The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Sofia Coppola | 1hr 37min

Even rarer than a director making a debut film of as high a calibre as The Virgin Suicides is a director doing so in their twenties, but then again Sofia Coppola is no ordinary filmmaker. Being raised by one of the great masters of cinema, Francis Ford Coppola, there were surely lessons passed on from one to the other, but an even more distinct image of her childhood and adolescence emerges in the closed-off, dreamlike spaces her stories unfold within, meditating on notions of celebrity, privilege, and disillusionment.

Michelangelo Antonioni might seem like a fitting comparison to draw here tonally, and yet stylistically The Virgin Suicides is more often in line with François Truffaut, playfully removing us from the immediacy of the narrative to freeze frames over character introductions, playfully opening up an ‘x-ray’ iris to peek at a pair of underwear, and dividing shots with creative split screens. With a nostalgic voiceover playing over the top of it all, a pensive yet whimsical atmosphere takes hold through which the lives of the Lisbon sisters are languidly filtered. The power they hold over the neighbourhood boys is immediately evident in the intrigue and reverence with which they are shot, like sacred mysteries to be untangled. The influence they continue to exert long after this story ends also remains clear in the narration’s wistful mythologising, speaking in first person plural without clear individuality, like an embodiment of the entire town reflecting on its own history.

Freeze frames, x-rays, split screens – Coppola is playfully inventive with her creation of this nostalgic dream-space in a very Truffaut-like manner.

As such, there is also an element of destiny which haunts this narrative like a ghost, slyly directing the sisters down a tragic path of self-destruction right from the youngest’s very first suicide attempt. Maybe their fate was spelled out from the start, but more likely is that it is simply the concoction of an unreliable narrator, imagining an aura of sacrosanctity around these girls who are put up on pedestals by both the town and their own conservative parents. As the local boys pry through one of their diaries, their imagination of its contents manifest in a graceful montage of open wheat fields, unicorns, sparklers, and close-ups of the sisters’ faces lightly flowing in dreamy long dissolves, and illuminated under the gorgeous glow of golden hour lighting. “We knew they knew everything about us, and we couldn’t fathom them at all,” the boys extol in wonder, and yet such daydreams only set them up for disappointment in those moments when that mystique briefly fades away.

Ethereality surrounding these girls in long dissolves and golden lighting, turning them into ghosts that exist in the minds of men.

The second-youngest daughter, Lux, especially begins to stand out as the source of this disenchantment. Under tight restrictions from her parents, school heartthrob Trip is given permission to take her out to the homecoming dance, though it is when the two finally make love that her allure suddenly disappears. In a beautiful day-for-night wash across the school football field, he stands up and silently walks away in the early hours of the morning before she wakes up. “I liked her a lot, but out there on the field… It was just different then,” an older vision of Trip reflects, still unable to properly sort through his feelings though clearly no longer under the spell still possessing so many of his friends. Though he has found the heart of the legend, the only riches he has discovered is a real, vulnerable human.

A stunning blue day-for-night wash across the football field the morning after Lux loses her virginity, bringing with it a delicate melancholy.

And then there is Mr and Mrs Lisbon, whose reactions against having their image of their daughters ruined manifest far more severely than mere indifference. Their home becomes a prison, and perhaps here that aforementioned Antonioni influence does manifest in Coppola’s framing of the sisters within tight spaces and behind staircase bannisters. Outside, a time lapse of the house shows no one going in or out, and yet the boys continue to watch from across the street, plotting ways to contact and rescue the trapped girls. There is little these sisters can do to take control of their own narratives, especially as they brought to national attention in news stories more than once, further propagating the mythology they would much rather shed.

The claustrophobic architecture and blocking is on Coppola’s mind in this final, crushing act.

One has to wonder whether such obsessions would exist at all had these parents not locked their daughters down so tightly, thereby creating the illusion of great treasures hiding behind closed doors. In the sleepy, yellow radiance that bathes this small, 1970s Michigan town in the sentimentality of memory, Coppola might initially seem to be participating in the tender worship of these young girls. It is in those moments where she sees them as flawed beings though that they are brought back down to earth, transforming the film’s affectionate fascination into a poignant recognition of pain, longing, and overwhelming grief.

These images of perfection brought down to earth, and yet also ironically preserved forever as wistful memories.

The Virgin Suicides is currently streaming on Stan, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Mike Leigh | 2hr 40min

W.S. Gilbert is the intelligent dramatist, reciting his lyrics like light poetry. Sir Arthur Sullivan is the musical genius, directing his cast with his sense of rhythm, pitch, and dynamics. With one expressing himself through words and the other through jaunty, musical tunes, the two aren’t always speaking the same language, and conflict frequently arises. But when they are finally in sync, creativity flows uninhibited, and inspiration strikes without warning. This is especially the case when Sullivan visits an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, where he has an epiphany to write what would become one of their greatest musicals – The Mikado. This fruitful period of the duo’s partnership is the historical canvas upon which Mike Leigh grafts reflections of his own creative processes in Topsy-Turvy, drawing together artists, egos, and aristocrats in this world of splendour and sensitivity.

It is incredibly refreshing to see Leigh lavish such opulently stylistic expressions all over a film which belongs to a genre so frequently confined to stale templates, and often stripped of unique directorial voices. The best artist biopics in some way reflect the eccentricities of their subjects, and when Gilbert and Sullivan just so happen to be the points of interest, opportunities to present extravagant set pieces and musicals are abundant. Leigh does indeed make the most of such scenes where we watch the duo’s theatrical visions erupt in patterns of reds, greens, and golds across the stage, with the sumptuous décor of pink cherry blossoms and Japanese architecture adorning the space, but at the same time, his sights are set far beyond the products of their virtuoso, brilliant as they are. There is beauty to be found all through their journey of creation, from the gorgeous wallpaper splashing bold colours up against the backdrops to their lowest points, to the dramatic dolly in on Gilbert’s face during his stroke of inspiration, and right down to the exacting rehearsals, where both frustration and humour is present in the actors’ repetitions of their scripted lines.

It isn’t hard to find compositions as beautiful as this one – a delicate framing of the actors through the drapes of the canopy bed.
Leigh shows off his painter’s eye in his rich use of colours to frame his characters.

And then, as if to push its ambitions even further, Topsy-Turvy continues to expand its scope beyond Gilbert and Sullivan’s focused efforts, becoming an ensemble piece that gives full credit to the collaboration of multiple minds as necessary factors in this creative process. It is certainly worth acknowledging Jim Broadbent’s performance as Gilbert as one of his best, but the collective power of every other supporting and minor character has just as much of an impact, with each of them, from Andy Serkis’ pipe-puffing choreographer, John D’Auban, to Timothy Spall’s self-conscious performer, Richard Temple, getting the chance to make their presence known.

The Robert Altman comparison is inevitable here, especially given Leigh’s adoption of his directorial method of guiding actors through improvisations, thereby letting character relationships organically emerge from seemingly insubstantial discussions. He spends full scenes fixating on whether or not actor Durward Lely shall wear a corset beneath his kimono, the wage negotiations of another actor, George Grossmith, and the attempts from the show’s “three little maids” to imitate the walks of authentic Japanese women. In heavier moments, the depictions of alcoholism, drug abuse, and health issues tie the film to its setting of Victorian London, where even the wealthiest folk aren’t completely immune to the economic and social ills of the era.

Leigh commits to his ornate backdrops even outside the theatre and homes, showing off these deep red walls at the dentist.
Again, even more splendid use of wallpaper to build out this world of Victorian England, matching it to the bedsheets and robe.

And yet these hardships and petty arguments do little to separate these artists when they collectively approach Gilbert in a bid to convince him not to cut Temple’s main song, “A More Humane Mikado”. Even through such trials, their effort in restoring confidence in their friend and colleague is abundantly sweet, but it also importantly underscores the value of collaboration and sacrifice in the dramatist’s own approach to the creation of art.

With Leigh placing such an emphasis on cooperation in the production of The Mikado, it is only right to similarly give credit to his own talented team, made up of his regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, his costume designer, Lindy Hemming, and Eve Stewart, whose specialty in period production design rightfully earned her an Academy Award on this film. There is no doubting that Topsy-Turvy is an extraordinary expression of Leigh’s visionary voice, examining his own ideas of how great art comes together. And yet in the gloriously lavish interiors, the depth of the ensemble’s talents, and the painstaking detailing of each of these characters’ intricate emotional journeys, the film becomes an ode from everyone who worked on it, dedicated to those artists who can put aside their egos to share in the joy of mutual creation.

Always this extraordinary dedication to the mise-en-scéne, as Leigh hangs on this lovely symmetrical shot of the dinner table for over a minute.

Topsy-Turvy is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Lynne Ramsay | 1hr 34min

The Glaswegian streets of Ratcatcher are infested. Rats, garbage bags, even children, who themselves are crawling with nits – this working-class suburb of Scotland is a plague-ridden, inescapable hellhole. Especially with the garbage men on strike, such scourges only continue to spread like a cancer, until they simply become extensions of everyone’s homes. Plastic bags of rubbish turn into sofas, and chasing rats becomes a hobby for those disillusioned youths with nothing else to do. Lynne Ramsay’s vision of blue-collar Scotland in the 1970s is evocative of a bygone era of childlike innocence, but to call it nostalgic by any means would be a stretch.

The garbage bags of Ratcatcher growing in number, ridden all through Ramsay’s mise-en-scène.

Even though the free-flowing, lyrical editing and structure of Ratcatcher does evoke a pacing not unlike Terence Davies’ autobiographical tribute to the British working class, Distant Voices, Still Lives, it has far more in common with the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 50s. James Gillespie is the 12-year-old boy who is introduced as the vessel through which we experience this world, and yet despite his age, he does not stand as a beacon of innocence. Any chance that that might be the case is stripped early on when he inadvertently commits a devastating act that weighs heavy on his soul, instilling in him such an unbearable guilt that only feeds his desire to escape this dreary, infested world that promises nothing but decay.

As for what brings about this deterioration, Ramsay doesn’t position James as so much of a victim as he is one of many agents perpetuating society’s slow, repulsive descent into corruption and squalor. Just a few days ago, his conscience was unmarked, and in his suffering, he could at least place the blame on his environment. Now, he is as good as one of those rats, spreading disease and filth wherever he goes. In this self-identification, he displays much empathy for the loathsome vermin overrunning the streets of Glasgow, who surely dream of some faraway utopia, just as he does.

Breaks of magic realism in this otherwise gritty, neorealist narrative.

As Ramsay has proven in the years since this debut, she is primarily a director who finds her film in the editing room, crafting montages that offer a tint of hypnotic delicacy to otherwise harsh environments. It is particularly in three brief, escapist interludes where she breaks the heavy realism of Ratcatcher to allow her characters some indulgence in a magical realist fantasy, and lets the film disappear into the light rhythms of her cutting. There aren’t a great deal of picturesque images to be found in this film, as Ramsay is clearly more committed to the rundown architecture of the setting, and yet in these moments of wonder she finds the time to linger on a window frame opening up onto a field of wheat, or in the melancholy conclusion, sitting with a body hanging in stasis beneath the surface of a murky canal.

Ramsay finding a charming frame within this window, far away from the garbage bags and rats of the city.

In this suffocating imagery, Ramsay calls back to the opening shot of James wrapping himself up in a curtain in slow-motion. In her persistent motif of infested landscapes, burying oneself deeper into the all-consuming anathema is often the only practical way one might dull one’s senses to it. Sure, there is always the dream of finally floating away to some paradise on the moon, or moving away to a brand-new, upper-class estate. But in the agonising existence of Scotland’s lower classes, Ratcatcher recognises the disheartening disparity between such pipe dreams and reality.

A return to paradise, once again caught through a window.

Ratcatcher is currently streaming on Mubi Australia.