‘Oh! You Pretty Things’: Imagination, Emotion, and the Feminine Sublime in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999)

by: , May 22, 2019

© Screenshot from The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola

Based on the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film The Virgin Suicides offers a provocative examination of sublimity, specifically in its relation to gendered notions of performativity and emotion. It does so, firstly, via its presentation of constructions of femininity, which become sublime through the vivid, fantastical imaginings of a group of teenage boys. These boys feel deeply for five doomed teenage sisters they barely know but suffer from a profound inability to express or even understand their feelings, as does the rest of their suburban community. The film’s highly aestheticised portrayal of emotion leads to the spectator’s confused engagement with its affective content, which creates an emotional distance that mirrors the frustrated emotional engagement depicted onscreen. The mood created by the film is one of emotional ambivalence, with its ultimate ‘emotional core’ expressed as the sense of communal trauma. Its hollowed-out characters become emblematic of the malaise and gradual decline of post-war American society.

Alternatively, the film’s portrayal of a so-called ‘feminine’ or ‘everyday’ sublime lies in its expression of the girls’ quotidian realities and an emphasis on highly feminised surface decoration. Its veneration of the aesthetic concept of the ‘pretty,’ as defined by Rosalind Galt, acts as a subversive formal counterpoint to traditional masculine modes of filmic realism. This presentation is ambivalent; however, it speaks not only to a celebration of femininity but also to its commodification. Ultimately, the film’s girls assert their subjectivity by performatively committing mass suicide as a way of passing judgment on a society that values social conformism over human feeling. That sense of conformism is suffocating and nearly all-encompassing: Coppola’s film is emotionally contained in a way that belies its subject matter. But it is the film’s relation to historical notions of the sublime—particularly the Romantic, ‘egotistical’ sublime—and the struggle to wrest sublimity from the sole province of the masculine or question its narcissistic conceits entirely, that connects it to a tradition of alternative artistic responses to such a marginalisation-cum-obliteration of the female in sublime discourse.


Gendered Expressions of Sublimity: The Romantic and Feminine Sublimes

In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, Immanuel Kant pointedly diminishes female subjectivity—and the concept of beauty, which he correlates with it—in favour of masculine power. ‘The fair sex has just as much understanding as the male,’ he writes, ‘but it is a beautiful understanding, whereas ours should be a deep understanding, an expression that signifies identity with the sublime’ (Kant 1764: 36). Such a ‘beautiful understanding’ is a virtue of the social and the sensible, but fails to reach the profound transcendence of sublimity. Viewing sublimity as more than the Burkean concept of terrified delight experienced at a safe remove (Burke 1792: 62), the Romantics, building on Kant’s ideas, stressed the primacy of the mind in the creation of the sublime and emphasised the role of the imagination. This romantic idea of sublimity became strongly solitary, subjective, internal, and even anti-social (Shaw 2005: 106), a canonical view of the sublime that endures to the present. Samuel Taylor Coleridge encapsulates such a view:

I meet, I find the Beautiful—but I give, contribute, or rather attribute the Sublime. No object of Sense is sublime in itself: but only so far as I make it a symbol of some Idea. The circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it becomes sublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure (Raysor & Coleridge 1925: 532–533).

In his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge contends that the poet’s imagination is responsible for this ‘eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’ (Coleridge 1980 [1817]: 167). The affirmation of a godlike subjectivity in this quotation attests not only to the egotism of the Romantic sublime, but also to what Wordsworth refers to as the ‘awful power’ of individual imagination (Wordsworth 1979 [1799]: 217). Wordsworth’s sublime seeks to flirt with a sense of self-destruction by engaging the imagination and then containing it. Imagination, to Wordsworth, represented ‘reason in her most exalted mood’ (1979 [1799]: 468). Conversely, the feminine lies in Kant’s idea of ‘sensible intuition,’ phenomenal perception unmediated by intellect that is natural, sensual, and corporal (Shaw 2005: 74). The feminine is relegated to another domain entirely, that of the beautiful—of sensibility (emotion and affect) over sense (reason). It becomes clear from elucidating the Romantic sublime that its relation to the feminine is more than a little problematic—essentially, it relegates femininity (and by extension, women) to both the aesthetic and philosophical margins. However, in the Romantic era, many female writers engaged in alternative concepts of the sublime in reaction to this canonical view. The ‘feminine sublime’ embraced by popular authors such as Felicia Hemans was a decidedly less solitary, violent, and egotistical one. As well, the wildly successful Ann Radcliffe’s gothic imaginings ‘implicitly rejected the egotistical sublime’ (Mellor 1993: 11). Instead, as Philip Shaw writes, Radcliffe’s feminine concept of sublimity ‘turns on pacific detachment, an awakening to virtue and the ethics of integrity’ (Shaw 2005: 109).‘Virtue’ and ‘the ethics of integrity’ clearly invoke the social realm, one that the egotistical sublime refuses to engage. But there is also a troubling passivity to such a conception of femininity.

In contrast, poet and novelist Charlotte Smith appropriates the tropes of the masculine Romantic sublime in service of her own feminine subjectivity. In perhaps her most famous poem, the posthumously published ‘Beachy Head’ (1807), Smith self-identifies with the sublime and ‘the overcoming of restrictions, even to the point of death’ as ‘a means of converting unlettered weakness into a token of visionary power’ (2005: 113 & 114). The poem, however, also undercuts this vision in its final stanzas by descending from the heights of the titular Beachy Head to focus on a hermit in the cave below, thus evading any final ‘transcendent elevation’ of sublimity (Lokke 2008: 39). Smith’s poem ultimately offers an ironic rebuke of the Romantic sublime with its ‘re-inscription of the human into the natural’ (2008: 39). According to Anne Mellor, the triumph of the ‘masculine’ imagination over ‘feminine Nature’ in the Romantic sublime ‘usurped Nature’s power, leaving her silenced, even absent’ and ‘erase[d] the female from discourse’ (Mellor 1993: 11). But the marginalisation of women wasn’t so much an erasure of feminine traits as it was an absorption of such attributes into the poet’s masculine self. Emotion became a tactical tool in the male Romantic poet’s arsenal of expression to the exclusion of the female, and expressions of emotion became part of the male poet’s multivalent personality. Women in this construct still feel, of course, just not quite so deeply—the transcendence of the sublime remains out of their grasp.


Staging Sublimity in 1970s Suburbia

The Virgin Suicides offers an investigation of gender in relation to such an egotistical sublime. It engages with Hemans’s version of the everyday sublime in its expressions of near-ecstatic communal femininity, while its gothic allusions and female appropriation of masculine sublime tropes ultimately offer an ironic rejoinder to egotistical sublimity. Coppola’s film captures the solitude of sublime feeling without its sense of elevation and exaltation, instead infusing it with a palpable melancholy in the vein of Charlotte Smith. Throughout the film, the Lisbon sisters are viewed from a distance as sublime objects: unfathomable, unknowable, designed to imbue the Romantic male psyche with the knowledge of its power of imagination and reason. Seen from the outside, despite their eventual literal imprisonment in the family home, and viewed almost solely from the perspective of the town’s boys, the girls are also presented as a mysterious object of study for the spectator. A narrator, one of the boys now grown, recalls the events that take place over the course of a fateful year from the perspective of the present day. Even before those tragic events unfurl, the girls, he explains, had been the subject of great fascination for the community’s young males, although the reason is never fully expressed. The boys seem to respond to the alien, distant, and cloistered quality of the girls, which supplies a tabula rasa they can project their frustrated feelings on, captivating their imaginations. Trapped in their constricting suburban enclave of privilege, they long for an emotional, romantic fixation.

The boys obsess over the girls, studying them like veritable exhibits. (The source novel goes so far as to list their purloined artefacts by exhibit numbers and characterises their organs, upon autopsy, as ‘like something behind glass … like an exhibit’) (Eugenides 2002: 221). But despite their attempts, the boys never gain real knowledge as to the inner life of the girls. Moreover, the film conveys the sense that the boys do not really have an interest in truly coming to see the girls as real people, for that would ruin their sublime effect. ‘They understood love, and even death … we couldn’t fathom them at all,’ the narrator recounts. This inscrutability accounts for their enduring sublime fascination, twenty-five years after their deaths. The girls seem to communicate to outsiders, and themselves, solely by sensual, intuitive means, the province of the feminine and of the natural. The boys internalise these sensible intuitions into ‘reasonable’ knowledge through their imaginative capacities: one smells a lipstick tube on the sly and receives a vision of the 14-year-old, Lolita-esque Lux [1] (Kirsten Dunst), as if deeply inhaling her very essence through her cosmetics, totemic objects that in reality speak to nothing but her surface beauty. The boys insist they want to learn the girls’ very nature, but the idea of their menstruation (conjured by a bathroom cupboard well-stocked with tampons) is enough to make the same boy flee the Lisbon house in terror. This is a potent example of the sublime, which ‘alternates between attraction and repulsion’ unlike the straightforward appeal of beauty (Shaw 2005: 79). The boys idealise the girls’ beauty but fear their alien quality; it remains sublimely terrifying even as they seek the revelation of its secrets.

When the boys engage their imaginations while fantasising about the girls, they envision the ridiculous kitsch of 1970s soft-rock album covers: the girls frolic in grassy fields with unicorns, their prairie sundresses backlit by rich sunlight as they chew on blades of grass, laugh, or stare wistfully into the distance (Fig. 1). The film dissolves one hazy image into another in a dreamlike palimpsest, evoking a ‘negative’ or ‘domesticated’ sublime, one that features an ‘ecstatic experience of co-participation in a nature … explicitly gender[ed] as female’ (Mellor 1993: 97). But these images are double-edged. According to Anna Backman Rogers, they ‘call attention to the ‘thinness’ of their own construction so that the viewer’s attention is continually directed towards what is not seen and what is not heard’ (Backman Rogers 2015: 16, her emphasis). The ‘hollow nature’ of such images is indicative of a crisis of subjectivity that the film’s young female characters suffer (2015: 16). In their invocation of the soft-focus clichés of their era, from shampoo commercials to soft-core pornography, they also create a powerful sense of the commodification of femininity, particularly adolescent female sexuality (2015: 33).

© Fig. 1 Screenshot from The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola: The kitschy, clichéd imagery of fantasy sequences invokes a feminine sublime along with female sexual commodification.

Coppola refers to the girls’ harnessing of that sexuality, what she calls ‘power and mystique’: ‘I think when you’re that age you’re kind of playing with that power and trying to understand it’ (Gevinson 2013). But that power operates under an ironic illusion. The diary entries of Cecilia (Hanna Hall), the youngest Lisbon sister, glimpse a different reality: ‘Monday, February 13th: Today we had frozen pizza.’ Her diary, which speaks to impending environmental devastation and the quotidian realities of the life of a suburban teenage girl, is the closest the boys have to the ‘truth.’ But, as Backman Rogers writes, the ‘oneiric, false and misremembered images’ the film creates, which are purely imaginative, impossible projections, ‘evade understanding’ and all sense of truth (2015: 33). The boys aren’t really interested in truth anyway; they would much rather engage in the fantastic speculation of their own imaginations, in a kind of emotional code that expresses their deep longing for meaning while simultaneously keeping the mystery, the girls’ sublimity, alive.

While we have obvious insights into the boys’ imaginative scenarios, the girls’ inner emotional lives are much more of a mystery. They keep together in an almost feral pack and are routinely framed as a cohesive unit, talking in whispers, exchanging veiled, knowing looks, or gazing toward the camera as if to taunt the viewer into questioning their indivisibility. They seem to communicate merely by a shared psychic knowledge in relation to their status as objects of fevered imaginative scrutiny. Their mysterious presence adds to the sense of emotional distance Coppola creates within the film, one that engenders a mood of disaffection and what Jeffrey Sconce generally refers to as aesthetic ‘blankness’ (Sconce 2002: 34). The emotional moods created by the film, in turn, imbue the girls with both sublime obscurity and a sense of the quotidian domestic. They also work to undercut the exaltation found within the Romantic sublime; expressions of transcendence are countered with presentations of frustrated emotion.


Mood Creation and the ‘Emotional Core’ of the Film

Despite the boys’ deep feelings for the girls, the film’s emotional aesthetic is one of restraint, of the frustration tied to the inability to properly express emotion. From the first shot, a close-up of Lux, her blonde hair backlit by strong sunlight as she sucks on a red popsicle while not quite meeting the camera’s gaze, Coppola establishes a dreamlike mood. A few minutes of screen time later, before the title credits appear in their girlish script (‘bubble’ letters, I’s dotted with hearts) against a blue sky featuring fluffy white clouds that hint at foreboding darkness, her face appears suspended in mid-air as she winks at the camera coquettishly and smiles (Fig. 2). It is as if she is acknowledging the game that is being played with her image and offering an invitation to the spectator to participate, to enter into a pact. This is contrasted with the film’s next prominent image, Cecilia lying Ophelia-like [2] in a bathtub as her slashed wrists bleed into the water, the screen colour-timed to a cold, unforgiving blue (Fig. 2). Soon after, Cecilia lies in bed while being counselled by a doctor, whose face we cannot see, after this initial suicide attempt. When told she has experienced nothing in her life to warrant ending it, she deadpans, ‘Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.’ Her tone, delivered with a mix of mockery and sincerity, establishes the theme of emotional disaffection by aesthetic means, and mixes with the warm, nostalgic tones of the first images to create an ambiguous mood.

© Fig. 2 Screenshot from The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola: Early images of Lux and Cecilia create a sense of conflicting emotional presentation.

Thus, the film’s distinctive mood, dreamy yet disaffected, is established. According to Robert Sinnerbrink, ‘moods always reveal or express a cinematic world, and … distinctive cinematic worlds have their own specific kinds of mood’ (Sinnerbrink 2012: 149). Mood creation is key to the overall world creation of The Virgin Suicides; such a lurid, almost grotesque subject matter would elicit a much darker scene-setting in a conventional melodrama. But Coppola is intent on keeping her film squarely in the realm of an adolescent fever dream.

In the Romantic era, mood—essentially the aesthetic portrayal of affective content that primes the viewer or reader to experience her own responsive emotions—began to supplant the concept of emotion as ‘passion’ due to the latter’s suspect connection to performativity and inauthenticity (Pfau 2005: 6). Thomas Pfau sees three exemplary ‘moods’ in Romanticism: paranoia, trauma, and melancholy. Paranoia points to early Romanticism’s ‘all-encompassing anxiety of the modern’; trauma is found within the revolutionary aftermath of ‘rapid and pervasive changes’ in the political, economic, and cultural realms and the attempt to grasp them without a proper means of understanding; and melancholy—the most obvious pervasive mood in Coppola’s film—‘bespeaks the deep-structural fatigue of a culture that has grown oppressively familiar with itself’ in late-period Romanticism (2005: 20, 23). Sublimity offers a transcendent antidote to such a pervasive mood, a solitary and exalted escape from the malaise and uncertainty of modernity.

German Romantic writer and philosopher Novalis referred to Stimmung (literally ‘mood’) as the ‘musical conditions of the soul’ (Eisner 1977: 203). Exemplified in the cinema most keenly by the silent-era German expressionist films of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, it is found and felt not through narrative content, but through an emotional, affect-driven engagement with onscreen aesthetics (1977: 200). Whereas German expressionism’s Stimmung is rooted in the chiaroscuro effects of light and shadow, and a gloomy and often contorted mise-en-scène (meant to make physical the inner turmoil and confusion of its characters), The Virgin Suicides’ mise-en-scène, cinematography, and performances offer a more impressionistic sense of Stimmung. The feeling of mystery and mournful longing that Coppola’s film creates is found within what isn’t expressed but instead bubbles beneath its shimmering surfaces.

For Lotte Eisner, Stimmung represents ‘a mystical and singular harmony amid the chaos of things, a kind of sorrowful nostalgia, which … is mixed with well-being, an imprecise nuance of nostalgia, languor coloured with desire, lust of body and soul’ (1977: 199). Eisner’s characterisation of Stimmung reflects the general mood of Coppola’s film, a hazy, drowsy, nostalgic longing and a sense of palpable frustrated desire mixed with the excitement and confusion that comes from traversing the ‘liminal’ territory and personae of adolescence (Backman Rogers 2015: 6).

Its potent blend of Stimmung and deadpan detachment form the film’s ‘emotional core,’ defined as the ‘affective glue’ delivered by aesthetic means (Laine 2013: 6). In an idea reminiscent of Kant’s sensible intuition, this emotional core is rendered through ‘affective appraisals’ on the body of the spectator. According to Tarja Laine, ‘Affective appraisal … strikes the body, immediately in and through the flesh … Emotional evaluation collects and gives significance to the ‘surplus’ of affective appraisal by transforming it into memory’ (2013: 2). The film’s voice-over, told from the perspective of the present, lends the narrative proceedings a stark inevitability (as does the film’s very title; we know the girls are fated to die), and its flat, emotionally vacant execution is crucial to the overall effect. The film offers a distinct split between the affective appraisal—the ‘withness’ of the moment that the boys and spectator experience—and its emotional evaluation, the awareness of the affective appraisal, which is expressed through the after-the-fact voice over.

For the spectator, this creates a psychological distance from its affective emotional content and lends the film a disaffected sheen. Distance thwarts its emotional ‘agency,’ and we are left ‘outside’ its emotional core (2013: 3). If films, as Laine suggests, ‘embody’ emotions and possess an ‘emotional attitude’ toward the spectator (2013: 3), The Virgin Suicides is one of emotional division, a schism between affect and feeling versus action and expression. Its characters, along with the spectator, struggle to turn affective appraisals into emotional evaluations that make sense, because evaluations do not correspond to appraisals in any ‘correct’ way. Feeling is partially emptied out, creating an experience for the spectator similar to the emotionally withdrawn states of characters in the film. But it also elicits a sensation of longing, one for the very thing that the film refuses to convey: the ability to experience and express intimate emotional connections.

This is most keenly evident in a scene where the boys communicate with the girls, now trapped inside the Lisbon home, over the telephone by playing records. The girls respond in kind, and soon it feels as though the two groups of dispossessed teens are truly connecting. The soundtrack consists solely of mournful pop from the era, expressing in music and lyric what both the girls (who play songs such as ‘Alone Again, Naturally’ and ‘So Far Away’) and the boys (who play ‘Run to Me’) feel, without the need to express outwardly those emotions through their own voices or bodies. Coppola adds a horizontal split screen halfway through the scene, Lux seeming to lie atop the boys forlornly as they emotionally implode, to emphasise the effect (Fig. 3). As Laine notes in her analysis of the film Requiem for a Dream, the split screen ‘becomes a form of touch, in which separation enables an opening up to the touch of the other, which is also felt as such by the spectator’ (2015: 56). Conversely, it communicates the existential, and in this case also physical, distance between subjects.

© Fig. 3. Screenshot from The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola: The use of split screen emphasises both physical distance and intersubjective connection through ‘touch.’

This scene embodies Laine’s idea of the lack of clear onscreen emotional presentation, wherein a film ‘directs our attention toward what cannot be seen, that which can only be detected by means of intersubjective sharing of experience’ (2013: 4). The boys share an intersubjective experience with the girls, but that experience is obfuscated not only by physical distance but also by technological mediation (the phone, the stereo) and a lack of direct communication. All the emotion comes from canned recordings, representations of emotions expressed by musicians and recorded in the past, and so effectively highlights, through the lack of direct affect, the inability to properly express emotion, as well as the desire to overcome that inability. This inability to communicate effectively is apparent many times in the film, such as in the girls’ confusing notes left for the boys to find, and in their nonsensical Morse code messages. ‘Help. Send Bobo,’ one translated message comically reads, despite the fact that ‘Bobo’ is never mentioned before or after in the narrative. Mood, throughout The Virgin Suicides, establishes itself almost as a character in its own right. As in Sinnerbrink’s appraisal of Blue Velvet (1986), ‘Mood becomes autonomous, taking on a primary rather than a supporting role in the composition of the fictional world’ (Sinnerbrink 2012: 161). In Laine’s view, films both express and embody emotions, and all films contain an emotional core analogous to human emotional states (Laine 2013: 3). The emotional core of The Virgin Suicides, however, at times feels slippery and opaque. There is a confused sense of conflicting emotional presentations. The film’s ‘disclosive mood,’ which establishes an emotional ‘scene-setting’ (Sinnerbrink 2012: 156) is, again, one of longing tempered with deadpan irony.

This mood is called back to episodically throughout the film, specifically in various ornate dream sequences expressing the boy’s highly romantic yet parodic inner fantasies about the girls. Scenes of mood transition, such as Cecilia’s successful suicide attempt (one of the few scenes that embodies any sort of strong physical emotional response, via Mrs Lisbon’s low, guttural howls) and the sequence at the Homecoming dance [3] manoeuvre the viewer through various emotional states, but these states always feel tenuous at best. The film establishes a true emotional ‘core’ in an underlying way. Its core mood is trauma itself. According to Pfau, trauma is characterised by ‘a nearly complete lack of affect … whatever emotional charge may be seething beneath the faltering, quasi-catatonic locutions of its subject puzzles the reader-observer with its seeming lack of intensity and content’ (2005: 17). The mood itself rests in its lack of expression. Ultimately the film’s engagement with imaginative longing and even satire and dark humour is undercut by a mournful resignation to this loss of affect.

Thus, the film’s world creation, through mood, suggests emotion through its very lack of emotional characterisation: the repression of emotion, coupled with the simultaneous foregrounding of the frustrated need to express it, and the ultimate resignation that it will never be properly expressed. This does not just affect the emotional response of the onscreen characters. Spectators are generally not invited to empathise with the Lisbon girls. Nor are we able to be truly emotionally connected with the boys, although they are the closest audience surrogates the film establishes. The boys are barely realised characters themselves, instead serving as archetypes of wayward, frustrated teens trapped in suburban mundanity. In fact, the film reduces its characters to a selection of tics, such as the befuddled, emasculated Mr Lisbon’s childish affection for World War II model aeroplanes, Mrs Lisbon’s overzealous religious propriety, or Lux’s wanton toying with the affections of men.

Instead, a lack of character expresses the ennui that defines a civilisation in impending decline or the emotional paucity that attends privilege. In the context of what Fredric Jameson identifies as American post-war cultural malaise, The Virgin Suicides can be described, using his terminology, as a ‘postnostalgia’ film (Jameson 1992: 287). It is obsessed with nostalgic recreation, yet finds within that recreation a hollow, indescribable centre. Such nostalgia is embodied by the film’s aesthetic, which relies principally on depictions of beauty, specifically ‘clichéd images’ of superficial prettiness (Backman Rogers 2015: 28). Such an aesthetic is not only used as an ironic counterpoint to masculine sublimity; however; it also affirms the power of the feminine, creating something akin to a feminine sublime.


The Aesthetics and Politics of the ‘Pretty’

If the girls are sublime, they are also objects of the Burkean beautiful: they are domestic, soft, languorous, luxurious. Unlike its source novel, which emphasises physical and environmental decay to underscore a loss of affect, the film foregrounds, even vaunts, aesthetic notions of the beautiful. The sense of impending environmental doom is still present, found mostly in the denouement after the girls’ demise and in its most potent symbol, the dying elm trees. But the novel’s omnipresent fish fly corpses are basically absent, and the deterioration of the Lisbon house is less severe and documented. While Romantic notions of sublimity are mocked (such as the lovelorn Italian boy’s comical suicide attempt early in the film), ideas of beauty are held virtually sacrosanct.

Rosalind Galt outlines how representations of the ‘pretty,’ particularly regarding the decorative and the ‘aesthetic danger of women,’ have been derided throughout the history of film criticism, via proponents of realism like Andre Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer to Marxist critics such as Comolli and Narboni to the ‘iconophobia’ of feminist film theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Linda Williams, who all participate, in various schematics and motivations, in ‘the tearing down of images’ (Galt 2009: 4-18). This disdain for the pretty image seems to be located within a fear of the very apparatus of film itself: ‘The rhetoric of film theory has insistently denigrated surface decoration, finding the attractive skin of the screen to be false, shallow, feminine, or apolitical’ (2009: 2).

A crucial element in the codification of the pretty, just as in the Burkean sense of the beautiful, is the primacy of colour, which, as Galt notes, has been ‘relegated to the lesser realm of emotion,’ and ‘conceals [line’s] truths’ (2009: 7). These ideas are couched almost in terms of feminine seduction through ‘primitivism’ and ‘deception’ (2009: 3). If beauty is a Kantian good, ‘pretty’ is a siren song that leads hapless cinematic explorers down the path of aesthetic decadence and moral decay:

[T]he word ‘luscious’ hints at feminising rhetoric of seduction that has been at play in Kracauer ever since he evoked the wonderfully fetishistic ‘girl clusters’ to exemplify the ideological work of the mass ornament. For Kracauer, cinema’s potential for truth is always obscured by ornament (2009: 11).

In The Virgin Suicides, Coppola defends against Kracauer’s derided, mass ornamental ‘girl clusters’ with her depictions of what I call girl tableaux, exhibiting a sustained reverence for the ‘pretty’ in highly ornamental and composed imagery that uses colour strategically. Pale pink and yellow, traditionally feminine colours, appear throughout the film as an aesthetic motif, be it in the pink and yellow balloons at the first ill-fated party, the girls’ own frequently accentuated blonde hair, the buttery tones of the light from the late-day sun, or Lux’s Homecoming dance ensemble of white dress with pink floral pattern obscuring her pink underwear (which, through a playful special effect, Coppola’s camera ‘sees’ when the dress becomes momentarily transparent). Colour is even mentioned as the mysterious domain of the inner workings of the feminine mind in the voiceover, of the way ‘the imprisonment of being a girl … made your mind active and dreamy and how you ended up knowing what colours went together.’

The use of light in the film is also critical to its conceptual engagement with the pretty. The girls are routinely bathed in diffuse, warm sunlit tones, especially in fantasy sequences. Lux, the Lisbon girl who is the object of the most obvious scrutiny, even has a name that invokes both luxury and light itself. But it also recalls the ubiquity of everyday household soap. If Lux as object represents the sublime unknowable, her reality as subject is that of everyday, humdrum domesticity.

The girls routinely surround themselves with pretty objects which serve no practical purpose—trinkets, jewellery, decorations, cosmetics, plush toys, fabrics: ephemera imbued with deep meaning by the secretive mystery of adolescence. In several scenes Coppola arranges the girls in tableaux vivant as they luxuriate in their bedroom prison site, rifling through travel magazines and staring plaintively out the windows. There is a distinct sense of purposeful disarray in these scenes, which convey the feeling of cloistered conspiracy in their mise-en-scèneBlankets and pillows are strewn haphazardly; pastel knick-knacks litter the armoires. The construction within the frame radiates a powerful sense of Stimmung, which ‘hovers around objects as well as people’ (Eisner 1977: 199).

In one shot (Fig. 4), arguably the key image of the film, the girls are framed in highly composed, Pre-Raphaelite fashion, limbs entwined as they lounge on the floor. After the previous scene between Father Moody (Scott Glenn), the local priest, and Mr Lisbon (James Woods) set in the bland and colourless Lisbon living room, the presentation of the prettified excess in this scene provides an emotional jolt for the spectator. The girls are surrounded by a disarray of fabric and objects that exit the limits of the frame, points of vivid colour drawing the eye around the frame in a circular motion with no fixed resting place, eliciting pleasurable responses from their kaleidoscopic yet highly constructed surfaces. They stare at the visiting priest, who comes to their bedroom doorway, with barely contained disdain and boredom, and we experience their provocative looks from his point of view. This striking image is followed immediately by a shot of Mrs Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) sitting alone in her dreary bedroom, sapped of the playful colour of the girls’ room like the rest of the house. In contrast to the Lisbon girls’ mocking stares and fidgets, she sits impeccably straight on the bed with her back to the camera in medium long shot, isolated in her grief amidst order and regimentation.

© Fig. 4 Screenshot from The Virgin Suicides (1999) dir. Sofia Coppola: Creating a confrontational image of femininity with excessively ornamental mise-en-scène.

As in the above sequence, playful, feminine colour and baroque ornamentation is continually contrasted with regimented order and institutional browns, blacks, and greys, such as those in the girls’ school uniforms, hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, and the adult-centred rooms of the Lisbon home. Line and geometric form are almost exclusively the province of the masculine and patriarchal order, such as the strong shapes laid out in the school’s wall grids and the omnipresent checks and plaids of the male characters’ clothing. Pointedly, Mrs Lisbon is the only woman in the film to wear this masculine plaid, since she is not only linked to patriarchal, institutional control, she is in fact the primary purveyor of it. [4]

The film’s prettiness is seductive, which conforms to the theme that the girls have somehow ruined the boys with their image, continuing to haunt them in their disaffected adult lives. But it also serves as a kind of aesthetic manifesto. Galt asserts that the pretty is ‘nothing if not a feminist account of the cinematic image’ and runs counter to the ‘antipretty discourse found in modernity’ (Galt 2009: 17, 25). In fact, this ‘phobia of the feminine’ is a result of modernism itself, indebted to the Kantian sublime, which has ‘dominated modernism to the detriment of the homely pleasures of the beautiful woman’ (2009: 17). These ‘homely pleasures’ are at once embraced and parodied by Coppola’s film.

The tension between surface beauty, or prettiness, and the mundane or even gaudy image is found throughout the film. The attention to proper aesthetic decorum is announced almost immediately with a neighbour’s remark that Cecilia attempted suicide because she wanted ‘out of’ the Lisbon house ‘decorating scheme’. A school administrator defends her choice of green for the ‘Day of Grief’ pamphlets because the colour is ‘cheerful, but not too cheerful … certainly better than red.’ This aesthetic judgment and obsession with the appearance of propriety over genuine feeling includes all manner of social discourse and is sometimes almost literally suffocating, as when Lux is forced to burn her rock records, leading to plumes of toxic smoke filling the Lisbon home.

Moreover, surely a narrative that makes the home a prison of the ‘beautiful woman’ is not one filled solely with ‘homely pleasures.’ The film can be read as a kind of Sirkean melodrama of subversion, but one with the drama, colour, and ideology mostly drained of their intensity. Coppola, unlike her characters and even Sirk, is not trapped in the ‘American bourgeois prison’ of dominant discourse and Hollywood studio control (Galt 2009: 14). While her aesthetic commitment to ornamentation and the pretty offers a rebuke of cinematic modernity, she also exhibits the ‘masculine’ and ‘rational’ distance (2009: 18) of her male contemporaries, training a dissecting eye on her characters nearly as clinical as that of the ineffectual psychotherapist (Danny DeVito) who administers Cecilia’s Rorschach test.

When discussing her framing choices, Coppola says, ‘A lot of the shots were from across the street [from the boys’ perspective] to create a sense of distance … The distance also imitates memory, too, in that it’s not completely accurate or precise’ (Tobias 2000). The distance she creates is in deference to a programme of mood creation comprising nostalgia and imaginative desire. It is certainly not polemical—especially as it commits itself to the pretty in the decidedly non-radical terms of ‘traditional, white, hetero femininity’ (Galt 2009: 28). Rather, it describes a world of surface propriety, where the very idea of polemics is distasteful. However, the film offers incisive critiques of gender politics and privilege, particularly in its engagement with the tropes of gothic literature.


‘Preparing to Give Assault’: Creating the ‘Pseudo-political’ Gothic

The Virgin Suicides’ narrative of confinement aligns very clearly with the gothic novels of such eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers as Charlotte and Emily Brontë and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and their depictions of patriarchal oppression that often include literal imprisonment (Mellor 1993: 94). This oppression produces an anger that ‘if repressed or turned back against the woman—could also produce female masochism, depression, and madness’ (Mellor 1988: 4). Jameson characterises the gothic as:

a class fantasy (or nightmare) in which the dialectic of privilege and shelter is exercised: your privileges seal you off from other people, but by the same token they constitute a protective wall through which you cannot see, and behind which therefore all kinds of envious forces may be imagined in the process of assembling, plotting, preparing to give assault (1992: 289).

This isolation and ‘domestic idleness,’ in Jameson’s view, is not inherently political but can constitute ‘a coming to self-consciousness of the disadvantages of privilege’ (1992: 289). It can also ‘be reorganised around young men’ and be seen as a substitute for American society, which ‘lives out the anxieties of its economic privileges’ (1992: 289). In its portrayal of the sheltered exceptionalism of an affluent yet declining Michigan suburb, and the way anxieties of economic privilege diminish all its citizens (the boys, the parents, but particularly the Lisbon girls), The Virgin Suicides can be characterised as what Jameson calls a ‘pseudo-political version of the gothic’ (1992: 289). Coppola has shown little interest in the public political sphere [5], instead focusing on the intricacies of subjective experience and the aesthetic rendering of such. The theme of the double-edged quality of privilege and shelter serves in large part as an excuse to imbue the film’s mise-en-scène with specific emotional moods, including the uncanny feeling found in the sense of ‘unease’ in what should be an environment of comfort and safety.

A sense of the uncanny is an important component in the creation of the ‘pseudo-political’ gothic. Anthony Vidler views the uncanny as ‘the quintessential bourgeois kind of fear, one carefully bounded by the limits of real material security’ (1992: 4). While this is often a symptom of urban estrangement, in this film it finds its way to the decidedly more homogeneous confines of suburban spaces. Coppola imbues the Lisbon home with an element of the fantasy space (particularly for the boys, it is the site of their primary workings of imagination about the girls). But the house itself, a very ordinary middle-class family dwelling, becomes the site of unspeakable familial crimes and eventually crumbles into disrepair, in a sort of suburban gothic take on Poe’s ‘House of Usher’.

If the uncanny ‘form[s] the starting point for [an] examination of anxiety, the very “image of lack”’ (1992: 9), then the Lisbon girls, tied inexorably to the home, are the real source of the house’s uncanny sense. Taken less as individuals than as a mysterious general presence, the girls essentially haunt the Lisbon home while they are still technically alive, as Cecilia, the most troubled Lisbon girl, literally haunts it after her death. Her various visual links to the occult (mostly glimpsed in objects in her bedroom) hark back to the gothic fascination with supernatural forces. A recurring symbol of the girls’ ‘otherness,’ religious icons such as Cecilia’s Virgin Mary laminated cards (one is present in the opening scene of her unsuccessful suicide attempt) evoke the ‘cult of Mary’ within Catholicism and its possible links to pagan nature worship. [6] All of Lux’s sexual encounters take place outdoors, emphasising her attachment to the natural world. In addition to haunting the sleeping and waking dreams of both the boys and Mr Lisbon, Cecilia lies, dead but alive, draped across her favourite dying elm tree. This visual metaphor links her not just to the natural, but also to the supersensible.

Cecilia might haunt the men and boys in physical form, but she haunts the memories of her sisters as well. As in Freud’s assertion that the uncanny rests in ‘the compulsion to repeat’ (Freud 2003 [1919]: 13), the Lisbon girls compulsively repeat Cecilia’s act of suicide. (Freud also linked such a compulsion to the burden of trauma itself—the original traumatic act becomes impossible to assimilate, and the subject, haunted, replays it continually) (Pfau 2005: 193). In their act, the male narrator proclaims them ‘selfish.’ They fail to think of the effect on the community, and especially the effect on the boys themselves.

But in their self-obliteration, they perform their final sublime act, one that removes the necessity of performing for the imagination of others. Instead, they assert their own subjectivity, ironically by destroying themselves as a group. If the film is an almost parodic rendering of the Romantic ideal of the absorption of femininity into the masculine sublime ego, their final act serves as both a rejection of this absorption and a re-appropriation of the sublime—sublime objects become sublime subjects. By asserting their agency, they also perform their last act as objects of sublimity: the boys think they are coming to their rescue, but really, they are being set up to discover the bodies.

In her essay on Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, Barbara Freeman asserts that the story’s protagonist, Lily Bart, ‘suggests another version of sublimity’ in her relation to ‘risk and speculation’ (Freeman 1995: 41). ‘The novel begins,’ writes Freeman, ‘by emphasising that beauty, be it that of a woman or a work of art, is neither natural nor innate, as Burke would have it, but is rather a commodity that cannot be separated from economic determinations’ (1995: 56). Bart, ‘brought up to be ornamental,’ fashions herself as the quintessence of the beautiful in order to become a commodity on the marketplace (a desirable object in the eyes of men) (1995: 57). Eventually, she rejects beauty in favour of the sublime by ‘affirming’ risk, ultimately leading to her own self-annihilation in accidental suicide:

Lily’s acts of self-extinction become symbolic acts of self-creation. In The House of Mirth loss rather than gain becomes the fertile site from which significance is produced, and in this sense Lily’s death is not so much an escape from the marketplace, but a way of passing judgment upon it (1995: 63, 64, her emphasis).

Freeman is referencing Wharton’s autobiography, in which the celebrated author writes, ‘A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals’ (Wharton 1962 [1934]: 207). The society found within The Virgin Suicides, with its severe aesthetic judgments leading to the degradation of an entire community and its obsession with appearances and propriety over genuine emotion, is nothing if not frivolous.

The ‘pacific detachment’ that characterises modes of the feminine sublime eventually turns on itself, becoming so detached from life as to become one with death. Unfortunately for the girls, instead of simply glimpsing self-annihilation in the process of self-realisation, like Wordsworth staring beyond the precipice of imaginative non-reason and emerging triumphant, they must succumb to that annihilation in order to both affirm, and reject, the sublime.



[1] Many critics and scholars have discussed Lux’s obvious relation to Nabokov’s (and Stanley Kubrick’s, in his film adaptation) character, the teenage ‘nymphette’ Lolita, emphasising her naïve yet knowing sexuality. Backman Rogers references Lolita’s ‘infantilised sexuality’ (2015:25), while Masafumi Monden writes that, like Lolita, Lux is ‘manipulative, flirtatious, coquettish and above all, self-assured yet innocent, and she seems to be comfortable with that image’ (2013: 146). The New York Time’s A.O. Scott refers specifically to Kubrick’s film: ‘Like Sue Lyon in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, with her lollipop and heart-shaped sunglasses, Ms Dunst turns Lux’s every glance and gesture into an ambiguous provocation’ (Scott 2000).

[2] Critics have also pointed out the allusion to John Everett Millais’ famous Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia (1851–1852), as well as the various psychological and cultural connotations of the Shakespearean character it is based on. Ophelia, in many ways, connotes complex formations of both sublimity and beauty within femininity. Backman Rogers notes that Ophelia represents ‘a form of tragic beauty’ (Backman Rogers 2015: 25). Monden refers to her as an ‘icon of girlhood,’ with the Pre-Raphaelite depiction of Ophelia as ‘an epitome of female complexity … virtuous yet sexually knowing’ who becomes a symbol of ‘maidenly madness’ in the Romantic era (Monden 2013: 149–150). For Monden, viewing Ophelia’s death as a suicide, rather than an accident of madness, ‘can be understood as her means to challenge and criticise her culturally and socially imposed passivity and dependency, and those who impose such burdens on her’ (2013: 153).

[3] With its twinkling décor, slow-motion effects, and soft-focus glow, this scene calls back to the prom scene in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and its portrayal of horror found in difference combined with a dreamy sense of kitsch. Coppola’s overall aesthetic, and this scene in particular, were inspired by American photographer Bill Owens’ 1973 book Suburbia (Gevinson 2013), which, according to the film’s production notes, ‘revealed the American suburb as a symbolically potent landscape filled with neat green lawns, turquoise skies and expressions of weary human dissatisfaction’ (Cinema Review). Backman Rogers suggests, however, that Owens’ photographs are actually ‘positive representations of suburban communities’ and that, by alluding to Carrie, Coppola ‘imbues her images with a disturbing undercurrent’ that Owens’ work lacks. She considers this scene one of ‘ritualised ceremony … marked out as the sight of disaster’ in its foreshadowing of Lux losing her virginity to her crush, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), being subsequently abandoned by him, and eventually imprisoned along with her sisters (Backman Rogers 2015: 29).

[4] In a slyly ironic casting turn, Mrs Lisbon is portrayed by Kathleen Turner, a major sex symbol of the 1980s, who appeared in highly sexualised roles in films such as Body Heat (Kasdan, 1981) and Crimes of Passion (Russell, 1984) (where she portrayed a femme fatale and a prostitute, respectively). In Coppola’s film, she is the ultimate frustrated, de-sexed, and dowdy hausfrau. It is as if her years serving as a sex object have degraded her to the point that she no longer has any positive value as a symbol at all. She represents not only the loss of sexual power that the girls will eventually experience but also the rigid, socially proscribed roles they will have to embody in adulthood. As A.O. Scott writes—after comparing Kirsten Dunst to a teenage Turner in her ‘toughness’—Mrs. Lisbon represents a ‘life forced walled in by the masonry of repression’ (Scott 2000).

[5] Michele Aaron argues that Coppola ‘exploits, critiques, and resolutely embellishes’ predominant visual representations of femininity ‘because her national, racial, and class privilege afford her potential distance (actual, critical, or aesthetic) from the sisters’ suffocation’ (Aaron 2014: 91). However, it is clear from interviews that Coppola relishes the opportunity to explore femininity in a judgment-free zone and can both sympathise and empathise with the multiple perspectives of different characters. ‘I think just having been a girl … I’ve always felt connected to the kind of feminine side,’ she says (Tobias 2000). Coppola also expresses empathy for the boys and their ‘collective watching and thinking’ (Tobias 2000). Essentially, she expresses a personal connection to the Lisbon sisters’ status as both subjects and objects, which I argue bears little relation to the director’s economic or other privileges.

[6] See Benko (1993) for an extensive discussion of Mary worship.


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Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch.

Body Heat (1981), dir. Lawrence Kasdan.

Carrie (1976), dir. Brian De Palma.

Crimes of Passion (1984), dir. Ken Russell.

Lolita (1962), dir. Stanley Kubrick.

Requiem for a Dream (2000), dir. Darren Aronofsky.

The Virgin Suicides (1999), dir. Sofia Coppola.

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