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