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

Journal article
Authors Anna Backman Rogers
Published in Screening the past
Issue 43
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Cultural Sciences
Language en
Links www.screeningthepast.com/2018/02/im...
Keywords Coppola, Feminism, Hauntology, absence, abjection, female body, death, cinema, Kristeva, Butler
Subject categories Ethics, Philosophy, History of Ideas, Arts, Other Humanities, Languages and Literature

Abstract

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.

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