Who are those eternal dream girls of summer? Now in 4K . . . Sofia Coppola’s first feature is a head-swirling poetic essay about adolescent angst and tragic self-annihilation. Some families are balanced, others are dysfunctional and some are just plain toxic. Ms. Coppola sticks close to the source book, looking for visuals to express author Jeffrey Eugenides’ solution-challenged mystery, narrated by a composite group of teenaged boys.
The Virgin Suicides 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 920
1999 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 97 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 5, 2022 / 49.95
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, A. J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman, Chelse Swain, James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Josh Hartnett, Michael Paré, Scott Glenn, Danny DeVito, Giovanni Ribisi.
Cinematography: Ed Lachman
Film Editor: Melissa Kent, James Lyons
Original Music: Air
From the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Julie Costanzo, Dan Halsted, Chris Hanley
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Remember Francis Coppola’s speculative prediction, spoken at the finale of the documentary Hearts of Darkness? He wondered aloud if the future filmmaker to show the way to a new cinema might be some teenage high school girl somewhere, that nobody ever heard of. Coppola’s daughter Sofia got her first feature onto movie screens just before the turn of the century. She may not be the ‘awaited one’ to herald a cinematic renaissance, but her film marked a promising debut.
Key events are Unknowable.
The Virgin Suicides is from a book about a suburban tragedy in which five teenaged sisters took their own lives. In the book they remain remote mysteries. Rather than invent story details that only the dead could know, author Jeffrey Eugenides limited his viewpoint to the experience of some teen boys left behind. Enhanced by the sensibility of a woman director not far removed from teen-hood herself, the movie adds a new dimension of informed insight.
Modern alienation needs no explanation. Any disaffected kid knows why they hate their parents, hate school and hate the world in general. The book and the movie confront senseless acts of self-destruction without offering set explanations. Teens are easily haunted, and some teen deaths become subconscious legends. It’s always been that way — it’s part of the nostalgia of times when we were young and immature. We didn’t understand the full significance of our own experiences, and we certainly didn’t have a handle on our own mortality.
An upscale Michigan community is distressed when Cecelia Lisbon (Hanna Hall), the youngest of the five Lisbon girls, attempts suicide. After the daughter’s return to her home, a cheer-up party does the exact opposite, with terrible results. The next year several teenaged boys show interest in the four remaining Lisbon sisters, only to be stymied by the refusal of Mr. & Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods & Kathleen Turner) to let the girls out on dates, or to socialize with boys after school. The boys instead worship them from afar.
Sixteen year-old Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is the most daring of the four sisters. By playing hard-to-get she successfully snares the attention of the popular Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). But Lux and Trip’s only allowed contact is with the rest of her family, watching nature shows on TV. Strongly motivated to take Lux to the big homecoming dance, Trip wears a tie to play the role of gentleman for her parents. His ‘safe’ solution is to find dates for the other three sisters as well. They’ll all stay together and watch over each other. Lux and Trip become homecoming king and queen, but the instant freedom of the big night goes to their heads. The Lisbons’ response is to forbid the girls to leave the house, not even to attend school. It’s a recipe for rebellious disaster.
It’s a Tabloid Sensation.
Sofia Coppola changes little in the book and retains many of its key dialogue lines. The boys’ thoughts become a perplexed, proto-lustful narration. As seen through their adoring memories the five Lisbon daughters are visually not that much different from the innocent/knowing nymph-girls in Peter Weir’s eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock. But The Virgin Suicides is no ghost story. Every detail of the Lisbon girls’ behaviors seems a significant mystery clue. The more flamboyant visual flourishes, such as Lux Lisbon’s face appearing in the sky or the phantom Cecelias that appear in daydreams, come straight from the playbook of young men haunted by ‘the ones they felt so close to but never really knew.’ Coppola and her quintet of blonde actresses add the behavior bits that make the girls seem alive: the flashing smiles, glowing reactions and trance-like melancholy moments.
Coppola wisely underplays the toxicity of the Lisbon household. The control-obsessed Mrs. Lisbon quietly turns her house into a de facto prison, barking orders at her daughters. When one girl is carted off to the emergency room, her first concern is to fetch a fancy robe for her. Mr. Lisbon has become a gutless, sexless nonentity, deferring to his wife in all things and shrinking from his daughters as if warned to stay away. When he holds Cecilia in his arms, there’s something insensate about his stance, as if he hasn’t had contact with her since she was a baby.
It’s clear enough how the sensitive Cecilia fell victim to parental pressure — the frustrated, isolated girls are caught in a Norman Bates-like ‘personal trap.’ They are denied the freedom to express their own thoughts. Behaving well doesn’t help the situation. Mrs. Lisbon invents a wretched supervised boy-girl party to be held in their recreation room. She arranges for a mentally challenged neighbor boy to be invited as well, imposing an ‘approved’ theme that will pre-empt any close personal interaction. Under this much passive-agressive parental oppression, something’s gotta give.
The ‘group date’ on Homecoming night becomes an opportunity for Lux to grasp at freedom, to embrace a transcendent experience. There’s certainly nothing to be gained by obeying mother. Trip is out of control as well. His clever thinking got the girls out in the first place, and the desperation of the outing inflames his passion and makes him all the more foolhardy. Lux’s glorious evening of liberation becomes a spirit-crushing experience. The film’s sex scene on a football field is a teenaged horror story — the boy wants free of the situation almost immediately. Yet twenty-five years later he’s still babbling about how Lux was ‘the one.’
It’s a replay of Kings Row, times four.
The parental crackdown seals the deal. Sticking close to the book’s limited knowledge of what occurred, we see only brief images of the Lisbon girls, withdrawn from school and locked indoors. The Lisbons have retreated from media coverage that has made their girls into freaks, obsessed by their sister’s fate. Mrs. Lisbon may as well be sacrificing them on an altar stone. Although the boys routinely invent false stories of sexual conquest with the Lisbon girls, the neighbor kid does see Lux taking delivery boys and other random men up to the roof for sex.
The ‘unknowability’ is terrifying. The sisters’ outward passivity masks their annihilating death pact, carried out on the anniversary of Cecilia’s passing. Perhaps Lux engineered this cosmic ‘no’ to their parents, as she’s the last girl standing. But the act also serves as a statement to the boys, an ultimate rejection of the entire social setup. What we see is filtered through the idealized thoughts of the Lisbon sisters’ young male admirers, and they know nothing for certain. The local society goes into rigid country-club survival mode, and pretends that the whole ugly mess never happened.
We see the cross that Mrs. Lisbon wears and the holy cards that the girls carry. We know that the family attends religious services, but church-oriented mannerisms aren’t stressed in daily life. What we see is a mother threatened by the world, by possible accidents, by the risks to the daughters that she considers her property. She smothers them with her authority. Healthy devout families are everywhere, but twisted dysfunctional horror stories are all too frequent. *
Writer-director Coppola did not become the bearer of a new age of cinema, but she’s certainly chosen some of her film projects well. Several investigate the intimate moods of women that men seldom understand. We pay close attention to the Lisbon girls, to their confusion and frustration, and especially the flashes of joy that come over their faces when they’re happy.
Coppola’s camera choices also make good sense. A scene of crushing disappointment is played in an extreme long shot, expressing Lux’s feeling that her value has been reduced to nothing. A cut to a happy joy ride in a car is a cruel piece of subjective optimism.
Top-billed James Woods & Kathleen Turner play the parents as monsters that honestly believe that Love has a place in their family. They have emotional issues of their own, and are simply ill-equipped to be effective parents. The actresses playing the daughters are nicely distinguished. One or two don’t seem particularly rebellious or disturbed, as with the sister whose strongest memory of homecoming is her dislike of peach schnapps. Kirsten Dunst reveals Lux as a budding master of natural feminine instincts and judgment. She has zero experience with boys yet beautifully maneuvers the most pursued boy in school into pursuing her. Lux is the kind of woman who surprises everybody, but the negativity brought on by her personal frustration has no limit.
Coppola’s adaptation makes the most of its ‘communal boy narration’ by Giovanni Ribisi, and a distancing interview with a ‘future’ Trip Fontaine (Michael Paré). The other teen actors express the boys’ general immaturity and cluelessness. Made woozy by the Lisbon girls, they are left with a box of misfit memory puzzle pieces. The Virgin Suicide sisters empowered themselves by taking all the mystery clues with them, denying their tormentors the release of easy solutions. Lux’s last exchange with her teen admirers shows us this — for a few moments, she’s at last in full control of her destiny.
Open-Ended but Satisfying.
The Virgin Suicides is indeed the kind of growing-up legend that haunts us later in life. A glance at one’s high school yearbook now shows one’s best friends to be veritable children, little-kid versions of people we only thought we understood. Were we all living underwater? Were we more secure only because of our strong families? If conditions changed so that everyday existence seemed intolerable, any kid could go off the deep end.
The Criterion Collection’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of The Virgin Suicides is a new 4K digital restoration, a reworking of the special Blu-ray edition released in 2018. This new release also contains a standard Blu-ray, which I assume is also derived from the new transfer. The image glows; cinematographer Ed Lachman bathes the sisters in colors so warm that the images feel visually perfumed. It’s a stylization that works well for the subject matter — the boy narrators envision these young girls as a collective pink fantasy. Collectors with the earlier edition may not notice the significant upgrade in quality, unless their playback setup is a sophisticated home theater arrangement.
The clear soundtrack makes room for a modest set of hit songs the kids might have been into circa 1975: Todd Rundgren, Air, Heart, Sloan, Carole King, The Bee Gees.
The Blu-ray carries the extras, which appear to be identical to those on the 2018 disc. The selection is loaded with interview material — the director, actors Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett, author Jeffrey Eugenides. In addition to a trailer and an Air music video (the one with the talking chewing gum), we’re given Eleanor Coppola’s making-of docu and Sofia Coppola’s short film (14 min.) Lick the Star, a look at social savagery in the 7th grade. The folding insert repeats Megan Abbott’s observant text essay.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Virgin Suicides 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Supplements (from Criterion):
Interviews with Coppola, Lachman, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Jeffrey Eugenides and Tavi Gevinson
1998 documentary Making of The Virgin Suicides directed by Eleanor Coppola
1998 short film Lick the Star by Sofia Coppola
Music video for Air’s soundtrack song Playground Love directed by Sofia and Roman Coppola
Insert essay by Megan Abbott.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: 1 4K HD disc and 1 Blu-ray in keep case
Reviewed: July 10, 2022
* Situations like this definitely exist. At perhaps age fourteen, my mother told me that I had been invited for dinner down the street by new neighbors we had not even met. The uncomfortably formal dinner had me opposite the father and mother and their teenaged daughter. She simply sat and stared at her plate most of the time, as if humiliated and ashamed. The mother didn’t talk and the father kept up a full conversation asking me questions. When I admitted I didn’t go to church and listened to pop music and liked movies, he kept looking at the girl as if saying, ‘See? This is why.’
The little eye contact the girl had with me stopped. I was shown the door fairly quickly. Even then I realized that I had been invited to provide a bad example, to prove to the daughter that mixing with unclean outsiders was a dead end. I apparently was The Devil. These neighbors didn’t stay long, and moved away without my seeing them again. I never really met the girl. I don’t even remember what she looked like. Did she find peace in that environment? Did she escape?
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson