“In the end we had pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.”
As Paramount Classics rolled out The Virgin Suicides throughout the year 2000, steadily progressing from festivals, to limited release, to wide release, to home video, Sofia Coppola’s debut feature drew generally positive reviews. Critics praised the performances, the evocative soundtrack by the French band Air, Edward Lachman’s lush cinematography, and the film’s elegiac dream-like tone. There were, however, critics and audiences alike which took umbrage with the film’s cool detachment from its subjects, the Lisbon family — a mother, father, and their five teenage daughters. Some balked at the seeming inconsequence of the story, its lack of resolution, and what they felt were underwritten and uninteresting characters. Many, who relished drawing attention to these perceived “faults,” lodged charges of nepotism, claiming that without her father’s famous name, Coppola could never have gotten her film made; there were even those among the film’s proponents who wondered if its strengths were attributable to Francis Ford’s guidance as producer more so than to its novice writer-director.
It can be safely assumed that a majority of The Virgin Suicides’ initial audience — and, presumably, all of the detractors who found it underwritten or slight — was unfamiliar with the 1993 novel on which the film was based. Jeffrey Eugenides would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his second novel, 2002’s Middlesex, but his haunting and lyrical debut was a more under-the-radar success, having drawn strong notices among literary circles since the publication of its first chapter in the Winter 1990 issue of the Paris Review, but failing to make waves among the general public. The novel is immediately striking for its form, having been written in the first person plural and unfurling its narrative not as objective reportage of events but rather the capitulation of a collective memory, somewhere between a fever dream and a deposition. Though the five Lisbon sisters mythologized in the hagiographic title are the ostensible subjects of the novel, it becomes quickly apparent that they are in fact its absent center, and it is the unidentified “we” of the now-grown neighborhood boys which comprise the story’s true protagonist, obliquely divulging more about themselves than they ever could about the obscure objects of their desire.
“The only character in it, in a sense, is the narrator — the collective narrator.” -Jeffrey Eugenides
The key to understanding Coppola’s idiosyncratic means of cinematographic focalization is the first person plural narrating agency and his/their relation to both the heterogenous cinematic signifiers which realize and embellish the narrative, as well as to the people, places, and events signified by them. Eugenides’s novel, in some ways, has the advantage over Coppola’s film in that written text, though it implies an author, need not be understood as univocal. Though the curious may feel compelled to speculate about the breakdown and distribution of the workload — research, organization, typing, etc. — in a coauthored text, one is generally not stricken with cognitive dissonance or unsettled by the task of locating, defining, or “singling out” the authorial voice. In Eugenides’s novel, there is no game of hide-and-seek being played by the narrator; all of the male characters are identified at various points in the text in the third person and there are no “tells” that may betray a single classmate or neighbor as the spokesman of the group. In its written form, The Virgin Suicides presents itself to the reader as an aggregation of available data, which is, befitting its patchwork construction, relayed by a collective narrator. By including contradictory accounts of some events and admitting his/their own subjective limitations, the novel’s narrator creates a sense of attempted objectivity which engenders in the reader both sympathy for his/their efforts and a warranted skepticism with regard to context, deduction, and editorializing within the text.
One way of conveying such a complex form of discourse in cinematographic means would be to film it in a “mockumentary” fashion, focusing on the data-gathering which is foregrounded throughout the novel. Through the use of family photographs and home movies, interviews and testimonies from involved parties, and other related objects, locations, and ephemera, a filmmaker would be able to create a very different adaptation of Eugenides’s novel, one which could easily support the racial and socio-economic subtexts Coppola omits from her film as well as highlight the conspicuous absence of the Lisbon sisters which is key to the novel’s ironic, disquieting, and obliquely self-reflexive tone (and which is, to some degree, inevitably lost as the girls are embodied by the actresses playing them). Frequent allusion is made to “exhibits” throughout the novel, and to their multivalence as signifiers of the Lisbon girls as well as fetishistic totems in their own right, physical objects collected and presented to the reader in an evidentiary fashion; their presence is to be understood as verification of the narrator’s assertions (“you may read it for yourself if you like; we’ve included it as Exhibit #9,”) and their absence underscores the impermanence at the heart of the story as well as memory’s attendant unfixity (“We regret to say that this photograph, Exhibit #47, was recently found missing from its envelope”) (Eugenides 95, 229).
This evidentiary imperative brings to mind a trial; to extend the metaphor, the plurality of the narrator recalls a jury’s foreman who speaks a unified statement on behalf of a collective body. This is helpful in understanding Coppola’s choice to acoustically embody the plural narrator in her adaptation and to do so with an actor (Giovanni Ribisi) whose speaking voice is highly idiosyncratic and identifiable. As the unnamed narrator, Ribisi is one of only eight actors listed in promotional materials, signifying an importance to the narrative of the film and/or its salability as a commercial product with recognizable actors. To give context, of the five actresses who embody the Lisbon sisters, only Kirsten Dunst, who plays Lux, is credited on promotional materials. James Woods, Kathleen Turner, and Josh Hartnett, all listed along with Dunst above the title, are each given considerable screen time in the film. Among the four actors listed below the title, Scott Glenn, Michael Paré, and Danny De Vito each have less than five minutes of screen time, but possess significant name recognition that would help to sell an independent feature from a first-time director based upon an obscure novel. The then-twenty-five-year-old Ribisi, though he had over thirty credits from various television shows and feature films and was perhaps recognizable from small roles in Saving Private Ryan and That Thing You Do, was by no means a bankable star. He had only just completed his first starring roles in the little-regarded The Other Sister and The Mod Squad, released the same year as The Virgin Suicides. His presence on promotional materials alongside established stars of greater stature despite having no screen time within the film testifies to the centrality of his role as the narrator.
“You’re seeing it through the haze of memory, so things are left out and things are added to it. It’s not as it really happened.” -Sofia Coppola (Hoskin 216)
By choosing to foreground the narrator as an acousmatic presence, Coppola not only stresses the importance of language in constructing a partial and speculative portrait of the Lisbon sisters, but in fact qualifies virtually the entire visual track of her film as stemming from and subordinate to the narrating agency. Rather than attempt to depict the multiplicity of empirical information that comprises the novel, she chooses instead to exploit the sensorially enveloping qualities of the cinematic form to depict the narrator’s invocation of the girls. As an invocation of a collective memory, The Virgin Suicides thus subverts and calls into question established definitions of discursive time and perspective while blurring the distinctions between diegetic and extra-diegetic and between real and poetic (which can encompass any number of forms from the imagined to the embellished to the compressed). The film’s calculated attempt to visually and aurally depict its narrative in the fluid and amorphous language of memory- or dream-logic — in essence, to de-verbalize the accounts transcribed in Eugenides’s prose and return them to a figurative, associative form — means that many scenes exist within multiple registers of temporality, signification, and verity simultaneously. It is my intention to define how Coppola plays with these conventions using examples from the filmic text, and then to address some concerns that have been raised regarding her techniques.
In terms of ekphrasis, the use of one artistic medium to describe the affect of another, The Virgin Suicides is fairly complex. What is to be understood as a vast set of first hand empirical data from a plentitude of sources is rendered in language by Eugenides, the evocative power of which is then translated into sound and image by Coppola with the help of her cast and crew, a process which itself encompasses a multitude of heterogenous forms. Given this lineage, as well as the multiple registers and valences of the image and audio tracks (as well as the occasionally anomalous relationship of the two), it is my assertion that nothing in the image track of The Virgin Suicides (with several possible exceptions, to be discussed later) is purely indexical. Rather, the images, as well as elements of the audio track, are to be understood as being evoked by the narrator and thus represent his/their synthesis of first- and second-hand observations in a manner which elides gaps and discrepancies through the narrator’s prior internalization and narrativization of the extant data.