The Virgin Suicides (1999)

I remember being incredibly skeptical of the sudden consensus a couple years back that 1999 was the pinnacle of modern cinema, as solidified by critic Brian Raftery’s book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen.  As I already rambled on about in my review of The Talented Mr. Ripley when that book was still a hot topic, I believe every Movie Year is practically the same.  Most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift through the deluge to single out the gems.  All we’re experiencing now is the inevitability of critics who were young enough to first start discovering a passion for film in the late-90s now aging into a role as legitimized tastemakers, so that they’re able to collectively repeat inane phrases like “1999: Best Movie Year Ever!!!” loud & often enough that they sound halfway legit. 

I am also guilty of that exact nostalgia bias myself, no matter how skeptical I am of its validity.  While the critical reappraisal of 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever wasn’t entirely convincing to me in a broad sense, it did highlight a particular facet of that era that does stand out as exceptional to me: its immaculate collection of high school-set comedies.  I will never fully be able to tell if the exquisite run of high school movies from 1998-2001 really was exceptionally great or if I’m just nostalgic for the era because I was entering high school around the time.  Either way, this list of titles just from 1999 seems like a staggering canon of all-time classics to my biased eye: Drop Dead Gorgeous, But I’m a Cheerleader!, 10 Things I Hate About You, Jawbreaker, Election, Cruel Intentions, Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That, etc.  And then there’s the one eerie, troublesome outlier from that 1999 High School Classics canon that feels like it drifted in from another place & time altogether – the debut feature from director Sofia Coppola.

The Virgin Suicides is less the social hierarchy satire that most post-Heathers high school comedies strive for than it is a modernized, American update to the eerie Peter Weir whatsit Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Unlike most 1999 High School Classics, it’s not a comedy at all, but rather a melancholy drama about Big Teenage Feelings and the uncanny nature of nostalgia.  Still, the film indulges in a bemused humor at the expense of the awkwardness of teenage dating rituals in the 1970s Michigan suburbs, often conveying the domestic imprisonment of its titular teenage virgins through a tight-lipped smirk.  Under the severely over-protective eye of their parents, the five young sisters become isolated and lonely to the point of suicidal depression, and the movie sincerely engages with the impact of that tragedy (as opposed to, say, the way teen deaths are handled in Drop Dead Gorgeous, the other Kirsten Dunst classic from that year).  Its amusement with that tragedy is mostly centered on how the girls are perceived by their clueless, infatuated peers.

While The Virgin Suicides is technically about the suicidal sisters, the girls’ story is told through the eyes of their romantically starved neighbors – a group of inexperienced young boys who saw them mostly as a window into the supposed enigma of femininity.  All the Picnic at Hanging Rock supernatural mystery surrounding the girls is an extension of their distanced male admirers’ POV, who try to solve their lives and deaths as if they were a curious puzzle and not simply victims of a neurotically repressive parenting style.  By tapping into that nostalgia-tinged teenage longing, Coppola evokes something intensely powerful untouched by any other high school movie of its era.  She stated in an interview, “I really didn’t know I wanted to be a director until I read The Virgin Suicides and saw so clearly how it had to be done.  I immediately saw the central story about what distance and time and memory do to you, and about the extraordinary power of the unfathomable.”  You’re not going to find that kind of shit in 10 Things I Hate About You, as fun as it is as a more typical literary “adaptation” from that era.

I love The Virgin Suicides.  It feels more complexly funny, dreamlike, and femme every time I watch it, especially since I was a clueless, romance-starved teenage boy myself when I first rented it from a Blockbuster in the early-2000s New Orleans suburbs.  There was a spoil of Teen Movie riches flooding video store shelves in that era, but none of them hit the exact dazed, Hanging Rock tone Coppola’s film did.  I won’t cosign the broader 1999: Best Movie Year ever discourse (which really doesn’t matter, since I appear to be the only person still hung up on it), but if can we narrow that claim down to 1999: Best High School Movie Year Ever the argument is much, much more compelling – and this inclusion in that canon is one of the most impeccable standouts.

-Brandon Ledet

Somewhere (2010)

It took watching Sofia Coppola’s worst movie to help me recognize that she’s one of my favorite working directors. Somewhere is a lot like Lost in Translation in the way it allows Coppola to indulge at length in her worst narrative tendencies, mainly her obsession with the ennui of the have-it-all elite. Also like Lost in Translation, Somewhere often overcomes that narrative hurdle in the pure pleasure of its value as a sensory experience, demonstrating the same intoxicating visual & tonal meticulousness that helps distinguish her more thematically rich works (Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides, and The Beguiled are my holy trinity). This is a deliberately simple, quiet work that scales back Coppola’s ambitions after the go-for-broke excess of Marie Antoinette, one that mirrors the listless emptiness of its the-price-of-fame protagonist. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a lazy act of pretension, but Coppola’s too tonally & visually skilled as an artist to let it sit that way. This may be the most underwhelming film in her catalog to date, but it’s also quietly sweet & charming in a way too few movies are, which is why she’s one of the best.

Stephen Dorff stars as a movie star far above Stephen Dorff’s pay grade. His Tom Cruise-level fame as an action star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, as he finds his life spent lazing about L.A.’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel to be an unfulfilling drag. Pushing the disheveled t-shirt & jeans look of a nothing-to-lose movie star to the point of appearing homeless, he still finds beautiful women throwing themselves at his feet while performing simple tasks like picking up the morning paper or taking a phone call on the balcony. The already blatant emptiness of his lazy, hotel room party lifestyle is further put into perspective by the unexpected arrival for his young daughter, played by Elle Fanning. The simple act of sharing time with her (even time wasted playing Guitar Hero or watching her figure skating lessons) changes him for the better, recontextualizing his lazing-about hedonism. Sofia Coppola is no stranger to depicting boredom & ennui; they’re among her favorite pet subjects. Somewhere (again, not unlike Lost in Translation) offers a glimpse at how these emotional experiences (or lack thereof) can mean more and transform into something sweetly beautiful when you share them with someone you care about. It’s not a grand, paradigm-shifting statement, but it is a rewarding, intimate one.

Since boredom & ennui aren’t exactly the most kinetic of cinematic topics, most of Somewhere’s strengths are in the power of individual moments & images. Coppola reportedly strung together the film’s narrative based on her own childhood spent exploring fringe, transient Hollywood spaces like Chateau Marmont (along with the real-life experiences of young Hollywood children she knows in the 2010s) and you can feel that authenticity in the specificity of her imagery & the film’s many intimate exchanges, often between strangers. Mimed underwater tea parties, Foo Fighters-scored strip teases, ungodly piles of gelato, the world’s laziest gesture of unenthused cunnilingus: many might argue that Somewhere doesn’t amount to much, but there’s no denying that meticulous care went into its visual craft & small moments of human interaction. Coppola posits the Marmont as a realm outside of space & time, one only made more bizarre by the mix of celebrities, fashion models, and sex works that drift through its halls. And since the film is very light on dialogue for long, quiet stretches, the way those images shape the story being told can be surprisingly, delicately deft. For instance, the way a slow zoom-in on a claustrophobic plaster cast session matches Dorff’s suffocating loneliness early in the film contrasts wonderfully with the long, revitalizing inhale of a slow zoom-out of him sunbathing poolside with his daughter late in the runtime. Whether that exact contrast was Coppola’s intent or not, she is at least smart enough to allow enough distance for her audience to be able to draw those kinds of connections among her potent, intimate images.

Somewhere might only rank among my least favorite Coppola’s because it’s light on the aspects of her work I personally adore the most. I find her quiet fixation on the emptiness of wealth & excess works best in harsh contrast with an eccentrically loud backdrop, which draws me more to works like Marie Antoinette & The Bling Ring. I also highly value her power as a voice with mainstream notoriety & wide distribution who makes immersively feminine works the likes of which we usually only see in no budget festival releases. As Stephen Dorff’s existential crisis commands most of the runtime (as Bill Murray does in Lost in Translation), I’m not able to see as much of that distinctive voice here as I am in works like The Beguiled & The Virgin Suicides. Still, there’s enough sweetness in the onscreen relationship between Dorff & Fanning (who has become one of my favorite young actors thanks to her turns in The Neon Demon & 20th Century Women) and enough contemplative beauty in the film’s vestiges of excess imagery that I find the experience worthwhile when considered as a whole. Sofia Coppola at her worst is still better than most slow-drift ennui directors at their best. If Somewhere is a low point in her catalog, she deserves credit for having one of the best active resumes around.

-Brandon Ledet

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood-starring thriller The Beguiled rings oddly like a synthesis of the defining aspects of my two favorite films from the director: the dangerously gloomy boredom of The Virgin Suicides & the playfully modernized costume drama of Marie Antoinette. The delicate visual beauty & intensely feminine modes of violence in Coppola’s The Beguiled plays directly into her most readily apparent strengths as a filmmaker. Even though she could have assembled this picture in her sleep, however, there’s a potency to its in-the-moment effect that makes it feel like a personal obsession instead of a more-of-the-same exercise. The question of the film’s overall effect isn’t whether it’s a great work or if it’s an indulgence in craft, but rather how it never existed before this year, why it’s arriving now. The Beguiled feels as if it’s already lingered in the ether forever, or at least as long as Coppola’s been making movies.

A Virginian school for girls struggles with the vulnerability & boredom of isolation during the American Civil War. Distant drums & cannons build tension in an otherwise serene soundscape of bugs, birds, and branches swaying in the wind. In this secluded pocket of peace, one of the younger girls discovers a wounded Union soldier in the woods. Despite being a firmly Southern, Confederate household, the women of the school take the soldier in and allow him to heal in their care. They purport this kindness to be an extension of their Christian charity, but their motivations are clearly more purient than that claim. As the women openly lust for the new, exciting, masculine sore thumb that invades their once quiet home, unspoken rivalries form and the atmosphere turns palpably violent. Suddenly, the distant sounds of war are dwarfed by the violent outbursts within their home, as the intimate presence of the enemy distorts their Southern belle reverie, giving rise to something much more menacing.

Before its violence becomes openly visible, the devilish fun at the core of The Beguiled is its barely-contained displays of lust. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning (a staggeringly powerful trio of talents) stare down the soldier’s gradually healing body with held breath & blatant thirst. Colin Farrell is objectified without apology under this scrutiny. An unconscious sponge bath scene in particular is gleefully overwhelmed with close-ups of the actor’s hips, thighs, and chest hairs. Farrell also holds his own as the de facto prisoner of his seven female wardens, manipulating rivalries among them as a cowardly power play to establish a permanent place at the school instead of returning to the war. He’s the sole male presence in the house, though, a soldier deep in enemy territory. Any brief battles for power he can manage to stage only lead to temporary gains, sparks immediately snuffed by overtly feminine means. After a while, those lustful stares look a lot less like an opportunity and a lot more like a threat.

There honestly isn’t much to The Beguiled in terms of narrative complexity or immediate cultural significance, so Coppola must carry its weight on the back of her visual craft. The film’s natural lighting & period setting fall somewhere between The Witch & Daughters of the Dust in terms of both costuming & cinematographic tone. The sights & sounds of Nature permeate every moment, so that when they’re disrupted by the echoes of war (whether inside or out of the house) the effect is consistently jarring. The fog rising from the forest floor mirrors the steamy tension between Farrell’s soldier & his wanting captors. The heat of them being trapped in an old Southern home together is apparent long before the tension explodes. I can’t pinpoint any qualities of Coppola’s The Beguiled that suggest an immediacy or a necessity for its modern presence, but Coppola’s sense of visual craft & the tension she stirs between her actors make it feel at least somewhat timeless. It’s not one of Coppola’s very best works as a filmmaker, but it does share enough of those films’ DNA to re-conjure their potency & solidify what makes her one of the most consistently rewarding directors around.
-Brandon Ledet