Thursday, February 14, 2008

the virgin suicides, by sofia coppola

I'm fighting illness this week, so forgive me if the logic of this piece overheats or goes off the rails.

The opening title of The Virgin Suicides (1999) makes it more-or-less plain that it's going to be concerned with what we might broadly call "girl culture":

Representing the title of the film as a series of doodles that evoke a "girlish" school notebook evokes one of the major poles of adolescent girl culture, namely, its tendency towards secrecy, towards a kind of private involution and elaboration. The film orients around this pole again and again; it is endlessly riddled with codes, secret messages, notes, diaries, and cryptic signs of all sorts:

The other pole of "girl culture," of course (and herein lies one tie to last week's pick, Picnic at Hanging Rock), is beauty. Preternatural, Venusian beauty, nicely embodied here in the figure of Kirsten Dunst, aka "Lux":

Taken together, this combination—beauty plus privacy / secrecy—adds up to something that can perhaps best be described with the single word "mystique." The main people fascinated with this mystique, of course, are boys:

—and the movie, in essence, represents the efforts of boys (and, to a lesser degree, men) to observe, decode, or otherwise, er, penetrate this mystique.

The temptation here is to read this as autobiographical: it's nearly impossible (for me at least) not to read the film as Jeffrey Eugenides—the author of the novel on which the film is based—reflecting on his own youth, and his fascination with this mystique. The story is pretty clearly framed as an outsiders-looking-in tale—it's narrated by the boys, and an argument could be made that the story, as such, is more about the boys than it is about the girls. This gets considerably more interesting when you consider the fact that it's a female director (Sofia Coppola) who has chosen to adapt the book: if we stick with the idea that girls / women are on the "inside" of "girl culture" and that boys / men are on the "outside," then Virgin Suicides, interestingly, becomes an "insider's" take on an "outsider's" story.

Coppola seems generally pretty sympathetic to the boys, which can lead to some curious conclusions if you think about it too hard: sometimes I think (admittedly cynically) that Virgin Suicides (the book) is a calculated piece of flattery, a premise leads to the rather nasty conclusion that Coppola's movie serves, perhaps inadvertantly, to amplify the praise of someone who is essentially her own sycophant.

Another interesting effect of Coppola's sympathies here is that Suicides ends up performing a rather spectacular inversion of the critique implied by Laura Mulvey's concept of the "male gaze": in Suicides we are presented with a world where "gazing" is not reprehensible / critiquable but is in fact the most admirable thing a man can do in relationship to women. Being observed, then, is one of the things, if not the thing, that a woman can most aspire to, at least in the universe where that inversion is functioning. (Compare this against Lost in Translation (2003), Coppola's follow-up, which is also very much about a beautiful woman struggling with the issue of being unseen.)

But is that it, exactly? Ultimately, decoding the film's stance on the value of being viewed, depends around how one reads the suicides that form the end of the line for the girls' narratives.

The uncertainty circulating around the suicides is in some ways the film's most intriguing element, and Eugenides and Coppola both seem to know it, suggesting overtly that the fundamental inexplicability of suicide represents a terminal expression of what I've been calling "mystique": it is a gesture that raises questions that cannot be answered. One question we could ask of it, then, is this: do the girls commit suicide because they are inadequately seen, because their desire to be fully understood goes thwarted and unfulfilled? Or do they commit suicide because the prospect of a life of being endlessly observed is in and of itself inadequate? To a degree, the film lays the blame for the suicides at the door of the repressive parents, although this doesn't so much answer the question as it reformulates it: when children suffer from parental repression, are they suffering because they can't be observed, or because their observation is all too total?

Next week: Dazed and Confused.

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