It remains Sofia Coppola's finest film—the perfect melding of sound and vision, teen passion and inexplicable tragedy, and plenty of 70s sartorial flair.
Don’t argue with me on this one: The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola's 1999 debut feature, is a masterpiece. It's a poignant portrayal of white middle class suburbia, where the cloying summer humidity is a metaphor for the claustrophobic atmosphere created by parents who are terrified of their children's potential to become adults. It's extremely uncomfortable to watch, even if you haven't read the book—also the debut by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides—and aren't aware of the imminent sun-soaked tragedy. It centers around young women unable to express themselves, imprisoned in their own ultra-feminine, frilly floral bedrooms, while their parents panic and doom themselves to more misery. Even the bathroom cupboard overflowing with tampons makes you squirm—and not just because of your own PMS cramps. When I watched it for the first time I felt miserable for several days, and also a bit like I'd been betrayed by Coppola. OK so the warning is in the name, but I had no idea how upsetting I would find the film. It made my heart ache with the palpable longing of Lux Lisbon, the teen dream who no one could get close to. Until someone did, and then he messed it up. I fell in love with the warm sepia-tinged glow of Michigan lawns in the 70s, the girls in peasant dresses and wooden-soled shoes. Even their school uniforms were enviable. Then that ending. You're left feeling the same way as the boys in the film, a persistent question mark hovering. Why did they do it? Could they have been saved? Suicide is always tragic, of course, but when someone very young takes their life, there's another layer of eerie that settles around you that's hard to shake.
But today is not a day to dwell. It's a day to celebrate the amazing style of the Lisbon sisters and their beaus, and to give Coppola major props for her kickass soundtrack. Apparently she was inspired to make the film after Thurston Moore gave her a copy of the novel, so we're already off to a good start.
The atmosphere is set from the opening scenes with the camera capturing the well appointed houses nestled on manicured lawns, the suburban, sun-dappled stillness and Air's “Clouds Up” with its weird vibrating synths, providing an unsettling and extremely cool soundtrack. Alongside some classic 70s hits, Air's score is crucial to the success of this film: The French duos compositions both undermine and enhance the picket fence perfection of this archetypal American town. Welcome! It's a really nice place to live! And, you know, die. In a recent interview with Dazed, Air's Jean-Benoit Dunckel said that when they were tracking the drums for a soundtrack he fell ill: “I honestly feel like the fever went into the music. When I had this fever, my senses were really strong and I feel like I was making better music than before. My body was all hot and everything was happening really fast.” I feel the fever, do you feel the fever? Especially when the Lisbon sisters do a glamorous slo-mo exit from their dorky dad's station wagon. The audience is as hypnotized as those boys on the opposite curb, mouths slightly agape, pupils shrunk to pinpricks in the summer sun, gazing in wonder at girls who will always hover just out of reach.
You know what I really love about this film? That the cast actually looks the ages they're supposed to be playing. Those boys? They look like real teenagers. Of course that also helps make Trip Fontaine look like a bonafide MAN when he turns up, but it works. Anyway, we'll get to Trip properly later. For now it's all about the ladies.
They're all rad, but Lux is out of control. She's like My So-Called Life’s Rayanne Graff. If you had a friend like her at school you'd love her completely, but also be a bit scared of her because of her potential. Lux acts out and rebels in the only way she knows how— by spending a lot of time with boys when she’s been expressly forbidden. Lux's theme song would have to be “Crazy On You” by Heart, which is also the song that bursts onto the speakers when she dashes from her parents house in her nightdress, leaps into Trip's car and ravages him with kisses. Heart, which featured sisters (how fitting) Ann and Nancy Wilson, are a great band. This single is famous for using both electric and acoustic guitar and also because the acoustic guitarist was a woman. Can you imagine?! Heart made mixing hard rock with folk their MO, and have sold over 35 million copies worldwide. Casual.
But anyway, look at these clothes.
At Cecilia's birthday celebrations a.k.a. a classic 70s basement teen party complete with punch, balloons, wooden paneling and plaid sofas. And parents upstairs watching the tube. The Lisbon sisters don their best dresses—Lux is wearing this white frilly one, with a single braid in her hair for ultimate boho chic. That dimple obviously also adds to her appeal. Meanwhile Bonnie has gone for a green bib-type lace-up thing—very 70s Jessica McKlintock. Mary in the background is wearing classic pale blue denim. Mary is so classy.
In general these girls wear a lot of dresses and clogs. I imagine they all share one big wardrobe and fight over who gets to wear what. They also love flares and peasant tops and general 70s babe garb.
And look at Lux in the sunset in her bikini and flower wreath. I'm sorry, but I don't understand how anyone could not find this character completely enchanting.
Cecilia, the youngest and most troubled of the Lisbon sisters, loves her white lace dress. She wears it every single day. We don't see her in anything else. Although it's a beautiful dress—quite Courtney Love and Amanda DeCadenet, but you know, more virginal—the fact she can't bring herself to find anything else to put on is a bit of a warning sign that she's losing the energy to care.
The sadness of her plastic bracelets taped to the bandages on her wrists breaks my heart.
During the party the girls are listening to Todd Rundgren's “A Dream Goes On Forever.” It's kind of ironic that at the time this film was set Todd was touring the world in the company of his wild child girlfriend Bebe Buell, who later would be the inspiration for Penny Lane in Almost Famous. I imagine Lux would have given anything to run away with a band, and see something other than her bedroom and the classroom and her sister's faces.
After the party and its tragic finale, the girls have to go back to school, which means they're wearing their uniforms and saddle shoes and they look awesome. Grief-stricken, sure, but rad.
And of course this is when we get introduced to Trip Fontaine. I love that even in his weird and very solid looking wig (a hairstyle Nikolai from The Strokes favors to this day), Josh Hartnett is still the ultimate high school heartthrob. Even that name is iconic.
His red car, his leather jacket, his choker, his hallway swagger, and his sweet, sweet Mary Jane: He's the best. And let's not forget his pool attire.
Trip's montage, where we see him charming all the ladies to get his own way, being hand-delivered brownies along with his homework by a lovelorn teenage girl, and generally exhibiting hot teen boy behavior (HTBB) is soundtracked by Heart's “Magic Man”—remember them from earlier? It has the perfect intro, the squealing guitar solo and then the sweet vocal mixing into a flourish of chime. It's a song about the spell a man casts over a young girl, and how her mother is scared she's losing her baby to this intoxicating man. Ann Wilson from Heart wrote the song about her then boyfriend (and the band’s manager) at the beginning of their relationship. You know, that time when you drive yourself crazy over this relative stranger and it's as intense and wonderful as it is fraught and terrifying. Trip is a magic man, and he can have any girl he wants. Except Lux.
Remember when he tries to talk to her at lunch and she's not at all interested and instead jokes to her sisters about how crap her sandwich is? Yeah, that. Talk about an impeccable diss.
Trip loses his shit over this girl. He sits in his dad’ skitchen and looks super forlorn next to the fruit bowl, and we hear Al Green's “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.” Looking at Trip's face, it seems pretty certain that there is no cure.
But his dad gives him some good advice, and the next day he goes in strong. He whispers in Lux's ear in a dark classroom. He utters that phrase that made hearts flutter all over the world, “You're a stone fox.”
(“She was the still point of the turning world, man,” is also a line you dream about hearing. Sigh.)
He turns up at Lux's house expecting to have a pretty romantic TV watching session with her. But instead he has to sit in the living room with the rest of the Lisbon clan, Lux's mother wedged between him and the object of his affection while Lux does nothing, except knit. Well, knit and wear the shit out of those flares and that red top.
He seems pretty down about the whole thing, until Lux fills him with encouragement after running to his car and smothering him with kisses. We talked about it earlier but it's such a great scene it bears repeating. After that Trip becomes determined to get Lux on her own, and what's the best way to get some serious one-on-one time with a teenage girl? Take her to Homecoming! Although he has to convince her Pop first, so he wears his best, Hey-I'm-really –into-your-daughter-but-I-will-be-super-respectful-and-I-am-demonstrating-that-with-this-knitted-vest-and-tie-look.
AND IT ONLY FRICKIN' WORKS.
The girls get ready for the dance, a.k.a. their mom makes them these pale floral dresses out of one huge piece of fabric. Very Von Trapp Chic.
Of course Lux accessories hers with underwear covered in Trip's name. Lux and Trip make the perfect prom couple. Her in her dress and bit of a bouffant, him in his maroon suit and large lapels.
ARGH IT BREAKS MY HEART. And I think Coppola knew that this needed to be a bittersweet moment for us, forever, because their journey to the prom is soundtracked by Sloan's 1996 hit, “Everything You've Done Wrong,” the lyrics to which are all about being there for the one you love and standing by them and looking after them. Basically everything Trip fails to do for Lux. Idiot.
Look how sweet the other boys look in their corduroy suits that are slightly too long in the arms.
Also, yes, that is Anakin Skywalker.
Lux has a dreamy, uneventful 70s prom—no pigs blood or anything. She drinks peach schnapps, makes out with the hottest boy in school while 10cc's “I'm Not In Love” plays on. She’s crowned Homecoming Queen under a shower of glitter and balloons. It's ideal; it's sheer heaven.
Talking of 10cc and that song (which has to be one of the best pop songs of all time, no?) apparently it was originally supposed to have a bossanova beat and be sorta peppy. Thank god they slowed it down and added a wall of vocals. The end result is a devastatingly beautiful account of someone who's definitely in denial about the strength of their feelings. It's the romance version of watching someone try not to cry.
What happens next to Lux is not good, but she does look pretty gorgeous waking up in that blue early morning light on the football pitch.
Trip panicked, OK? Look, here he is in his super cool sunset mural bedroom, panicking.
After the dance and Lux’s transgression, the sisters are locked away by their parents, and forced to spend their hours lying around the house, in their stuffy-sweet bedrooms. The carpeted floors and four-poster beds strewn with girl-ish debris.
Understandably, they get depressed. They don't really bother taking off their nightdresses or shorts and t-shirts. They gaze longingly out the window, or lie on the floor, or lounge in their beds.
Eventually they contact the neighborhood boys that are completely obsessed with them, using flashlights to communicate and playing them records down the phone.
The records they pick include Todd Rundgren's “Hello It's Me,” his 1972 single inspired by the brilliant pianist Laura Nyro, and more specifically an eight bar intro that Jimmy “The Incredible Jimmy Smith” Smith played on a recording of “When Jimmy Comes Marching Home.” Smith is famous for being one of the only instrumental jazz artists to ever make the Billboard charts. It makes sense, then, that this song is aaaaall about the piano. It's a damn catchy melody. They also play each other Carole King's “So Far Away,” another sweet ass guitar track. This song is definitely about Lux and Trip. I mean, it's definitely not because it was released in 1971 and also they're fictional characters. BUT STILL. THE FEELS ARE REALS. Also, playing songs over the phone is a very hardcore way to make someone a mixtape. “I'm gonna sit there while you listen to this, K?”
Then the Lisbon sisters send the guys a note, written on a postcard, misspelled, decorated with sparkly stickers, asking for help. They imagine they're going to help the girls escape, and travel with them to amazing places all around the world, wearing Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses.
But of course that doesn't happen.
The film ends as it starts, with suburban normalcy. A coming out party for débutantes. Girls wearing white dresses and lacy gloves, but there's a theme of asphyxiation (um, bit soon?), so everything is tinted green and guests are asked to wear gas masks.
The boys go, wearing their tuxedos, but it's not the same. The Lisbon sisters will never be debutntes, but instead they skip through the boys memories, still, 20 years later, their figures growing increasingly less distinct with each passing year. And then there's Air's final track for the soundtrack, “Empty House,” with it’s distant whistling, and sad synths, is creepy and miserable. And then the credits roll on “Playground Love,” which uses saxophone in the best way a saxophone has been used since Bruce Springsteen—it’s is slow, sultry and tinged with tragedy.
In that same interview with Dazed about writing the soundtrack, Nicholas Godin said he thought the film was about how difficult it is to be that age and to feel unloved, “I really hated being a teenager. It was a pretty horrible time, and although I had good friends, I am so happy to be out of that time. As a boy, you can’t date any girls that you’re in love with in your class because they always go for older men and fall in love with someone who is three or four years older than you. I definitely brought that to the film score, this idea of not being loved enough.”
The visuals, the soundtrack, the story all combine to evocativey portray that feeling of loneliness and longing experienced by all teenagers. Not to mention how you can look OK on the outside, but be a big old mess in your head. But, hey, let's not leave it on a sad note. Here's another photo of Kristen Dunst as Lux to cheer you up.