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Sofia Coppola puts it all together in 'The Virigin Suicides'

By Ray Pride

MAY 8, 2000:  Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," which she directed from her own adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, is a stylish, intoxicating debut.

Less indebted to plot than to imagery, her dreamy, assured, even intoxicating film, displays a keen, sensual eye (abetted by veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman). The story, both about looking and being transfixed, assembles the recollection of several neighborhood boys who recall one summer when the mysterious teenage Lisbon girls (the central "stone fox" is played by Kirsten Dunst) come into their lives, then out again, haunting their memories forever. There's placid atmosphere in the master shots of the suburban settings and the attention to smaller details. (Coppola has a fondness for the folding of young limbs; the flexing of boy muscles; close-in shots of tender girl feet.)

Coppola, notoriously, acted in "Godfather III" when Winona Ryder dropped out of her father's film, and since then, she's tried her hand at a number of pursuits, including a well-received career as a still photographer, as well as starting her own fashion line. A short film she considered only a warm-up, "Lick the Star," taught her what she didn't know about production, and after reading "The Virgin Suicides," she realized she had another artistic avenue she wanted to barrel down. Her film shows the influence of contemporary art photographers who specialize in tableau, such as Philip Lorca de Corsica, Juergen Teller, Nick Waplington, Bill Owens ("Suburbia") and Tina Barney ("Theaters fog Manners"), as well as masters of composition and color contract such as Takashi Homma and William Eggleston. (She cites the cinematography in Terrence Malick's "Badlands" as well.) A rarefied set of influences, not to mention the artistic ferment provided by years of growing up in Francis Coppola's household. She's offhandedly funny, and endearingly, her pronunciation of "pictures" approximates "pitchers."

The imagery is often very mysterious; despite strong performances, particularly by Dunst as the girl-woman at the center of the story and James Woods as her tender, confounded father, the movie haunts for its freighted look. Much of it is about sensation: gestures, smiles, stolen glances, a bit of music, a brightly colored frame. "I was always more interested in how all these pieces fit together and create an atmosphere," Coppola says. "Like a collage. I would make collages of photos and images and I wanted it to be like that. The book was sort of put together like that. It wasn't a straight, linear narrative. It was about collecting little bits of evidence and memories. Memories and fantasies and piecing it all together. Those were the impressions the book gave me."

Sometimes a fixation on fashion or decor can smother a story, but Coppola's view of the seventies works. Her editor and her costume designer have both worked extensively with Todd Haynes, which Coppola "loved." "The costumes in "Safe" -- they were so subtle and restrained. It was period, but the 1970s could have taken over, been about that," she says. As could have happened with "The Virgin Suicides." "I didn't want it to be cartoony. I wanted it to have a subtlety. The book was sort of elegant, and I wanted that quality even if it was set in the 1970s. And also that [the voice-overs we hear are the boys] looking at it from outside the seventies. The themes were timeless and could happen anytime. I wanted the period aspect not be about jokes."

She continues shooting stills. "Now that the film's been pretty much done, I've gotten back into taking pictures. I like snapshots. I took pictures on the film. I took the stills out of the fact more that there wasn't a still photographer [in the budget]! I'm always taking pictures, but I tried to approach the stills the same way. I like amateur photos a lot. I like the camera to have a kind of naive awkwardness, the way the characters might take pictures of each other. And also the idea of memory. All the references are from photography. Ed Lachman and I sometimes would just flip through books."

Kirsten Dunst is radiant yet a picture of perplexity at the same time, going from exuberant to brooding in a snap. Coppola thinks that's pretty teenage: "I definitely could relate to them, having been a teenage girl. I think that in Jeffrey's book, he certainly had empathy for them, he loved them. But I think because I was closer in age that they could be sitting around the room in their underwear and it had a sort of intimacy that I don't think makes you feel like you're intruding in their world."

I asked her to say more about the offhandedness she admires in photography. "Whenever I take pictures, It's usually the ones that were in-between shots, the mistake, I always pick as the best one. Just rolling, something would happen. You don't really comprehend the whole thing, just sudden details. It's not a whole memory, it's just pieces."

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