Music by VICE

The Virgin Suicides Score and the Dark, Blissful Sound of a Heatwave

French electronic duo Air captured an energy that sits somewhere between darkness and warmth, and feels like a fever.

by Daisy Jones; illustrated by Esme Blegvad
Jul 25 2018, 11:50am

Lead image by Esme Blegvad

Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.

In 2015, I spoke to Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Ducknel from the French electronic duo Air about their renowned score for the 1999 movie The Virgin Suicides. Jean had been sick the week they were supposed to record, they told me, having come down with a burning fever. Even so, they ploughed ahead, laying down the drums for the main tracks and spending days cooped up in the studio. “I honestly feel like the fever went into the music,” Jean said, looking back. “My senses were really strong. My body was all hot, and everything was happening really fast.”

When they finally watched Sofia Coppola’s debut feature at the cinema, Jean felt trapped. Hearing their weird, spacey electronic pop again – especially behind the hazy, blue and pink-tinged images on screen – transported them back to that room, that fever, that 40-degree heat. But it was a freeing feeling, too. “I think the real spirit of the soundtrack is this fascination with death and having your spirit floating when you die and how you may suddenly feel free and liberated from earth, from all you are and the adult’s world that you actually hate,” Jean explained. “I was worried that the music was too dark for the film,” Nicolas added, “But it seems to grow old well, and people seem to appreciate the fact that it has this quality.”

I hadn’t thought about this conversation with Air for years, until recently, during the current never-ending heatwave. I had been laying on my bed in the midday heat, little beads of sweat gathering on every portion of skin, the window wide open, the air sweet and thick, my body motionless. Outside smelled like rotting trash in the way London does after more than three days of uninterrupted sunshine. Car engines swished in the distance, like waves. I could hear downstairs selling weed out their window, and upstairs hoovering the corners of their bedroom to the dull thump of Radio 1. I knew I should probably be outside, with all the other humans, but I couldn’t quite muster the energy to move my limbs. I stared at my phone. I sighed. I slowly shifted position, like a tiny larva on a petri dish.

I think one of the reason’s The Virgin Suicides score has made such an impact over the years – having been nominated for a Brit Award, appearing on numerous best album lists, securing a reputation as a cult classic – is because it captures a very specific feeling that is hard to pin down. It’s a feeling both languid and feverish, that lives somewhere within the spaces between bliss and melancholia, like a heatwave that’s gone on for too long, or waves of sadness during summertime. Whether it’s the gentle, rolling drum beats and glowing synthesisers on “Bathroom Girl,” or the endless, hypnotic harpsichord shapes of “Dirty Trip,” or the swirling psychedelic bass lines that thread the whole thing together, Air’s score is dark and dreamlike, cosmic and sinister, the sound of two temperatures meeting at the same time.

This energy exists within the film as well. Earlier this year, Sofia Coppola wrote a piece for The Guardian in which she looked back on some of her creative decisions. “Kirsten Dunst, who plays [main character] Lux, was 16 when we were casting,” she writes, “I remember being struck by her bubbly, all-American cheerleader look – and then this depth in her eyes, a wise sadness combined with all her effervescence.” You can see this same ‘sadness’ and ‘effervescence’ in the beautiful, golden colours that soak through each scene, even though suicide and loss looms in the background. It’s in the ultra-feminine, floral outfits that the girls wear, even while imprisoned in their own home; and it’s in the swirl of teen passion and desire, played out against a backdrop of death and impending heartbreak in the warm glow of 1970s Michigan.

Take one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which Lux wakes up in the middle of a football field on an early summer’s morning. She’d finally had sex with her crush, Trip. As she slowly opens her eyes, the sweet, subdued piano of “Playground Love” drifts through, and she lays there for a moment in the grass. But it’s a sad scene, too: Trip had abandoned Lux while she was sleeping, and her loneliness is emphasised by the soft blue atmosphere of Air’s music. As the piano plays in the background, we're cloaked in the way Lux feels – staring out of the car window, making her way home alone in a taxi, solitary and reflective. We've all been there.

That said, Air’s original score can clearly stand alone. I love the film – everyone loves the film. The soundtrack is something else though. How something that is supposed to be about death and suicide and depression can also be one of the most relaxing and comforting albums to have ever been made is beyond me, but therein lies its undeniable appeal. It’s the only album I can fall asleep to. Comparisons have been made between this and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in that way: both albums take frightening, overwhelming subjects and weave them into something blissful and escapist, while still retaining their darkness. These are albums that are full of soft, honey-coloured pianos and expansive synth lines and magical walls of sound, but that’s not to say they aren’t bleak too. Just like sadness on a summer’s day – it’s the same thing – it just comes at you from a different angle, it looks a bit different.

Nicolas and Jean had no idea their score would do as well as it did. Looking back, they’re not even sure they like it. “I never listen back to what I’ve done, so I don’t know what the soundtrack sounds like now,” Nicolas told me in 2015, when I asked what he thought of it all those years later. “I think it’s depressing to listen back – like looking through an old photo album or something. But the funny thing is, every time I travel and meet fans, they all tell me about this soundtrack. It seems to be one of the best things we ever did and the thing that people like the most.”

You can follow Daisy on Twitter and Esme on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

Sofia Coppola
the virgin suicides
Kirstin Dunst