‘The Beguiled’ and ‘The Virgin Suicides’, or Sofia Coppola’s Gothic Streak

Images: IMDb

Sofia Coppola’s directorial work has spanned over 20 years, including cult favourites such as Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006) and Somewhere (2010). Her naturally-lit, muted-toned films mix with characters in transition and the female perspective, leading to a distinct style that separates Coppola from her father’s talents. Coppola’s filmography begins with The Virgin Suicides (1999), which shares gothic themes with her latest feature, The Beguiled (2017). Both have serious goth vibes. 

The gothic genre was popularised from 19th century literary influences, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The gothic combines elements of fiction, horror and often romance. Many gothic films feature isolated houses or spaces, a lingering sense of the uncanny, the inclusion of a higher power (often God), and subject matter including death, murder, and the duality of right and wrong. Even though there are no blood sucking vampires or bats, much of this gothic iconography can be seen in The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled

Both films use setting to display gothic tones. The secluded girls’ school in The Beguiled is a large manor house that is shrouded in a plot of forested land. All white, the house captures the initial innocence of the girls who live there, but as the actions in the house escalate we see a darker and more foreboding representation of the house. The exterior of the property is continuously referred back to, increased in submersion. The final shot shows all the girls behind a metal iron gate, their separation to the outside world, with a morbid image of a dead body wrapped in white. Many of the conflicts within the film include characters being confined in certain areas of the house, often reflecting their own internal entrapment. 

Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard in The Beguiled (2017)

The suburban house in The Virgin Suicides acts as a fortress for the five Lisbon sisters, who are confined there by their parents. The house from an external view seems inviting, yet by the end of the film it is tainted by five deaths. At the beginning the Lisbon Sisters seem to use the house as a barrier to the outside world, acting as protection from the voyeurs who fuss over them. When Lux (Kirsten Dunst), one of the sisters, gets ‘f-boyed’ by high school throb Trip (Josh Hartnett), the girls begin a new plan to lure the boys across the street into the house, haunting them into their own turmoil. The boys’ interest increases when Cecelia jumps from her window onto a pitched fence. She seems to float in her father’s grasp, where there is no blood to be seen. This emulates images of Christ’s resurrection and demonic possession which is similar to the gothic-horror film, The Exorcist (1973).  

Icons such as Mother Mary, the cross, and the crucifix with Jesus all repeat themselves throughout the gothic genre, leading to hints of a higher power at play. These icons can be seen as repeated motifs in both films, often in times of distress or confusion. Religion is used by both maternal figures in the films as a control measure to ensure their children and students stay in line. In The Virgin Suicides, Mother Mary’s icon is displayed repetitively in Cecelia’s room, hinting at what she needed most: motherly love. Crosses are littered throughout The Beguiled, looking upon the girls with judgment. Once the girls in The Beguiled, bar Edwina (Kristen Dunst), decide to kill Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) they sit with hands joined in prayer, praying for their protection from God, or perhaps their own sins. 

What is a gothic film without girls in white dresses? The opening scene of The Beguiled shows a rather gothic and fairytale depiction of a young girl dressed in white, alone in a forest. From films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Hallow (2015), and popular childhood fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood, we can conclude that the opening shot alludes to the motif of a young woman in peril, subject to forces that are beyond her control. Amy (Oona Laurence) finds Corporal McBurney and brings him to the house, thus disrupting the equilibrium in the school. In The Virgin Suicides, the remaining four sisters wear white homecoming dresses, outdated in style even for its 70s setting. We sense from their all-too innocent look that this won’t end well. It leads to Lux laying on a football field left by Trip in the early hours of the morning with feelings of confusion and abandonment. 

Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides (1999)

The Virgin Suicides uses cliche stereotypes to convey the opinions of the voyeurs of the story. The story itself is told by the investigative boys across the street by the form of a narrator and flashback scenes. The most detail the boys have or are interested in is the sex lives of these sisters. After the boys steal Cecelia’s diary, they have an awakening to the inner workings of teen girls. They know in detail the romance between Trip and Lux, one scene in particular depicts Trip leaving Lux on a football pitch after they have sex, yet they do not dwell on of the violation of respect and the hints that Lux has been rapped. From this moment on the boys put the distance of the girls to Trip never calling Lux again, but in reality a darker force and weight now sits in Lux. The perspective from the boys which highlights the dangers of the male gaze creates a sinister and darker theme within the tone and sister’s intentions. The sister’s death is their last act and rage, to share their turmoil with the ones that helped create it. 

The gothic overtones in both films allows the female rage to come to the surface in sinister acts. The films both contain groups of pre-adolescent girls entering womanhood, and through their unity and rebellion the prospects in front of them seem to be far more bearable. They wear white dresses, and seem to unify in religion, similar to a coven. Curl up with a blanket, light some candles, watch these films and bring out the Mary Shelly within you.

by Lucy Miles

Lucy is a graduate from Ravensbourne university where she studied Film production, and now studies an MA in screenwriting at Falmouth University. She adores road movies, especially Thelma and Louise and Badlands. Alongside academia Lucy works as a freelance producer, working on short films, fashion and television work. Her latest short film My Father The Martyr was selected and screened at the 2019 London Short Film Festival. Her favourite films are Stand by Me, The Love Witch and The Royal Tenenbaums. You can follow her on Twitter @BoredBeans.

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