Dear Daddy, I'm doing just fine

With 'The Virgin Suicides', Sofia Coppola makes her directorial debut. And exploits her own troubled adolescence
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There's a photo of Sofia Coppola, taken when she was 22, a few years after her disastrous writing collaboration with father Francis on New York Stories segment "Life Without Zoe"; not to mention her much-reviled acting turn in The Godfather III. She is posed, à la Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon, with long, sun-drenched hair coyly draped around bee-stung breasts. The point is, Sofia doesn't look like Brooke Shields. As a teenager, Shields looked nude even with clothes on. Sofia's eyes are so wary, so sullenly dead, she could be wearing a trench-coat. She appears unable to decide whether this shoot is a masterstroke of rebellion or yet another humiliating mistake. It's a photo that makes you glad you're not her.

Seven years on, Sofia Coppola is far more enviable. Happily married to Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, friend to all manner of voguish but grounded stars like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, she's in town to talk about her directing/screenwriting debut, The Virgin Suicides. But she does remember the picture ("What is this nude of you!" Francis apparently shouted when the two recently stumbled across it on Sofia's website) and is keen to put it in context. "I was very comfortable during that shoot, it was very innocent" she drawls politely. "It was taken by a friend of mine and he's an old queen." In other words, his motives could be trusted.

She applies much the same logic when asked about her adaptation of the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, which tells the tale of five beautiful sisters, drowning in a sea of long blonde hair, from whom no boy in town can tear his eyes. The story is told from the boys' point of view and there's a lot of honeyed-peach flesh on display (Sofia says she was visually inspired by Sam Haskin's photographs for Playboy) but she never worried about exploiting the actresses. "To me, girls lying around in their underwear isn't demeaning."

At the start of the interview, she ordered a cup of tea. Now, thanks to a faulty strainer, leaves are bobbing on the surface and with a frown she stretches her elfin hands to pick them out. "It would have been different, probably, if some older guy was looking at them."

Listening to all this, you could be forgiven for thinking that Sofia Coppola, for all her hip credentials, has rather rigid notions about what can be expected from individuals. That hers is a neat, filing-cabinet world in which boys will be boys and gays are like girls. And girls, well, they stick together because that's what birds of a feather do. Now this might seem appropriate. Eugenides' novel is all about tribal thinking. The boys speak with a collective voice. And the Lisbon sisters, because there are so many of them, seem like the personification of girldom. But where the book slyly deconstructs this divide, Sofia Coppola seems to have taken it literally.

Coppola's face, however, provides the clue that there's more going on. It's essentially placid but for her predatory, entirely unpert, Catherine Keener nose. A four-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space, that nose - never done justice by photos - makes you want to look at her from all angles and, once you do, you can see she's far from sure about what little girls and little boys are made of.

Her childhood certainly sounds confusing. "My dad didn't treat me like a girl," she explains carefully. Sofia's first appearance on screen was as a baby boy (remember Michael Corleone's christening in The Godfather II? That's her). She shares her middle name, Carmine, with her grandfather. And she grew up with two older brothers and lots of boy cousins: "(The boys) told me stuff they wouldn't tell other girls," boasts Sofia happily. "When I was with them, I wanted to be one of them, I wanted to fit in with them."

At the same time, she was obsessed by her girl-status. "Oh yeah," she laughs softly, "it was always dresses with me. And I was obsessed with beauty products - face creams, stuff like that. They felt so womanly." She says her brothers and cousins gave her lots of tips. As Sophia puts it, quite seriously: "They gave me advice on being a girl."

She talks about femaleness like someone with their nose pressed up against a window. It can't have made life easy. Throughout her skinny, chicken-boned childhood and adolescence, she says, the very worst thing was "having to be in a bathing suit. I felt so awkward in my skin". It makes sense. Her body was at the same time too feminine and too masculine - too slippery - to allow her to be mistaken for one of the gang.

What brought this all into focus was the death of her oldest brother, Gia. Gia, she says, "had a hard time in school" because he was dyslexic and left school early to work with his father. Francis, a great lover of Greek myths, called him "Telemachus, my helper", and made no secret of the fact that he was grooming him to become a director. When Gia was killed in a boating accident, aged 22, it understandably devastated the whole family ("Death shifts everything," says Sofia simply) but it was to have the most immediate impact on Coppola's other son, Roman, who left college to take over the family company.

Francis Coppola said at the time, "it's like one of those romantic novels where you lose one son who was the prince and now the next one comes to replace him." It's as if Coppola couldn't (or didn't want to) tell his sons apart. Thanks to a slip of the chromosome, Sofia couldn't be part of that equation. I ask how Gia's death affected her and as she rather oddly, and breathlessly, puts it: "I'd always been the baby girl, the youngest. As the only girl, I retained my spot."

You can see, now, can't you, why Sofia Coppola is so fascinated by tribes and what it means to be seen to belong to one? In The Virgin Suicides, the Lisbon sisters are all different but they're treated as a single entity, particularly by their controlling, Catholic mother but also by the local boys. They're punished together, lusted after together, like "five replicas, with the same blonde hair and puffy cheeks", "a five-headed hydra". They suffer for belonging to one camp - for being so interchangeable. And yet, in failing to retain their individual "spots", they gain an almost mythological power, a romantic resonance. By her own admission, Sofia has benefited from not being one of the "Coppola brothers" (Roman, still working on his father's films as a second-unit assistant, seems nipped in the bud somehow). Yet only-lonely Sofia clearly missed out as a child. And it's that twisted-sister experience that she bleeds into The Virgin Suicides, providing her own take on the gender divide.

It's not a perfect film, by any means, with the wonderfully lazy, mournfully hazy Air soundtrack too often reducing the actors to pop-video mannequins. But when it works, it's magical, capturing to a tee the horror of failed girl-boy intimacy. There's a scene (not in the book) where Lux, the foxiest of the Lisbon sisters, wakes up alone, in a huge, anonymous sports field, having given up her virginity to the school heart-throb Trip Fontaine. It's a moment of loneliness to rank with anything in Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Last Picture Show, and you know exactly why, once she's smoothed down her dewy dress, Lux rushes back into the hot arms of her sisters.

Sofia's uncle, Augie, once wrote: "Our family was consecrated to success. Francis had regrets, because I was supposed, in his mind, to achieve what he achieved." Sofia's success will no doubt be attributed, by some, to her family connections. Her surname, I'm sure, has helped. But has it helped Augie? Does it help Roman? As The Virgin Suicides rather wonderfully, and distressingly, makes clear, safety doesn't always lie in numbers.

'The Virgin Suicides' is released on 19 May