The Dreamlife of Virgins

Sex is confusion: Sofia Coppola (left) with actor Kirsten Dunst on the set

Chatting last winter at the Sundance Film Festival about her deeply mysterious, disconcertingly sexy portrait of female adolescence, The Virgin Suicides, first-time writer-director Sofia Coppola appeared rather girlish herself. Alternately fussing with the sleeves of her dark-blue ski jacket, rewrapping a rubber band around her jet-black ponytail, and swinging her arm over the second-floor railing of a Park City shopping mall, the 28-year-old Coppola has nonetheless made a highly poised debut feature about the feeling of being uncomfortable in one's pimply skin.

"What I thought was universal about the story was the confusion between boys and girls," says Coppola, referring to the 1993 Jeffrey Eugenides novel that follows five tragic teen heroines in Seventies suburbia, and the boys who haven't the slightest clue why their crushes would choose to shuffle off this mortal coil. "To me, the film is really about the boys, who make the girls into these icons. It's the boys' first experience with love and obsession, and when the girls are gone, it marks the end of their innocence, their childhood. So now they have to go into the real world and marry real women [laughs]."

In other words, Coppola's brooding lament for the Lisbon sisters--who, sometime after the big homecoming dance, collectively decide to bring down the curtain--is actually more metaphorical and archetypal than the lurid subject matter might suggest. And yet this representative portrait of teenage love and loss has been built out of the most distinctive details--not just the requisite collection of hip-huggers and chart-toppers (the film is blessedly light on kitsch), but those awkward basement parties and gym-floor make-out sessions; a girl's reenacted daydreams of horses and rope swings; a boy's nervous thrill at discovering a warehouse supply of tampons in a bathroom closet; and the overall sense one has at this age that everything, even earth science, is sexually symbolic.

Although Coppola (an accomplished photographer) catalogs these truths with an anthropologist's precision and a memoirist's sense of poetry, not one of them functions as a clue to the central mystery of the suicides. In the end, the girls' sadness at the loss of their front-yard elm is as much an explanation for the tragedy as anything. "I can't think of anything more unexplainable than suicide," says Coppola. "When I was making the movie, I tried to distance myself from explanations as much as possible, because I knew we weren't going to be able to answer why things happen this way in the story. But in life, even if you can't understand [a traumatic event], you can look at the way that it has made an impression on you. That's what I liked about the book--the fact that [Eugenides] doesn't try to wrap things up in a neat package."

Raised as a movie brat from early childhood (she appeared as the baptized baby at the end of her dad Francis's The Godfather, receiving better reviews than she would for a much-maligned turn in episode three), Coppola naturally acknowledges the influence on The Virgin Suicides of several other films: To Kill a Mockingbird, Lolita (Kubrick's, that is), and, for its stark cinematography, Badlands. Wanting to give the first-timer full credit for her work, I hesitate to mention the similarity of her father's expressionist teen epic Rumble Fish (1983), in which a ten-year-old Sofia (billed as "Domino") appeared as a sassy younger sister to rival Virgin's Cecilia. But once the young Coppola has spoken of Dad herself ("He really responded to it," she says of her adapted screenplay), I figure it's okay to invoke the maestro's great description of Rumble Fish as "an art film for kids." "I would love to have made 'an art film for kids,'" she replies. "Most teen films don't give kids enough credit."


The Virgin Suicides screens Wednesday and Thursday at the Uptown Theatre, and starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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