Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.
“I think that we wrote the spirit — the musical spirit — that [Sofia Coppola] had needed for her movie.”
–Jean-Benoît Dunckel (Air)1
The Virgin Suicides (1999) opens with a blonde teen-aged girl standing in the middle of a suburban street eating a popsicle. She is looking out past the camera, appears simultaneously bored and amused, and is surrounded by the familiar sounds of imminent dusk: birds chirping, the hiss of sprinklers, the bark of a dog, the elongated buzz of crickets, and a child’s shouts. Underneath this chorus of the everyday, a grave electric organ-driven dirge on the soundtrack invests the otherwise commonplace scene with an eerie solemnity. The girl moves off camera and, amidst the golden hues of sunlight flickering through tree branches, we are shown other residents of her neighborhood going about their afternoons, their faces obscured, activities routine. On the soundtrack a melody emerges on vibraphone, quivering and mournful, as if were reminiscing about a distant, bittersweet memory. We could almost lose ourselves in the reassurances these images and sounds provide, the intoxicating nostalgia for summers past that they evoke, but a distant siren has steadily risen in volume and has now interrupted the tranquil ambiance of the daydream. All is not what is seems or sounds.
Sofia Coppola’s debut feature film The Virgin Suicides depicts the final days of the five tragic Lisbon sisters—Lux (whom we were shown at the beginning of the film), Therese, Mary, Bonnie, and Cecilia—as they are witnessed by a group of neighborhood boys. Based on the book of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, the events onscreen are narrated by one of the boys (whose recollections could be construed as the collective consciousness of all the boys) 25 years after the summer of the girls’ deaths in the mid-1970s. The narrator waxes poetic about the allure of the girls throughout the film, yearning for them from another time and place and romanticizing their memory; reflecting through the longing that comes with distance that “they knew nothing about us and we couldn’t fathom them at all.” The Lisbon sisters remain a beguiling mystery even decades after their deaths, and this mystery is evoked not only through Ed Lachman’s soft, hazy photography, but also through the film’s celestial score by French duo Air (Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin).
Coppola discovered the music of Air by chance, stumbling upon their debut EP Premiere Symptoms in a record store whilst she was working on The Virgin Suicides script. It would prove a serendipitous musical discovery: the retro-romanticism of the band’s Moog-heavy electronica proved an inspiration as she wrote. When the time came during the film’s production to find a composer for its score, Coppola naturally sought out Air and was fortunate enough to secure them to write music for the film. Interestingly, very little of the music they wrote for the film ended up in the final edit of The Virgin Suicides. Only a few tracks were utilized from the music Air had composed for the film, much of which was centered around the score’s dominant musical theme, the melody of that which is listed as “Playground Love” and “Highschool Lover” on the film’s soundtrack album.2 Despite the economy of their music’s usage, Air’s score nonetheless proved vital in establishing the dreamlike atmosphere that prevails throughout The Virgin Suicides.
Within the film, rock and pop songs tether the narrative to the material world both diegetically and non-diegetically, connecting the boys to the Lisbon sisters and locating the action firmly within the film’s mid-1970s setting through its contemporaneous music choices (notwithstanding the anachronistic usage of Sloan). We hear these songs when the sisters give a small party at their home (“The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies), attend their school dance (“I’m Not in Love” by 10cc, “Come Sail Away” by Styx), and when they engage in a moving telephone exchange with the boys that involves playing records to each other in order to express the inexpressible, allowing the music to speak where they cannot (“Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren, “So Far Away” by Carole King). By contrast, Air’s impressionistic music is metaphysical, aligned with the heavens. Through its spacious, soaring, almost hymnal synth harmonies, pulsating rhythms, and bittersweet melodies, their score coveys musically the translucence of memory and invests the ethereal specters of the Lisbon sisters on screen with an added otherworldliness.
In one of the film’s most striking sequences the boy’s read from the recently-deceased Cecilia’s diary, attempting to decipher her words so as to understand not only the reason for her death, but the mysterious nature of the Lisbon sisters that so beguile them. As they read, surrounded by other souvenirs of the girls’ lives that they have managed to covertly collect, we are shown the boys’ fantasies of the girls. Firstly, images of Lux at sea as they read about a boating exhibition, her joyful visage flickering on screen as if it were filmed on a Super 8 camera. She is accompanied by a ghostly synthesizer tremble on the soundtrack which suggests both the foggy evocations of the boys’ imaginations and Lux’s almost supernatural, haunting beauty. The synthesizer tremble soon gives way to a larger musical piece when the boy’s fantasies become fully realized. Now all of the Lisbon sisters have materialized, frolicking in a sepia-toned field at dusk, manifestations of pure love and freedom as the diary narration continues. Air’s “Ce matin-là”3 plays on the soundtrack, it’s easy-listening, Bacharachian breeziness the stuff of 1970s daydreams—the sort of music the boy’s may have heard in a romantic film or on their parents’ record players—and the girls dissolve in and out of shot; are made translucent; shown illuminated by the setting sun or framed by an azure sky. A dulcet tuba melody permeates the sublime scene, as do lofty strings, acoustic guitar, shimmering electronics, and the airy tones of harmonica. This soothing amalgam of sonorities underscores beautifully the gossamer images of the Lisbon sisters at play, creating a richly textured dreamscape that evokes all the whimsy of youthful amour.
Throughout The Virgin Suicides, Air’s transcendent score functions as a sonorous rendering of the lovelorn boys’ memories and impressions of the elusive Lisbon sisters, venerating these ghosts of the past and elevating them beyond the boys’ earthly states and into the realm of the spiritual.