The image of a young woman lying naked on a bed of red rose petals in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty has become one of the most iconic in 90s cinema. It’s the erotic daydream of a narcissistic, middle-aged man whose chance to escape banal suburban life is wrapped up in thoughts of sex with a teenage girl. If this idea wasn’t troubling enough in 1999, that he’s played with relish by Kevin Spacey only heightens its unease today.
Daydreams can be a useful device for filmmakers, helping to expose the friction between who we are and how we want to appear. They are egocentric, allowing characters to live out their suppressed feelings without empathy. Unsurprisingly then, the erotic male daydream routinely objectifies women, repurposing the female image for an exclusively male fantasy. Used shrewdly this familiar motif can meaningfully lay bare the dissonance between male and female desire. But American Beauty is too busy saying something else about stagnated happiness and unfulfilled ambition.
Angela, the film’s teenage cheerleader is an aspiring model. Seeing this seductive image of herself reflected in the eyes of Spacey’s Lester, she happily resides in, and encourages, his fantasy. But when the chance to have sex with him materializes at the end of the film, the cracks and complications in her desire become clear. Nervously, she tells Lester she’s a virgin. His fantasy crashes into reality and we feel the depth of his inadequacy.
Lester has never considered the perspective of a teenage girl.
Rather ironically, Mendes makes a similar lapse. After waiting so long to unmask the fragility (and passivity) of Angela’s own desires, Mendes turns them into a teachable moment for Lester before dismissing her almost entirely.
In the same year that the male-centric American Beauty took home five Oscars, Sofia Coppola made the harmful consequences of male fantasy the foundation of her feature film debut. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, her The Virgin Suicides reveals the shared experience of adolescent boys who watch, fantasize and lust after five Lisbon sisters living across the street. The tragic suicide pact of these teenage girls shakes the foundations of the community and leaves the boys – now grown men – with a grief they cannot subdue.
They blame themselves.
And with good reason. The boys’ romantic obsession – a mixture of hotblooded adolescent infatuation and anxiety – prevents them from seeing the girls as they are. Using low contrast film stock and vintage lenses from the golden age of Hollywood, the film is infused with a heady glow and nostalgic grain. Daydream sequences are inspired by 70s Playboy fantasies, steeped in romantic cliche and reproduced with dreamy lighting, slow motion, and extreme close-ups. Floaty images of the girls dissolve into each other. It’s an intoxicating illusion. No wonder that, when the girls eventually reach out for help, the boys’ sexual urges override their empathy. “These girls make me crazy, if I could just feel one of them up, just once,” says Chase, before glimpsing Bonnie’s dead body, hanging from the ceiling.
Both The Virgin Suicides and American Beauty depict young women desperate to escape the confines of suburbia, while middle aged men pine for their lost youth. But, twenty years on, American Beauty offers little more than broad gender stereotypes, while The Virgin Suicides actively challenges them. The film’s opening sequence – which contrasts women chatting together with a father and son barbecuing – establishes the gender conventions that detach and distance the characters from each other; that make the retreat into fantasy inevitable.
From behind the titles, Lux Lisbon – the object of the boys’ naive fantasies – appears in the clouds and winks. It’s as if she knows the film will demolish our fetishized perception of young women. And Coppola challenges the lack of empathy underpinning this from the very beginning: “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl,” says Cecilia to the dismissive middle aged man sent to help her following the first suicide attempt. Despite outward appearances, these suffocated young women are desperate to live – eager to explore their own desires and attractions – and Coppola liberates them from the novel’s male perspective. A cookie cutter shot-within-shot reveals a boy’s name inscribed on Lux’s underwear. And events, unseen by the narrators, play out with poignant authenticity. Unlike Lester and the boys, Coppola cannot help seeing the girls as they really are.
The tragic disconnect between the men’s heavy-hearted, past-tense narration and the impulsive romanticism of their boyhood creates a peculiar space in which the Lisbon sisters will always be young and beautiful. But Coppola makes their craving more complicated than sex, reflecting a nostalgic yearning for the mysteries and possibilities of adolescence. As boys, the narrators endlessly fantasize about the Lisbon sisters; as men, they spend decades trying to understand them. Whether they can escape their egocentric fantasies remains uncertain, but this timeless film exists as their imperfect act of catharsis.
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