Imaging Absence as Abjection: The Female Body in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides

Abjection preserves … the immemorial violence with which one body becomes separated from another body in order to be. — Julia Kristeva

Imaging Absence
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999) relates, via retrospective and acousmatic voiceover, the story of the Lisbon sisters. During the 1970s, the five Lisbon girls are born and raised in a strict Catholic household in suburban Michigan. As they are on the cusp of becoming your women, they all take their own lives. Their deaths trouble, haunt and distend the adult lives of the boys who grew up in their neighbourhood and came to worship the girls. Seemingly traumatised by the inexplicable nature of the girls’ suicide pact, the male narrator – who stands in for all of the boys who loved them – states that adulthood is a place where these men are “happier with dreams than with wives”.

The Lisbon girls function as the catalyst for these dreams and come to represent a lost, halcyon past. While the film abounds with entrancing and mesmeric images, a careful reading of these sequences reveals their predication on a host of clichés and acts of wilful reinterpretation. At its most beguiling, the film betrays its own narrative. As the boys/men desperately attempt to relive, recapture, retell and make sense of the Lisbon girls’ tragedy (to render it meaningful), Coppola’s lyrical and metaphorical images exceed the immediate function of representation and elude the grasp of understanding. In other words, the film works on a formal level to unravel the task of making meaning that is set in place by its narrative. Here, the image is used and revealed precisely as a cliché, as Gilles Deleuze (2005) characterises it. [1]

The Virgin Suicides is comprised of threshold images or images that strain at the limits of understanding. Their status as clichés serves to indicate states of breakdown and exhaustion: the place where understanding ceases and feeling overwhelms. The Virgin Suicides is a film that is predicated on the absence of the female body. It painstakingly examines the ways in which the adolescent female body is eviscerated of its meaty corporeality and recast as a priapic cliché. In visual culture at large, female phenomenological experience of the world is often denied. It is recuperated only as a shallow vessel capable of containing and shoring up the highly specific male fantasy of what a young woman should be. Coppola’s film stages the logical conclusion of what it means to lead such a whittled down and brittle existence in the service of a patriarchal agenda: self-annihilation. In reaction to a cultural and ideological regime of images that is imposed on the female body from outside of itself, The Virgin Suicides centres on effects of internalised violence and anger. At its devastating core, the film argues that real, embodied, fleshy female existence is nowhere to be found on-screen. It is with this absence (the absence of a void that haunts) that Coppola engages.

If The Virgin Suicides beguiles its viewer with oneiric and beautiful imagery, it does so in order to intimate a darkness that lies secreted just beneath its surface. That darkness threatens to rupture the surface with its inarticulable truth. Fundamentally, The Virgin Suicides is a film structured by absence: an absence that haunts and troubles the very body of the film. Indeed, I contend that The Virgin Suicides is a film of horror from which horror is abjected and erased. It is also deeply psychological in terms of the insight it provides about the coping mechanisms that are invoked to deal with catastrophic trauma (as an always failed attempt to narrate or make sense of the inexplicable). The Virgin Suicides also registers adolescent male desire as an implicitly violent form of control over the female body. And thus the film is steeped in death, as its principle narrative concern (beyond the titular suicides) centres on the small doses of death that are dealt to young girls on the cusp of their becoming women. Fundamentally, Coppola’s film addresses the struggle or refusal to take up normative, patriarchal subjectivities. And beyond all of this, it is a masterful adaptation of the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Coppola does not simply navigate the immense task of affectively translating words into images. She limns the yearning, aching chasm of adolescent desire and the sad diminishments of adulthood. In other words, the triumph of The Virgin Suicides lies in its creation of a specific mood and tone that is redolent with the weight of loss – of that which has already disappeared. Palpable and irresolvable feelings of grief are given their correlative form in the film’s images. These images strain to grasp what is always necessarily missed in language (as Roland Barthes puts it, we always fail to fully speak of the things and the people we love). [2] This, then, is a film that is about a hidden, dark desire to return to the half-light of a past that never really existed. In this regard, its nostalgia is insidious, troubling and desperate. In place of the fleshy, adolescent female body and its effluence, the film offers up (and deliberately so) hollow archetypes and ghosts.

What do these images work both to conceal and reveal? Coppola adapts and recuperates her source material from a feminist perspective. If Eugenides’ admittedly beautiful novel is fundamentally a male narrative that knowingly draws on well-worn clichés (the distorting effects of adolescent male desire and a subsequent crisis of masculinity), then The Virgin Suicides transcribes suicide as an act that goes beyond a subversive refusal of normative, patriarchal subjectivity. As such, absence stands in for that which patriarchal law cannot create any legitimate place. The images that the boys/men draw upon to relate the girls’ story have their basis in a plethora of clichés including advertising and soft-core pornography, as we shall see. Any form of subjectivity that reduces, simplifies and renders a person as surface is already a form of annihilation and a wilful disappearance of the body. While The Virgin Suicides is a film that revels in beautiful surfaces, it works to subvert those surfaces, revealing them as brittle, hollow and false. The regime and ideology of images that young women are coerced to submit to forces upon the female body an internal death. This is the unbearable or un-representable ‘truth’ that the boys attempt to cover over or hide via their own narrative. The girls’ deaths threaten to destabilise or decentre their own masculine subjectivities. Beauty, then, is invoked as a kind of psychic abjection: an attempt to cast out the reality of the Lisbon girls as human beings who refused (and continue to resist) a specific form of narrativisation.

Speaking to the film’s broader obsession with failure, even its visual language denotes absence. Cracks, fissures and lacunae intersperse and break apart the regime of images that hold in place the boys’ attempt to narrate their way out of the tragedy. [3] As Deleuze writes, it is in “the disturbances of memory and failures of recognition” that we come closest to meaning. [4] As a feminist hauntology, then, the ‘reality’ of the Lisbon sisters’ story lies in the in-between and on the underside of what we see. [5] The film’s central critique is of the implicit violence and control that is wrought upon the adolescent female body. That critique, as we shall see, subsists as a kind of abject horror that the boys’ tentative narrative tries but always fails to hold at bay. Moreover, the very structure of the film works to undermine the boys’ narrative by drawing upon abiding tenets of classical narrative cinema such as suture, lack, fetishism and sadism. As re-theorised by feminist film scholars such as Kaja Silverman, these tenets reveal the mechanics of narrativisation as itself a form of masculinist control. As Silverman notes, one way to contain the female body is by “writing a narrative by means of which she [it] is defined”. [6] Via recourse to feminist recuperations of classical narratives that seek to ‘other’ the female body as well as Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, this article contends that The Virgin Suicides opens up but one site of contestation to the perennial scopic regime of classical cinema. What the film foregrounds is the very fact of an absent female presence.

“Obviously, Doctor, you have never been a thirteen-year-old girl”: The Female Body as Abject Object
Abjection as a psychological process and the abject as a psychic category are highly specific psychoanalytic terms that have been most extensively elaborated upon by philosopher and analyst, Julia Kristeva. In her study Powers of Horror (1980), Kristeva delineates the abject in relation to how it is invoked to contain and section off the (maternal) female body and, by extension, all those bodies that are deemed to be foreign. As such, the abject acts as a force of estrangement or an attempt to ‘other’ that which we place outside of certain hegemonic categories of identity and being. Although Kristeva has characterised aspects of the abject through material substances that may seem to revolt and repel (excrement, vomit, blood, the cadaver), this summation serves merely to make manifest what the abject object and the process of abjection represent and enact. As Kristeva writes, “filth is not a quality in itself, but it applies to what relates to a boundary and, more particularly, represents the object jettisoned out of that boundary, its other side, a margin”. [7] Indeed, Kristeva stresses that what is at stake in denigrating certain objects or people is not, in actual fact, a lack of cleanliness or integrity. Rather, the abject is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”. [8] The abject is that which works to obfuscate boundaries and borders. The abject is inherently liminal because it is neither a discrete object nor a non-object. Its very threshold status calls into question the borders between self and other, life and death and being and non-being. Abjection – as an active mode of (dis)engagement – enables the shoring up of identity as it separates an an entity out from that which threatens or pollutes its existence as a supposedly sovereign being. As such, the liminal, in-between space within which abjection and the abject exist and function brings the subject and its ‘other’ into contact. In the process of doing so, the abject reveals the compartmentalisation and separation on which all identity is founded. By its very nature, that which threatens our borders and undermines our boundaries is essential to our identity. However much I may seek to deny or eradicate its existence, I exist by virtue of what I am not. Kristeva writes that the abject object “lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated, it beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced” and that “it draws me toward the place where meaning collapses”. [9] The abject object, then, exercises a curious form of attraction and seduction on us precisely because it reveals something fundamental and essential to our own existence and identity. The abject, as the psychoanalyst might argue, is fundamental to our very being precisely because it reveals that which remains latent at the heart of all being, all meaning, desire and language. The abject reveals the want that is initiated by our entrance into language and the Symbolic realm, always already founded on lack or void. This is nothing less than an absence that haunts us.

Taking her cues from Kristeva, film scholar Barbara Creed expounds the abject in terms of the dynamics initiated and invoked by the horror genre – especially in relation to what she describes as the ‘monstrous-feminine’. She suggests that the abject plays a vital role in ascribing and setting up identity. Although

… the subject must exclude the abject, the abject must, nevertheless, be tolerated for that which threatens to destroy life also helps to define life. Further, the activity of exclusion is necessary to guarantee that the subject take up his/her proper place in relation to the symbolic. [10]

Earlier, I suggested that The Virgin Suicides is, in fact, a horror film from which all signs of horror are eradicated. This reading is especially pertinent to the film’s portrayal of the female body. The female body functions as a site of inspiration to reverie and a receptacle for phantasy and projection. It symbolises an ‘otherness’ that must be ‘cleaned’ of its abject core in order to be acceptable or useful for narrative purpose.

In other words, at no point is the fleshy reality of the female body present in the images put forth in The Virgin Suicides. Rather, the female body serves to shore up and secure (male) identity. At the same time, it threatens to radically decentre and destabilise meaning and coterminous identity. Here, the adolescent female body is depicted as a spectral entity that hangs between life and death thus invoking the abject. The abject returns in the form of haunting, dreams, fantasy/phantasy and also trauma. As previously discussed, the film functions as a kind of feminist hauntology. What I mean to suggest by this notion is that its representations work to break apart and decimate the psychic processes that create boundaries and identities in the first place (revealing their very basis within those processes). And yet, in order to recognise the dual status or purpose of the female body’s representation within the film, one must be able to read for how its corresponding images have been cleaned or effaced of the abject (in particular, any reference to menstruation). I suggest that the film itself reveals the psychic mechanics of abjection in order to critique narratives that are predicated on male desire and identity. In short, the film evinces how the female body comes to be viewed as ‘other’ and thus is absented from the screen.

Drawing on the literary characters of ‘Lolita’ and ‘Ophelia’ (as envisaged by director Stanley Kubrick and artist John Everett Millais, respectively), The Virgin Suicides opens on two iconic, if somewhat hackneyed, iterations of the young female body. [11] Seen sucking on a lollipop, it is the image of Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) as Lolita that opens the film. A sinister tumescence that lies beneath the apparently bucolic image is also introduced. The glow of the evening sunset limns Lux’s hair, creating a halo effect around her young, dimpled face. As the Latin etymology of her name would suggest Lux is associated with light and, suitably, she acts as the main source for the boys’ fantasies and reveries. Eschewing movement or rack focus, the film’s flat, head-on, establishing shot sets Lux apart from the drab, uniform and suburban environment.

Lux is a thing of wonder in this film’s pedestrian diegetic world. Indeed, the following sequence of tableaux shots establishes the setting of the film as a generic, all-American neighbourhood. Here, one house is much like any other – conformity and uniformity are the foundations upon which this community is built. Yet, just as the opening image of Lux signals outside of itself (recalling Kubrick’s figure of Lolita as at once both seductive and infantile), so do these scenes of a domestic idyll intimate more insidious representations of the ‘white picket fence’ motif. [12] Indeed, the humming sound of summer insects heard during the film’s opening moments does not indicate the season in which things grow and ripen, as it ordinarily might. Rather, it indicates the moment at which things turn to rot. By the film’s conclusion, its small town will be swamped in an algae and insect infestation that manifests itself in a sickly, green tinge that permeates the atmosphere and, accordingly, the film’s mise en scène. In the context of the film’s introduction of Lux Lisbon, she is undoubtedly beautiful (also: connoting a specific and iconic form of ‘American’ beauty associated with homecoming queens and cheerleaders). She is also on the threshold of womanhood – a transition that brings ruin and obliteration upon her and her sisters. [13] If the index of her on-screen presence here is Lolita, then it is worth remembering that the subjective viewpoint of Dolores Haze as a young girl is continuously denied to the viewer. In Kubrick’s film, we are denied the privilege of really knowing Dolores for she is caught in a narrative of male desire that serves to disguise an irrevocably damaging form of abuse. The subtle, hidden harm that can be brought to bear on the young female body is compounded further by the introduction of Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna R. Hall) in the ensuing sequence.

As the narrator’s voiceover informs us that “Cecilia was the first to go”, a close-up shot reveals a cornucopia of ‘feminine’ accoutrements such as lipsticks and perfume bottles. This imagery is followed by an overhead shot of Cecilia lying in a bathtub of bloodied water and wearing a white ceremonial gown. Clearly, we infer, she has slit her wrists. Even in the moment of her (near) death, Cecilia remains pristine and serene. In her extensive study of the aesthetic representation of female death, Elisabeth Bronfen notes that the prevalent presentation of the female corpse is highly ornate. Throughout the history of art, beguilement and beautification are invoked in order to rid the female body of threat. As she writes, femininity:

… and death cause a disorder to stability, mark moments of ambivalence, disruption or duplicity and their eradication produces a recuperation of order, a return to stability. The threat that death and femininity pose is recuperated by representation, staging absence as a form of re-presence, or return, even if or rather precisely because this means appeasing the threat of real mortality, of sexual insufficiency, of lack of plenitude and wholeness. [14]

Implicit within Bronfen’s analysis here is that the female body already denotes a form of lack registered as death. That lack must be aestheticised in order to render its threat obsolete. Yet this process is an impossible task. As Bronfen puts it:

the ‘re’ of return, repetition or recuperation suggests that the end point is not the same as the point of departure, although it harbours the illusion that something lost has been perfectly regained. Instead, the regained order encompasses a shift; that is to say that it is never again/no longer entirely devoid of traces of difference. The recuperation is imperfect, the regained stability not safe, the urge for order inhabited by a fascination with disruption and split. [15]

In other words, the female body is fetishised precisely because it has come to denote lack. What this fetishisation both reveals and conceals is the threat to stability that made it necessary in the first place. Aestheticisation of the female both attenuates and heightens that which threatens stability and order, drawing attention towards the elaborate ruse that is representation founded on absence (the very definition of the cinematic image, in fact).

In The Virgin Suicides, Cecilia’s self-abnegation is aestheticised in precisely the same way that the artist Millais renders Ophelia a tragic, sacrificial and iconic female figure. Indeed, the grooming products in the initial shot are framed and lit so as to resemble sacrificial offerings at an altar rather than the banal items that they truly are.

Her hair and dress, saturated with water, form a billowing cloud that seems to buoy her fragile frame upward; her face breaks the water’s film in a way that outlines and frames precisely her gentle, feminine features. Even in near-death, Cecilia’s body is brought under control via lines of symmetry that help to ensure she remains an eternally poised, mysterious and even saintly figure. Her white ceremonial gown resembles those worn at christenings, confirmations and weddings, marking her out further as a sacrificial figure since such ceremonies traditionally denote the passing of the (female) body into the sanctified space of Christianity or marriage. Moreover, these rites of passage centre on the purity and integrity of the body undergoing the ceremony. Here, the body undergoes a process by which its undefiled or unspotted wholeness is breached by the ‘holy’ or male body. Like the image of Lux Lisbon that preceded it, the overhead shot of Cecilia flattens out her body against the background of the frame, an effect which recalls medieval painting and its iconographic treatment of saints. Once again, we witness the female body as icon, as mere representation: flattened, simplified and emptied of depth. The presence of blood within this image serves to radically undercut its iconic status. Indeed, this aspect of the image suggests an entirely different intentionality at work. As a teenage girl, Cecilia’s body is entering adulthood and its coterminous strictures and norms. Blood, within this context, represents the marker of a fertile (and therefore desirable/marketable) female body. As symbolised by Cecilia’s act of self-obliteration, blood also represents a refusal to adhere to those norms – to undertake the ideologically laden role of woman. As Mary Douglas has also pointed out, blood frequently represents defilement since it sullies purity and breaches the border between inside and outside. In anthropological terms, blood is a taboo substance. Since blood threatens the precarious balance of social hierarchy, gendered differentiation and stratification, countless rituals are invoked to contain and eliminate it from cultural – especially visual – discourse. As Kristeva puts it, menstrual blood “stands for the danger issuing from within the identity (social or sexual); it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference”. [16]

Just as the opening image of Lux Lisbon suggests trauma and abuse (harnessing luminescence to conceal a dark and hidden reality), this image of Cecilia Lisbon functions both to obfuscate and reveal the psychic dynamics on which it is founded (control, denial, abjection). Moreover, the insistent presence of blood within the image pollutes the notions of purity and wholeness on which ceremonies that celebrate virginity are based. As the paramedics lift Cecilia from the bathtub, she drops a laminated picture of the Virgin Mary which she has soiled with her blood. (From this point on in the film, blood will be eradicated or, indeed, abjected). It is the reality of the female body and the radical nature of refusing one’s place as a woman that seeps into the image here, working to decentre and displace it. Following on from the image of Lux Lisbon as it does, Cecilia’s iconic status recuperates and reworks socially sanctioned rituals that dramatise the sanctity of the young female virgin body. Instead, her passing over into womanhood is presented as a form of violation and control.

As I have argued elsewhere, the mise en scène of the Lisbon sisters is partially characterised by a pristine and thus impossible whiteness. [17] Their on-screen presence is informed by a dichotomy that is ubiquitous across all genres of classical narrative cinema: the Madonna/Whore. Their appearance is reminiscent of soft-core pornography and beauty commercials (in particular, those from the 1970s) while also recalling the luminous appearance of saints in religious art. In fact, Therese, Cecilia, and Mary are all named after female saints. The girls are intimately intertwined with light – the light of both the sun and of the moon. Therefore, it is fitting that Lux is ‘the last to go’ in terms of the girls’ deaths. Lux (whose name literally means light) is the catalyst and the location for the boys’ elaborate fantasies; as such, the light dies with her. In addition, the film abounds with extended and overt sequences of fantastical imagery that place the girls within nature. Coppola herself has remarked that she took particular inspiration from Breck shampoo commercials and Playboy magazine spreads from the 1970s in which women appear “with back-lit hair, [as] … the girl in nature. That was the fantasy girl of that era”. [18] In these bucolic sequences, the Lisbon girls are strikingly childish and simple in their presentation. They are preoccupied with writing diary entries or seen playing with sparklers, flowers, each other’s hair and unicorns (the latter signals that such images belong to the realm of pure fantasy). Moreover, the use of superimposition and dissolves explicitly mark these sequences out as a site of dream and reverie. Such techniques serve to effect parity between the Lisbon sisters, as one girl’s face blends into and appears to merge with another. Indeed, the girls are frequently portrayed as an amorphous mass. Their sprawling adolescent limbs are entangled in such a manner that it is difficult to decipher their bodies as discrete and contained. Although Lux may be marked out as especially worthy of reverence, Coppola’s film implies that the Lisbon girls are really an indeterminate and anonymous holding space or void for the boys’ most intimate projections. If Lux is the cinematic apparatus (the light), then Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A. J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman) and Cecilia function as its blank screen. Later, the sisters signal to the boys using torchlight. Here, they are rendered as ghostly apparitions or beacons of light that beckon from out of the darkness. The Lisbon sisters’ association with light is an integral part of their simplification. Reduction allows the boys to reconfigure the girls as the repository of all meaning and knowledge: as enlightenment. Indeed, as the narrator states: “they knew everything about us and we couldn’t fathom them at all … they understood love and even death”.

Writing on whiteness and its myriad forms of cultural representation, Richard Dyer posits that “(w)hiteness, really white whiteness, is unattainable. Its ideal forms are impossible… whiteness as an ideal can never be attained, not only because white skin can never be hue white, but because ideally white is absence: to be really, absolutely white is to be nothing”. [19] Dyer also powerfully delineates how virginity has been cleaved to whiteness in order to mark out the virgin body as unpolluted and uncorrupted – an association which ensures its supreme value. He continues:

the cult of virginity expressed an idea of unsullied femininity (not dirtied by sex), which was held to be visible in the woman’s appearance. It could be intensified by fasting … which makes the person look paler and signifies lack of corporeal engagement with the world, the body not dirtied by having had matter stuffed into it. [20]

As Dyer argues, extreme asceticism, abstinence and abnegation are the physical correlates of what virginity denotes only symbolically. Fundamentally, virginity signals a complete relinquishment of engagement with the world; a drawing away from that which touches, infiltrates or intrudes on the boundary between self and other and self and the world. Yet, unsullied purity (as whiteness) is also coterminous with death, void and absence. This wilful purification of the adolescent female body is a form of abjection: a way of rendering it clean and empty of threat. And yet, the extremity of whiteness implies the impossibility of syphoning off and denying that which abuts any determinate identity. This idea is most evident in the somewhat ludicrous nature of the boys’ fantasies. These can be contrasted to bathetic effect with Cecilia’s anodyne diary entries (“today we had frozen pizza for dinner”). In other words, the impossibility of the film’s images calls into question and trouble the very motivations that ground such representations of the female form. In many instances, such as with our introduction to Lux and Cecilia, the image is precisely revealed as a recuperation/cliché. I contend that the evidently priapic nature of these moments draws the viewer’s attention towards what deliberate aestheticisation attempts to conceal: the reality of the female adolescent body. In short, whiteness and light works to cover over and neutralise menstrual blood, invocating purity and virginity. This denial is made manifest on a narrative level when one of the boys flees the Lisbon family home after having discovering a cupboard packed full of tampons in the bathroom. It is also subtly invoked by the scenes that occur during a party and at the school homecoming dance.

These two scenes work to make blood conspicuous by its very absence, transforming the ritualised moments that mark a steady transition into adulthood into a site of disaster. In her second (and successful) suicide attempt, Cecilia impales herself on the Lisbon family’s garden fence (the traditional symbol of the civilised home). As she lands on her back and the railings visibly pierce her young body, we can ascertain her death as an extremely violent and unpleasant form of self-annihilation. And yet, this horrific act of obliteration is presented to the viewer as though Cecilia were performing some sort of bizarre magic trick. Her body seems to levitate. The scene’s ghostly effect is only further compounded by Cecilia’s ethereal white gown, illuminated by the moonlight. Mr Lisbon (James Woods) orders everyone to look away, an injunction that signals towards the real horror of this moment. Further, Mrs Lisbon’s (Kathleen Turner) gasps of shock at the sight of her daughter’s body also gesture towards the unbearable elements that have been sanitised and removed from what we witness. As Cecilia appears to be floating, her young body invokes both the imagery of Christ’s resurrection and scenes of demonic possession in the horror genre, such as in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Cecilia’s tragedy has been recast and recalled in the boys’ collective memory as an attempt to keep her alive through beatification while also rendering her monstrously ‘other’. Indeed, it is the former which works to conceal the latter for Cecilia continues to return from the dead throughout the film. As such, she is cast as an abject body that haunts, subsists and troubles precisely because she does not respect the boundary between the living and the dead. Yet her liminal existence intimates a darker collective truth about the girls. The strictures and norms of their adolescent existence and their passage into adulthood diminish their affective possibilities: they become the living dead. The boys’ attempt to narrativise the girls is another act of such violence. Their sanitation and reduction of the girls is indicative of the extent that they will go to deny their ‘othering’ of the Lisbon sisters.

If the scene depicting Cecilia’s suicide cites The Exorcist as its source, it does so in such a way that all signs of horror are abjected (blood, vomit, bile). Through its framing and lighting, the homecoming sequence evokes the same aesthetic organisation as another iconic horror film from the 1970s (the same decade in which The Virgin Suicides is set): namely, Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). [21] As critic Jean-Marc Lalanne notes, there is a striking similarity between Carrie and The Virgin Suicides that cannot merely be attributed to their shared 1970s aesthetic and style of cinematography – both films dramatise certain adolescent American rites of passage. [22] Yet, Lalanne argues that the menstrual blood that is so conspicuous and integral in Carrie is notably absent from the cinematic frame in The Virgin Suicides. If both films recast the female adolescent rite of passage into adulthood as a transition from life to death, Carrie overtly manifests the violence that is inherent in the formation of normative subjectivity. By contrast, The Virgin Suicides induces anxiety in the viewer by strategies of omission and ellipsis. Through the use of slow-motion and close-up, the homecoming sequence is carefully crafted to make Lux Lisbon and the captain of the football team, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the focal point of attention. Embodied as they are by actors Dunst and Hartnett (both teenage ‘icons’ at the time of the film’s making), this teenage couple symbolises the status and popularity that is attributed to those whom the school community sets apart. As Trip and Lux are the idols of their peer group’s own making, they are inevitably consecrated as such by being crowned the school’s homecoming king and queen. Graphically matched with De Palma’s earlier film, this sequence induces a sense of anticipation and anxiety via its overt inter-textual referencing. It is Coppola’s skilful deployment of reference and deferral, however, that exacerbates the viewer’s sense of something sinister that is lurking outside the film frame. That foreboding spills over into the following sequence during which Lux loses her virginity to Trip on the open football field.

I have elsewhere argued for Trip as the consummate high school ‘jock’ who must seal his status as such by way of sexual conquest. [23] The incontrovertibly damaging effects of such codified and ritualised behaviour for both genders is at the heart of what Coppola addresses in this scene. As Trip tackles Lux playfully to the ground, the viewer cannot remain oblivious to the fact that this form of ‘play’ takes place within a liminal space that sanctions certain forms of male aggression that would not be permissible elsewhere. Moreover, the fluorescent light that bears down on them turns the sexual act and the taking of a young girl’s virginity into a spectacle. Precisely because there is nobody there to witness this spectacle from the football stands, the viewer’s cinematic voyeurism is made all the more acute. In effect, we take the place of the boys who spy on the girls through a telescope, seemingly without impunity or self-scrutiny. (Later, the boys will watch Lux engage in night time trysts with men from the neighbourhood on the rooftop of the Lisbon family home). In these scenes, what the film foregrounds is the prurient and prying (male) gaze as well as how that gaze transforms the female body into an object that can be controlled, violated and discarded. The latter is precisely what happens to Lux when she wakes up on the football field, having been abandoned by Trip (whose code of behaviour is determined by his callous and cold persona as the school jock). In fact, the sexual act is made all the more troubling and ominous by its very absence. We do not see what Trip actually does to Lux, since this takes place within an ellipsis. What this disconcerting absence signals, however, is that Trip may very well have raped Lux (an unbearable moment that remains unspoken and can only be registered in the film as void). Trip does not emerge unscathed from this encounter, however. In the film’s only contemporary sequence, Coppola presents us with an older, bloated version of Trip who tells us that things changed for him when he left Lux “out there on the open field”. Speaking from a drug rehabilitation facility, Trip quotes a line from the poet T. S. Eliot, referring to Lux as “the still point of the turning world” for him. Yet it is Lux who is condemned and tainted for all time. Indeed, the glow of sunlight with which she was previously associated is replaced by a melancholy twilight. As ‘light’ /lux, this is the point from which she begins to die. It is this sole transgression that begets the permanent incarceration of all the Lisbon girls. It is this event that determines that Lux must fulfil her own cliché (just as Trip does). Lux’s initiation into sex opens her up to the advances of every man from the neighbourhood. The double standards that prevail in high school culture ensure that whilst Trip is celebrated for his conquest of Lux, she is forced into the position of devaluing her own body for having given it to him (or for having had it taken by force). It is precisely this abhorrent psychic violence enacted on adolescent girls that is symbolised and sublimated through horror and, more specifically, blood in Carrie. The very absence of horror and blood in The Virgin Suicides renders such psychic violence even more sinister. For it is in the lacunae, the cracks and the fissure as well as in the things that do not easily slip into classical narrative form (and thus, cannot be articulated or named) that real damage lies and lingers.

“We will never find the pieces to put them back together”: Narrative, Still Images and Fetishisation as Symbolic Possession
The narrative that the boys construct around the Lisbon sisters is an attempt to possess and to control. More particularly, it is through the hackneyed trope of fetishisation that the boys succeed in partially covering over the reality of what the Lisbon girls represent to them: a void or lack that is transcribed onto the female body. Yet, the girls’ representation is predicated so manifestly on clichés that their presence as a still image or, more precisely, a photographic plate (as the French term designates it) disrupts and breaks apart any attempt to form a seamless whole. This is how Laura Mulvey originally conceived the female figure as made manifest on-screen. In other words, the very mechanic that is set in place to contain and regulate the female body on-screen is also precisely that which threatens to decentre it. Indeed, Christian Metz argues that fetishism is a psychic process invoked both to reveal and conceal the lack which it pertains to conceal. As he writes, “‘the fetish is a prop, the prop that disavows a lack and in doing so affirms it without wishing to”. [24] Writing further of the purpose of the fetish (that is, the impossible task of trying to reclaim completeness and unification), he notes that only “lost objects are … the ones one is afraid to lose … there is a cause only in something that doesn’t work”. [25] The Virgin Suicides foregrounds the processes by which the female body is made ‘other’ and the manifold ways in which classical narrative sutures the spectator into the action in order to repress and deny everything that it must conceal. Moreover, as Metz puts it, “every film is a fiction film”. [26] If cinema has long been associated with phantoms, haunting, spectres and shadows (precisely because of its foundation in absence), then it is the female body that returns to rupture the surface of the image, revealing its deliberate distortion and concealment. The female body is both that which is cleaved onto the lost object as fetish and that which reveals the fetish as a psychic structure that is founded in disavowal.

Writing of classical narrative form, Jacqueline Rose describes the representational history of the female body. As she writes:

… the female subject is structured as image around this reference (to the excluded real) and … thereby comes to represent the potential loss and difference which underpins the whole system … what classical cinema performs or puts on stage is this image of woman as other, dark continent, and from there what escapes of it is lost to the system; at the same time as sexuality is frozen into her body as spectacle, the object of phallic desire and /or identification. [27]

Narrative can act as an efficient form of abjection since it works powerfully to exclude that which tears meaning and coherence asunder. In psychoanalytic discourse, the female body is radically excluded in order for the social subject to be formed, especially in terms of their entry into the realm of the Symbolic. Social, cultural and national identities are often constructed against what is occluded (made ‘other’). Yet this occlusion always subsists and remains as a power that can decentre and disrupt. By definition, dominant narratives/fictions are dependent for their meaning and coherence on what they exclude. In The Virgin Suicides, it is the female body that comes to represent both the lost and denied object. In her work on suture, Silverman notes of Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) and of narrative film more generally that:

… film poses a temptation … the temptation to refuse cultural reintegration, to skid off course, out of control, to prefer castration to false plenitude. That danger … is implicit in classic cinema’s scopic regime. It represents a point of female resistance within the very system which defines woman as powerless and lacking. [28]

This is what is meant by the Lisbon sisters’ presence on-screen as a form of feminist hauntology. Their ability to exceed the narrative tropes that are employed to harness them works as resistance; as that which causes one to ‘skid off course’ or ‘out of control’, to recall Silverman. Similarly, The Virgin Suicides is a film that slips between regimes of the image. It both demonstrates the powerful drive for a narrative that would reclaim the lost object – and thus meaning – and the impossibility of creating a coherent, abiding trajectory that serves to contain and expound on the female body. The female body always exceeds any attempt to delimit it. The Virgin Suicides actively works to accentuate lack, void, ruptures and lacunae. It also demonstrates how every narrative is predicated on what it excludes. It is this structuring absence that can never be fully eradicated, despite its non-representability and its lack of articulability.

In The Virgin Suicides, fetishisation takes the form of styles of framing that work to still the female figure. The presence of the Lisbon girls tends to take events out of the film’s narrative flow. This occurs to such an extent that the obsessive psychic drives underpinning the representation of the girls as phantasy/fantasy is elucidated. As such, the film dramatises and problematises Mulvey’s original premise regarding classical narrative film. For Mulvey, “the presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in a normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation”. [29] Notably, the boys’/men’s fantasies are begotten by photographs of the girls. These photographs are saved from the wreckage of the Lisbon family home after the girls’ demise. As I argued earlier, the girls’ imagery is deeply informed by clichés recuperated from advertising and pornography. The basis of their narrative, then, is beset by the still image as cliché – as a form of cultural shorthand that should ease assimilation. And yet, the overtly apparent status of these images as recuperations pushes the image to its limit. Here, what the cliché as still image denotes comes to the fore: the passing of time and mortality. If the Lisbon girls are at once simplified and reduced to a form of surface, their representation also intimates at what is left out of the image.

What escapes or is occluded from the image decentres and destabilises the priapic narrative it is deployed to uphold. By way of a fetishistic use of the close-up, the Lisbon sisters are introduced to us as a group. The boys take up the position of the cinematic viewer on the pavement opposite the Lisbon family home. The girls are depicted discretely via slow-motion, freeze-frame and close-up. Each girl’s face is accompanied by a childish font that appears on-screen, announcing her name to the viewer. In essence, these highly cinematic and reflexive mechanisms afford the boys and the viewer a proximity to the girls that is impossible, given the boys’ distance from the girls. From the outset, what this sequence serves to foreground is the highly artificial and manufactured nature of the boys’ narrative, as well as the fact that they are creating a narrative film that is structured around the Lisbon girls in their minds. The boys’ narrative is predicated upon distance, cinematic voyeurism and a fetishisation of the female figure. Facilitated from a safe distance, the ‘snapshots’ of the girls are indicative of the way in which the female body is simplified and reduced in order to aid the film’s central narrative (indicative of how what is complex exceeds explanation). Rather than telling us anything about the Lisbon sisters, the ‘snapshots’ reveal a desire to control and contain the female body, especially on the part of the boys who are writing their own narrative. Both Susan Sontag (1979) and Mulvey (2006) have noted that the blocking of movement (the moment of pause, as it were) that is the definitive aspect of the photograph or still image is an attempt to possess and to control. As Mulvey puts it, the “possessive spectator commits an act of violence against the cohesion of a story … but more specifically, the sadistic instinct is expressed through the possessive spectator’s desire for mastery and will to power”. [30] Yet in wanting to possess the image, in enacting a form of violence by stopping movement, the spectator unleashes cinema’s power to evoke what lies beyond the border that separates past and present, life and death. Since cinema is the medium of ‘death’ (the still image projected at a speed of 24 frames per second), Mulvey notes that analogue film is founded in immobility. Cinema is haunted by the still image because it threatens to break apart or rupture the illusion of movement so necessary to the trajectory that drives the narrative film forward. All too often, that trajectory is predicated on male desire. While the boys draw upon pre-fabricated still images and photographs of the girls in order to construct their story, their narrative is continually threatened by the stillness of the image. The stillness of the image connotes the past and, more extensively, death. At the heart of the boys’ desire to control the girls is the bitter truth of lives lost to the inevitability of time and mortality. As such, the still image serves a dual role in The Virgin Suicides. Here, the image is both cliché (in the French etymological sense of the term, as a photographic plate) and it tends towards the point of breakdown that registers or reveals ‘unbearable’ that it latently contains.

According to Sontag, photography “turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed”. [31] As Mulvey notes further, this

desire for possession … [is] fulfilled in stillness but also in the repetition of movements, gestures, looks, actions. In the process, the illusion of life … is weakened, and the apparatus overtakes the figures movements … the human figure becomes an extension of the machine … ghosts of automata. [32]

The still image, then, denotes an attempt to lay claim to a subject as object of the gaze. When drawn out of movement (as is so manifestly the case here), the image also registers its basis in a mechanic that renders the human body as automata or ghost; it testifies to the mutability and vulnerability of the human form as it is captured and memorialised on film. It is precisely because photographs are but one instant, a slice of time, that they are ripe for projection and interpretation. Again, it is Sontag who reminds us that “photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy”. [33] Moreover, by capturing a moment that is already gone, even at the moment of its registration, the photograph is able to conjure up a palpable sense of an inaccessible past. In the photograph, everything is displaced and lost to what Sontag calls “time’s relentless melt”. [34] While the power of the photograph actively promotes nostalgia, it is also an incitement to reverie. Furthermore, there is a “sense of the unattainable … evoked by photographs [which] feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance”. [35] In The Virgin Suicides, the still image is essential to the construction of the boys’ narrative because it allows them to possess the Lisbon sisters (albeit in a purely facile way). Like a form of compulsive repetition, the still image also recreates, infinitely, the distance or divide so essential to maintaining the desire that drives all life and all narrative forward. This is why the Lisbon sisters are uniformly framed within the same repertoire of shots (long shots and fetishistic close-ups are used repeatedly). As representatives of the lost object and as that which incites but never assuages desire, the girls must be recuperated both as the boys’ site of loss and as an elusive cohesion or integrity that is returned to continually.

If the Lisbon girls are iconic images brought to life, then the movement of their bodies accentuates and heightens their fragile and ethereal presence. Even in movement, the girls denote an ephemerality and an elusiveness. In one sequence, the boys read a passage from Cecilia’s diary (itself a talismanic object that precipitates projection, dream and fantasy). In this passage, Cecilia writes of a family excursion on a boat that results in the sighting of a whale. What follows is an impossible piece of ‘documentary footage’: an 8mm film sequence that reveals Lux’s face in grainy, faded and flickering close-up. Lux touches the whale and smiles into the camera. The fragile and luminescent quality of the footage affirms both the insubstantiality of her body and the impossible nature of this fantasy. The boys are imagining themselves into a moment to which they could not pay witness. Lux is disclosed as a creature of fiction here and an image of the boys’ own making (the boys’ ‘dream girl’ and their source of light). Moreover, the material texture of the film stock (prone to disintegration and increasingly obsolete) conveys this moment as already always lost to a past – a past that is also based in myth. The pathos of this moment is contained in Lux’s beautiful, joyful and young face. She is the girl created out of male fantasy who is forever unreachable, unattainable and lost. In short, Lux is an impossible icon. It is this shifting ground between movement and stillness and modes of possessive and pensive spectatorship that registers the impossibility of making sense of the trauma of the girls’ suicides. As ciphers and placeholders for an inarticulate loss, the girls exceed and fracture the strictures that are put in place to make them meaningful. In The Virgin Suicides, the Lisbon sisters are put in service to shore up a definitively male narrative of desire. However, points of rupture, breakdown and failure intimate a darker truth that cannot be addressed within the narrow confines of a story that is written about them and not by them. If the girls embody a lost past, they also represent a refusal to take up their place within a patriarchal society that confines them to a form of living death. It is in the form of the still image or, more specifically, its dual status as cliché (that which cannot be grasped because it eludes figuration), that the film’s final ‘truth’ is extant. To be rendered as surface, one acquiesces to internal death.

[1] As Deleuze writes of the cliché, “we do not perceive the thing or the image in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what it is within our interests to perceive”. When the cliché functions optimally, it works as a form of cultural shorthand that facilitates and eases assimilation without critical thought: we already know what to think about this kind of image because we recognise it instinctively. However, when the clichéd nature of images becomes apparent or is heightened to such an extent that we become aware of its inner working or its construction, our automatic modes of comprehension begin to break down. What the cliché conceals from us (the underside or what Deleuze terms “the unbearable” of the image) begins to slip through. See Gilles Deleuze (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and R. Galeta), Cinema 2: The Time-Image (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 19-20.
[2] Barthes wrote this in an unfinished manuscript that was found after his death. See Sylvere Lortringer, “Barthes after Barthes: mourning, fiction and love – the final thoughts of a great writer”, Frieze, 1 January 2011, (last accessed: 23 August 2016). This sentiment was also the subject of Barthes’ posthumously published work Mourning Diary (2012).
[3] Elsewhere, Judith Butler has written eloquently of the manifold ways in which narrative and autobiography, in particular, is founded on what it occludes or hides. See Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005) and Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso Press, 2006).
[4] Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 52.
[5] Rebecca Munford and Melanie Waters have elaborated on the notion of hauntology in relation to feminist history thus: “hauntology appears to encompass many of the issues that have beset debates in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries about feminism’s relationship to the past and its potential to intervene in women’s futures … it is also a hauntology in a Derridean sense – a way of being that is shaped by anxieties about the past, concern for the future and an overarching uncertainty about its own status and ability to effect change in a world in where its own necessity is constantly thrown into doubt”. See Munford and Waters, Feminism and Popular Culture: Investigating the Post-Feminist Mystique (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), p. 20.
[6] Kaja Silverman, “Suture (excerpts)” in Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 234.
[7] Ibid., p. 259.
[8] Ibid., p. 232.
[9] Ibid., p. 232 and p. 230.
[10] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 9.
[11] Here, I am referring to Kubrick’s film Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962) and Millais’ painting, Ophelia (1852). See Anna Backman Rogers, American Independent Cinema: Rites of Passage and the Crisis Image (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015). Subsequent scholarship on Coppola has since developed these ideas. See Fiona Handyside, Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016).
[12] Think, for example, of films such as Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986), Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995) and Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002).
[13] Interestingly, Dunst (the actress who plays Lux) declined the role of Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) in order to make Coppola’s film.
[14] Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and The Aesthetic (London: Routledge, 1992), p. xii.
[15] Ibid., p. xii.
[16] Kristeva quoted in Oliver, The Portable Kristeva, pp. 260-261.
[17] See Rogers, American Independent Cinema, p. 36.
[18] Coppola quoted in Matthew Hays, “Dying Young”, The Montreal Mirror, 25 May 2000, n.p.
[19] Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge Press, 1997), p. 78.
[20] Ibid., p. 77.
[21] See also Rogers, American Independent Cinema, p.29.
[22] Jean-Marc Lalanne, “Où est le sang des vierges?”, Cahiers du cinema, No. 97 (October 2000), p. 97.
[23] Rogers, American Independent Cinema, p. 30.
[24] Christian Metz, “The Imaginary Signifier (excerpts)” in Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, p. 271.
[25] Metz, “The Imaginary Signifier”, pp. 275-276.
[26] Ibid., p. 248.
[27] Jacqueline Rose quoted in Silverman, “Suture (excerpts)”, p. 229.
[28] Silverman, “Suture”, p. 235.
[29] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, p. 203.
[30] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second (London: Reaktion, 2006), p. 171.
[31] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 14.
[32] Ibid., p. 23.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid., p. 15.
[35] Ibid., p. 16.

About the Author

Anna Backman Rogers

About the Author

Anna Backman Rogers

Anna Backman Rogers is a Senior Lecturer in Feminism and Visual Culture at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She is the author of American Independent Cinema: Rites of Passage and The Crisis-Image (Edinburgh University Press, 2015), co-editor with Laura Mulvey of Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2015) and co-editor with Boel Ulfsdotter of Female Authorship and the Documentary Image: Theory, Practice and Aesthetics and Female Agency and Documentary Strategies: Subjectivities, Identity, and Activism (both with Edinburgh University Press, 2017). Her latest book, Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure, is forthcoming with Berghahn.View all posts by Anna Backman Rogers →