Although the vast majority of cinema is created primarily for the purpose of diversion and entertainment, there are also those films which knowingly take the risk of not appealing to the broadest possible audience. Both approaches have the possibility of working (or not) and the results - both artistically and financially - are never guaranteed either way. Having said that, when a filmmaker decides to stray from convention, push the envelope artistically - and succeeds in doing so, then the film has the ability to be powerful far beyond the capability of its 'safer' cinematic counterparts and transcend its mere subject matter.
...which brings us to The Virgin Suicides, the directorial debut from Sofia Coppola, which turned out to be one of the most immensely satisfying artistic experiences that I've had in the last few years. Unlike so many films that you somehow forget all about by the next morning, this one haunted me for months - and continues to do so.
The movie uses an off-screen narrator to guide the viewer through various episodes that took place prior to the event described by the movie's title, 15 years in retrospect. Instead of playing like a whodunnit or a why-did-they-do-it, the movie refuses to supply us with obvious answers. What the film really does, then, is chart the course of the narrator's thoughts as he tries to recontruct these events for himself in a desperate attempt to make head or tail of what it all means to him. He's been trying to do this for the past 15 years and cannot let go, because no matter how often he ruminates on the details he cannot figure it out. He's not alone in his confusion as one of the earliest voiceovers reveals: 'Even then, as teenagers, we tried to put the pieces together. We still can't. Now, whenever we find ourselves at business meetings or cocktail parties we find ourselves in the corner going over the evidence one more time. All to understand those five girls...who after all these years, we can't get out of our minds.' The film is therefore as much about the teenage boys - if not more so - than it is about the 5 teenage girls and their ultimate fate. We are presented with a stream of images, sounds and objects which conjure up a mixture of the past, present, imagined, photographed, collaged, souvenired, dreamed and perhaps also the real.
The mood and the feel of the film is the key, not so much what happens in it. The content of each scene could be described in one or two sentences, and during some scenes, nothing much 'happens' at all, at least not in a strict narrative sense. It's a movie which comes through via the senses and is felt rather than understood, like music.
Although this is a film that is undoubtedly filled with sadness and loss, it is a winner because there is not a single moment of mawkishness or sentimentality and there are no 'hot' scenes designed as tear-jerkers. Many lesser filmmakers would have fallen into this trap or would have even gone looking for it. Given the subject matter, the movie could easily have been just another movie-of-the-week or an 'issues' film. Coppola avoids all this and delivers everything in a matter-of-fact, uninflected, minimal, almost documentary style, and the film therefore delivers potent, genuine emotions rather than being merely superficial. As French director Robert Bresson said, 'Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion'.
It's not all doom and gloom, however - far from it. There are some hilarious scenes throughout but just as importantly they blend seamlessly and do not jar. Seeing such an accomplished work is reason alone to rejoice.
The Director of Photography is Ed Lachman, ASC, who also recently photographed Steven Soderburgh's films The Limey and Erin Brockovich. Those films featured a more natural, somewhat 'unproduced' look through a pared down and more restrictive use of artificial lighting, and he also complements this film with a somewhat restrained colour palette. The camerawork is remarkably minimalistic and most shots are completely static; the editing style matches this so that many scenes play out entirely with little or no cutting. There are perhaps a handful of camera moves but for the most part, the camera is locked down. This helps to underscore the film's themes of entrapment, solitude, isolation, alienation, suffocation and asphyxiation. This is also evident in the compositions - the characters are usually framed so as to confine them into a restricted space. (There's a shot of them in the bedroom as they get ready for the dance which reminded me of Edvard Munch's painting The room of the dead). Furthermore, the limited number of locations helps in this regard. Like the girls, the viewer is rarely allowed outside the house or past the front lawn; even when not at home they are hardly seen outdoors. A party at the family house early on (due to doctor's orders!) even takes place in the basement. The only respite occurs at the dance, when there is a sense of joy, albeit somewhat restrained. This scene is filmed using a handheld camera which allows the increased level of happiness and freedom to be expressed visually.
The film is filled with numerous directorial and visual flourishes which really illustrate that the director has thought about the choices available to her and hasn't just done things in an obvious and conventional way. I won't describe them in detail here even though I'm tempted to because it's best to discover them first hand. One of the most memorable and poignant scenes in the film uses a split-screen effect and one of the film's best compositions has the James Woods character standing by himself outside the girls' bedroom as he overhears the offscreen whispers between his wife and his daughter. As an added touch, even the camera is isolated from the scene as it watches from within an open doorway. It's a masterstroke.
The movie is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is amamorphically enhanced. Although technically speaking it was shot with the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 in mind, the actual visible difference between the two ratios is so slight that it's pretty much academic. The quality of the transfer is absolutely brilliant, and is a faithful rendition of the moody quality inherent in the photography of the film. There are no problems that I could detect at all, and I was trying hard to find them! In fact, with each successive scene I was struck by how incredibly superb the whole thing looked - the perfect colour rendition, the pristine sharpness...it's all there. The technical aspects just disappear with this disc and completely fail to be an issue. In absolute terms, there are better looking discs, but in terms of how this movie is supposed to look, it leaves nothing to be desired.
The disc is dual-layer and RSDL formatted, and there is a layer change at the start of chapter 11, or 58:42. This is my only reservation with the disc, as a more appropriate place for a layer change would have been at the scene change just 18 seconds later at 59:00 or even at the next edit point at 59:10. Either of these would have resulted in a much smoother layer change than where it was actually placed and would have been close to undetectable. It's quite obvious and jarring the way it is now - have a look and you'll see what I mean. Perhaps there was a technical reason why it had to go there, but I would be curious to find out why that spot was chosen. It's a minor niggle I guess, but when you're THAT close to perfection...
There is one soundtrack available for the movie, which is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack...and what a soundtrack it is! This movie was budgeted at $6M, but the low budget (by Hollywood standards) is not reflected in the soundtrack. In fact, it is an excellent mix by any standards, and far superior sounding to many more expensive, higher profile movies...go figure! Right from the first shot of the movie, the sounds of sprinklers, crickets, wind and distant traffic envelop you, then we move inside the bathroom and a dripping tap comes to life along with the acoustic characteristics of the room itself. Once in a while you watch a DVD with a sound mix so detailed and engrossing that you think that someone came over to your place and upgraded your sound system while you weren't looking. This is one of those soundtracks.
All the sound stems are exemplary. The quality of the voiceover is such that the narrator is standing in your room speaking to you. The dialogue is so clear that it puts more expensive movies to shame. The music sounds great, too, and there's even a wonderful stylistic touch: at the start of some music cues, you can just hear the surface noise of a stylus on vinyl, evoking the pre-CD era that this movie is set in. I love it!
The group 'Air' wrote the score, which makes a perfect contribution to the mood of the film.