trio of would-be It girls who see breaking and entering as instant access to a celebrity aesthetic. Few of these characters have much in the way of an interior life; none of them see the point. They aspire to have lifestyle brands, not lives.
In another director’s hands, this could be a staid, technophobic take on kids these days who would rather take selfies than have a self. But Coppola matches this apparent emptiness with a gaze that is equally, bleakly flat. When Marc and Rebecca case a glass-walled residence, the camera retreats to watch their path from afar, in a single, steady take. Though other spaces were shot like plush jewel boxes, doors promising more riches further in, in this moment the mansion has all the depth of a fish tank.
Structured by rinse cycle rhythms of break-ins and parties, the film moves numbly through each scene. Everything reduces down. Experiences become their images. Actresses become a litany of first names: Lindsay, Paris, Audrina. Even the clothes are known only by labels. Despite its visions of infinite closets, the movie ultimately presents only a stream of glossy, poreless surfaces as it follows the gang on heist after heist: an endless series of screens, snapshots, and camera flashes. Where The Virgin Suicides traced teen fantasy’s potentially lethal edges, in The Bling Ring, a gun in hand is just one more accessory, a prop to pose with. It doesn’t go off until several scenes later, and even then the shot is accidental, harmless, devoid of real intent.
Coppola assembled her first film to be like a collage, one whose rich, shifting layers resisted being circumscribed by a single narrative. For The Bling Ring, she takes a different approach, presenting a monotony so blank it becomes opaque, a wall. The movie starves its characters of story. They become impervious to interpretation.
While everyone else optioned novels about noble, sanitized suffering—stories that burden the work of human feeling with insupportable weight—Coppola made a movie whose most introspective scene is of a boy and his webcam. As if he can’t even bop around in his room without a lens present, Marc puts on music and dances alone in front of his laptop. His expression shifts from self-conscious to coy to vacant. The scene riffs on Warhol’s Screen Tests, where subjects were made to sit still and face the camera squarely, producing portraits of discomposure—people negotiating with their image, straining for self-possession. In Marc’s shimmy back and forth, Coppola offers and withdraws the possibility of piercing through performance. She short-circuits attempted access to any hidden, authentic self.
Before bidding farewell to the Lisbon legend, The Virgin Suicides throws one last party scene after their deaths. Arranged in the parlor around the debutante, the unmasked adults make back-slapping, jovial toasts, their voices echoing tinnily. In the yard, a man puts down his cocktail with a quiet, “I’ve had it. Goodbye, cruel world,” before tipping backward into the pool. Even as he grabs the hand of the guests who reach to help him out, he slurs, “No, no, no, you don’t understand me! I’m a teenager. I got problems!”
In the novel, Eugenides writes this line as cavalier condescension. Coppola doesn’t editorialize. Steadily, her camera shows it as it is: a desire, never outgrown, for youthful swooning free-fall, ending up in the chlorinated shallow end. She never mismeasures the depths. Without holding her breath, she plunges down and presses her palms flush against the laminate bottom.