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How Sofia Coppola Uses Color in ‘The Virgin Suicides’

“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.”
The Virgin Suicides: Cecilia Lisbon
By  · Published on May 8th, 2021

In our Color Code series, Luke Hicks chooses a handful of shots from a favorite film in order to draw out the meaning behind certain colors and how they play into both the scene and the film as a whole. For his sixth entry, he digs into Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides.

Cecilia – 13, the youngest of the five Lisbon sisters and the first to go – was always the least concerned with maintaining the artifice of the girls’ picturesque 1970s suburban life. She had a preternatural sense for the rot beneath the surface. Post-mortem in the image above, she lays across the tree like she’s one with it, a piece of the Earth now, verdant green moss emanating from the dark wood around her. Life springs forth from death. She wears the same unimpressed look she wore the night she asked her mother to be excused from the party, after which she impaled herself on the front yard fence, so as to not risk being saved like last time.

She wears the same off-white vintage wedding dress, too, an eerie outfit for a teen raised by puritanical parents that think of marriage as a sacrament and spurn casual romance like they burn rock albums, ever ready to put the girls on house arrest or smoke out the living room with scorched vinyl in the name of the Lord. Her bulky red, yellow, and green bracelets – last seen draped over a mound of bandages on her wrists after her first attempt – have been traded for beaded black bracelets, a subtle nod to her passing. She appears as gently and quietly as she disappears, leaving phantom images burned in the eyes of those she visits. In her moxie, she is the catalyst of The Virgin Suicides.

Writer-director Sofia Coppola and cinematographer Ed Lachman portray Cecilia (Hanna Hall) here in a grey, angelic light, in a state of embodied disillusionment, the kind that would eventually spread to Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese – the kind at the heart of Jeffrey Eugenides’ source novel. But, as you’ll see, the cinematography isn’t dour. The colors of the film are expressive and chameleonic, a collage of varying dreamscape palettes manifested by the mood on deck. And the moods are many, drawn out by the graceful dance between surreal aesthetics and dark realities represented by the mixture of warm and cool colors.

Like the book, Coppola’s skeleton adaptation and directorial debut is narrated by a man (Giovanni Ribisi) who was part of a group of boys that obsessed over and mythicized the girls. Now, in adulthood, still pining fruitlessly for an explanation, they relay the (otherwise commonplace) story of the Lisbons back to us: resurrection through recollection. What we see is a crystallization of the Lisbon sisters – not how they were, but how the men immortalized them to be. The enchanting tone and removed approach give the film an unexpected lightness of being, a staple of Coppola’s style illuminated here through a mesmerizing use of color.

The Virgin Suicides: Mourning

We find the sisters sprawled out across their bedroom floor in dismay mere days after Cecilia’s suicide. Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is on the far left, then Mary (A.J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), and Therese (Leslie Hayman). A bright red blanket pools underneath their thrown, cuddled bodies like blood: a mock group suicide. Flowery, youthful shades of pink, purple, red, and blue take over the image and form an analogous color scheme, meaning they fall next to each other on the color wheel. Here, the focus isn’t on one shade but on the color play in the cotton candy palette – blush blending into lavender blending into baby blue, all working together to accentuate their innocence, adolescence, and girlishness.

They look up at Father Moody (Scott Glenn), who stands in the doorway. “I thought we could talk. Do you feel like talking?” he asks, the girls shifting their eyes toward the floor without a peep before he bids a kindly farewell. They look more bored than sad, a reflection of the boys not having spent enough time with them to know what they were like in most situations, much less behind closed doors. In lieu of hysterics, they’re made out to be their silent, content, lighthearted selves.

To show we’re seeing through the men’s eyes, Coppola and Lachman lay a rosy tint over everything. It’s sweet but gloomy, a tonal fusion of the idealism in their memory and the reality at hand: Cecilia is dead. When we enter Mrs. Lisbon’s room a minute later, the balance tips heavily toward reality. The color is dark, grave, and mature, and the mourning is much more recognizable.

Asphyxiation Ball

On the opposite end of the color and mood spectrum sits the final sequence: the lurid asphyxiation-themed debutante ball, where the very memory of the girls is on blast. It’s indirect but obvious. They’re wearing masks because a toxic spill at a nearby plant left a sulfuric smell in the air, but the girls are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The boys, like everyone else, “went to forget about the Lisbon girls.” The chartreuse palette evokes a sickly feeling, the yellow in the green giving it an off-putting chemical hue. The monochromatic (one color shaded from light to dark) yellow-green image emphasizes the singularity of the mood.

Notice how bright the scene would be without the color tone: crisp white gloves and shirts; a bedazzled gas mask; a silver drink tray and its glasses; radiant lights strung up like stars. Underneath their masks, they’re smiling. Through the haze of leaking gas, they’re laughing. If the heavy color filter were removed and the gas masks vanished, it would be a warm, lovely party.

The green makes it seem as if we’re seeing through the bullshit – a suburban ball through the They Live glasses. But instead of mind-controlling aliens, we see a poison in the air and a community blatantly aware of it. They’re more interested in masking themselves and maintaining the illusion of perfection than finding the source of the fatal leak. It’s no coincidence that Cecilia was wheeled out in a green body bag.

Golden Hour

In the novel, Eugenides’ didn’t characterize the Lisbon girls enough to be concretely imaginable. For him, they needed to be faceless – stand-ins for every “obsessional love you have when you’re 13 or 14.” The intentional lack of characterization allowed him to shape the girls more like dreams or memories instead of fleshed-out people. Given that we see them in the film, Coppola and Lachman had to find visual ways to elicit that hollowed-out, dreamlike quality in the girls.

Here, we see an orange and green complementary color scheme from a dream sequence montage brought about by the boys’ discovery of Cecilia’s diary. As they read it aloud to one another, they fantasize over the Lisbon sisters, the combination of girlhood diary romantics and boyhood discovery culminating in golden hour euphoria. The sun sets ablaze in the corner over a holographic Lux, whose blonde hair disappears into the golden wheat. She is literally hollowed out. Creamy shades of orange and yellow create a free, joyful, and gauzy mood.

Between the bleary tree line and the grass in the field, green plays a much different role than it did in the image above. It’s kind, healing, and natural, cradling Therese in a moment of pensive bliss. Coppola lets us taste the dream as if it’s real, portraying her “magical, beautiful creatures,” (as she describes them) at their most idyllic, per the boys’ imagination. The light and color, the play between warm and cool, make us feel like we’re in a fairy tale. To some degree, we are. It’s just more like the original kind – the kind that ends in carnage.

Cecilia's Death

This shot comes one minute into The Virgin Suicides and it’s the first thing we see in the Lisbon household, a loaded bathroom window sill. Sirens creep into the soundscape of the quiet, manicured neighborhood. The faucet lets out its last few drops slowly. The image above holds the frame like a still life as the ambulance grows louder. The thick, sullen blue saturating the image foreshadows something grim. The narrator enters, and we cut to Cecilia, wrists slit in the tub.

The other colors in the image are opulent and all over the map: champagne, a translucent purple, chrome, seafoam green, a pearlescent purple, magnificent shades of amber, etc. The palette is primarily cool, blues, purples, and greens common enough to give the amber a louder, richer presence. The dazzling vanity display is thematically opposed to the bloody reality below, but despite all the color, the blue filter gives it a bleak context.

Crucifixes litter the spread of cosmetics to signal a culture in which zealous standards of faith and unattainable standards of beauty are intertwined enough to tear anyone apart. Like in every image I chose, the play between warm and cool spotlights the way Coppola and Lachman use color to yield emotion and point to what is off-screen, under the surface, or warped in the boys’ memory. Here, we see it in what the girls left behind, a shell of makeup and perfume and prayer, a myth that has outgrown them. For, “What lingered after them was not life, but the most trivial list of mundane facts: a clock ticking on the wall…a room dim at noon…the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.”

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.