Dir. Sofia Coppola
By Callum Hughes
Do you know how many women have been nominated for best director at the Oscars? 4. How many have won? 1. Some of the great women who have never even been nominated include Miranda July, Mary Harron, Lynne Ramsay and Lisa Cholodenko. Despite all being responsible for excellent, critically acclaimed films, the simple fact that they’re women seems to have gained their films a reputation for being too left field for recognition by the old white men who make the decisions of the academy.
Generally unless the category is dedicated exclusively to women men tend to dominate; this is also the case in writing, only three women have ever won individually, Jane Campion in 1993, Sofia Coppola ten years later and Diablo Cody in 2007.
It might seem like a trivial thing to consider, the Oscars don’t mean much anyway. But it represents the way the Hollywood establishment feels about women; they don’t fit in.
And if anyone was going to fit in you’d think it would be Sofia Coppola. Her father directed The Godfather; her cousins are actors Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, she comes from one of the most prestigious families in filmmaking history but being a woman, this has appeared to be more of a curse than a blessing. She is inevitably her father’s daughter in articles and reviews, unfairly compared despite being a very different filmmaker and criticised for being given opportunities not awarded to other young filmmakers.
Such a criticism might be fair if she wasn’t brilliant, but to me she stands alongside Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson as the most consistent and innovative director of her time.
Her films have sometimes been disregarded as ‘poor little rich girl’ stories. That’s a pretty sexist statement in itself, nobody seems to criticise Batman as the ‘poor little rich boy’, but find a woman unhappy in her environment and outcome the slew of complaints.
The Virgin Suicides is her first film as director; it’s based on Jeffrey Eugenides excellent debut novel. But for me where the novel studied the reaction of the boys, how they obsessed over stories and details, instead Coppola’s film focuses more on the Lisbon sisters and what drives them to tragedy. They are manipulated and controlled by their parents, by the dream boy Trip Fontaine and by how the world sees them. They are disregarded as ‘dreamers’ and ‘out of touch with reality’ for no other reason than their wish to escape. The more they struggle to get out the more they are confined and trapped in.
If there’s one thing Coppola can do it’s isolation; all her films have a sense of that, of dislocation, but it’s rarely more claustrophobic than it is here. There are very few exterior shots and most of those are of the girl’s front garden. Any others are dreamlike or dark and dangerous. The house meanwhile is obsessively clean and soulless, the girls often seem boxed in together, and they’re slow, cold and robotic in front of their parents.
This gives the clearest indication of what The Virgin Suicides is saying; that the girls’ situation is not about protection, it is about control. The girls are meant to fit a certain image, to play certain roles but they want to be something different. They are punished for any misbehaviour; sex, pop music, any kind of individual expression. There’s no escape, however hard they try they will be trapped by the world around them.
It could be unrelentingly depressing but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Coppola’s film is how funny and occasionally life affirming it is. Those little freedoms are seen as the most beautiful thing in the world, there’s optimism in making the normal seem remarkable. Even if the ending is profoundly sad, it offers a strange sense of release and resolution.
The film offers a strongly feminist message about the way that the image of women as passive and submissive controls and destroys the lives of young girls. It also offers a metaphor for women in Hollywood, as iffy as it may sound for Coppola to compare herself to the girls in the film (which she never expressly has, I’m doing that for her), there’s a sense of similarity between women in Hollywood and the Lisbon sisters. They are made to fill certain roles, to tick certain boxes, to go along quietly with being romantic foils to leading men or muses to great filmmakers and having no voice or expression of their own.
The Virgin Suicides shows it’s not easy being a woman in Hollywood, it shows the world is against you, you’ll always be at worse nothing but an image, at best a quirky left field choice. But it also shows you can ignore the critics, ignore those trying to bring you down to how they see the world and create something extraordinary and beautiful on your own terms. Hollywood belongs to great filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, even if half of Hollywood doesn’t see it.
Callum is a screenwriter and essayist who studied film at the University of East Anglia. He is the editor of the Feminist Film Blog.