With only three feature films, Sofia Coppola has already roused supersize portions of both praise and disdain. I am firmly planted in the former camp; Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003), is the best American movie I've seen since the year 2000. It's only too easy to explain the latter camp: Americans have never been too fond of women in powerful positions, and because of her obvious connections her detractors believe that she doesn't deserve her position. To many, she's just "daddy's little girl," and is only allowed to play on the big boys' field because of his guidance and protection.
There are even rumors that Sofia's brother Roman (her second unit director) actually directed her movies, which is ludicrous given that Roman's own directorial debut, CQ (2002), is nowhere near as good as Sofia's three films (which also includes last year's misunderstood Marie Antoinette). Historically, women directors have had difficult times sustaining long careers in Hollywood. If they lose any money, they suffer the consequences, whereas men can spend and lose ten times as much without fearing for their jobs.
Even more difficult to explain and defend is that Coppola is not really a natural born storyteller like her father. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a mistake to consider cinema as merely an agent for storytelling; it has so many other possibilities. And, indeed, filmmakers like Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini, Mario Bava, Monte Hellman, Robert Bresson, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, F.W. Murnau, Hou Hsiao-hsien and many others are likewise not necessarily praised or beloved for their ability to tell a clear, concise story. That skill is not required for one to be considered a great cinema artist.
Looking again at Coppola's first feature, The Virgin Suicides (made in 1999 and released in 2000), I was struck at how carefree it is with narrative. Characters describe the events therein as a puzzle with missing pieces, and Coppola runs with that idea. She establishes the tone immediately with a series of tranquil images, people walking by or watering their lawns in a suburban neighborhood. We get a quick shot of Lux Lisbon (a dazzling Kirsten Dunst), sucking on a Popsicle at the side of the frame, briefly considering the audience before moving on, as if bored. Men in jumpsuits slap red signs on the elm trees that grow peacefully up and down the street, and this is our first indication that something doesn't feel right.
Set in 1975, the movie focuses on the five Lisbon sisters, although Lux receives the most attention (I haven't read the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, and so I can't say if this was changed for the movie). They live in a strict house run by the religious Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) and math teacher Mr. Lisbon (James Woods). Repressed and forced to stay indoors throughout most of the movie, the girls never have a chance to show us who they are; they serve more as objects of fascination for the army of boys in the film, focused and filtered through an unnamed narrator (Giovanni Ribisi).
A group of younger boys dream and obsess about the girls, and any efforts to get closer to them result in failure. At an innocuous party in the Lisbon house, the boys can't even manage to sip their punch without looking nervous. The party only lightens up with a "special needs" boy, Joe (Paul Sybersma), shows up and begins doing his "tricks." Later, the youngest Lisbon, Cecilia (Hanna Hall), succeeds in killing herself (her previous attempt at cutting her wrists failed).
The centerpiece of the film centers on Trip Fontaine (a very funny Josh Hartnett) and the homecoming dance. Trip falls madly in love with Lux, mainly because she doesn't respond to his flirting. Because Trip is tall, handsome, confident and a football star, he manages to talk the Lisbon parents into allowing him and three other football players to take the four girls (A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain along with Dunst) to the dance. Coppola takes her time with this sequence, revealing the girls' dresses and allowing Trip to emerge as a real character (aided by "interviews" with the present-day Trip, played by Michael Pare). In one great moment, one of the boys says goodnight to one of the girls, she walks to the house, and the boy sits in the car seat, takes a deep breath and exhales, partly awed, partly satisfied.
Coppola's use of music truly makes the film. She commissioned a score from the French duo Air and uses lots of music from the Canadian band Sloan, but for the most part gets some amazing mileage from a batch of tired tunes from the era. During Heart's "Magic Man," Trip removes his sunglasses exactly at the right moment, during that sparkly, tingly bit. And no one could have better used the building rhythms of Styx's "Come Sail Away" during the homecoming sequence, ending with one of the Lisbon sisters exclaiming, "I'm having the best time!" and twirling, twirling, twirling until the picture fades around her.
Indeed, Coppola is no stranger to the music world, nor to the fashion world (she was briefly a costume designer); perhaps this is where her gentle, ethereal vision comes in. Using these skills, she can effortlessly, perfectly set the tone for a film, set the space in which it will take place, and then the rhythms build from there, like plants growing in their own time. Certainly a lesser filmmaker would have made a more garish film out of this material; as it is, The Virgin Suicides is the tenderest film ever made about sex and death (check the title). It's also Coppola's most literate film, like a character in her own film, she has grown and matured to the point that she need rely less on source materials and more on her own lovely instincts. Let's hope future financiers see it the same way.