Sofia Coppola’s first feature film is a head-swirling poetic essay about adolescent angst and terminal self-destruction in suburbia, where some families are unbalanced, others are dysfunctional and some are just plain toxic. 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
The Criterion Collection 920
1999 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 97 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date April 24, 2018 / 39.95
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
At the finale of the Apocalypse Now documentary Hearts of Darkness Francis Coppola ends his remarks on the future of filmmaking by wondering if the director 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 bring a cinematic renaissance, but her film marks a promising debut.
The Virgin Suicides is from a book about a suburban tragedy in which key events are unknowable. Five teenaged sisters take their own lives, and instead of making up parts of the story that could be known only to them, author Jeffrey Eugenides purposely limited his viewpoint to the experiences and imaginations of the teen boys that knew the girls, or thought they knew them. In the book the five girls remain remote mysteries; the boys theorize that women know the secrets of life and death. Enhanced by the sensibility of a woman director not that far removed from teen-hood herself, the movie adds a new dimension of informed insight.
Any disaffected kid knows why they hate their parents, hate school and hate the world in general. The book and the movie confront the ‘senseless’ self-destruction without offering set reasons. Teens are easily haunted by deaths that become subconscious legends; at our high school long ago a much-liked girl died in a car crash on Prom Night. It’s part of the nostalgia of times when we were young and immature, and didn’t necessarily understand the significance of our own experiences.
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 sees teenaged boys show interest in the four other Lisbon sisters, only to be stymied by Mr. & Mrs. Lisbon’s (James Woods & Kathleen Turner) refusal to let the girls out on dates, or even socialize with boys after school. The boys instead worship them from afar. Sixteen year-old Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) is the most daring of the four. By playing coy and hard to get she successfully snares the attention of Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the most popular boy in school. But all that Mrs. Lisbon will let them do is sit with the rest of the family watching nature shows on TV. Trip becomes so motivated to take Lux to the big homecoming dance that he wears a tie to play the role of gentleman for her parents. He figures out a perfect solution — he’ll find dates for the other three sisters too, so they’ll all stay together and watch over each other. Lux and Trip become homecoming king and queen, but the instant freedom goes to their heads. The Lisbon’s response is to forbid the girls to leave the house, not even for school. It’s a recipe for rebellious disaster.
This is the kind of story that becomes a tabloid sensation, where the facts get buried in conjecture. Sofia Coppola changes almost nothing in the book and retains many of its key dialogue lines, turning the thoughts of the boys that remember the tragedy into a perplexed narration. If ever a film needed the sensitivity of a woman director, this one is it. As seen through the adoring, proto-lustful thoughts of the teen boy admirers, the five Lisbon daughters are visually not that much different from the innocent/knowing nymph-girls in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. But Coppola has the edge because she can spin every detail of the girls’ behavior with insightful performance nuances. Some of the larger visual flourishes, such as Lux Lisbon’s face appearing in the sky, or phantom Cecelias appearing 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, the flashing smiles, glowing reactions and trance-like melancholy moments, that make the girls seem alive.
Coppola underplays the toxic situation at the Lisbon household. The stern Mrs. Lisbon barks orders at her daughters, and is so worried about keeping control that she makes the house into a prison. When her daughter is being carted off to the emergency room her clueless reaction is to go fetch a fancy robe for the hospital. The father has already become a gutless, sexless nonentity, deferring to his wife in all things and shrinking from his daughters as if he’s been told not to get too close to them. When Mr. Lisbon 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. We don’t know the whole history of how the sensitive Cecilia fell victim to the pressure, but it’s easy to guess — the girls are frustrated, isolated, caught in a ‘personal trap’ not that different than the one described by Norman Bates. The lack of simple psychological liberty at home is stifling, especially considering the freedom enjoyed by the Lisbon girls’ peers. The girls have no 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. The controlling mother arranges for a mentally challenged neighbor boy to be invited as well, surely to impose an ‘approved’ theme that will stifle any close personal interaction. Under this much passive-agressive parental oppression, something’s gotta give.
Lux knows there’s nothing to be gained by obeying her mother, and homecoming night becomes her chance to be free, to embrace a transcendant experience. Her barely-know-him boyfriend Trip is out of control as well. His clever thinking got the girls out in the first place, and the fact that Lux was so hard to get inflames his passion and makes him all the more foolhardy. 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.’ Lux’s glorious evening of liberation becomes a spirit-crushing experience.
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 already retreated from media coverage that makes the girls into freaks, obsessed by their sister’s fate. Mrs. Lisbon may as well be sacrificing them on an altar stone herself. Although the boys routinely invent entirely 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 other sisters have previously seemed more passive about all this, so we never know the mechanism by which they settle on an annihilating death pact. It’s carried out on the anniversary of Cecilia’s passing. Is seems likely that the unbalanced ringleader Lux engineered this cosmic ‘no’ to their parents, as she’s the last girl standing. It’s also a statement to the boys, an ultimate rejection of the entire social setup. Beyond that the narrators of The Virgin Suicides don’t know anything, even as the rigid local country club society goes into survival mode by pretending the whole ugly mess never happened.
Mrs. Lisbon’s Church values are never examined, but we see the cross she wears and the holy cards that the girls carry. We know that the family attends religious services, but it’s odd that not even the mother exhibits more church-oriented mannerisms. What we see is a mother threatened by the world, by possible accidents, by the risks to her daughters, who she considers her property. Instead of letting them put up their own struggle against the horrible state of affairs, she feels more secure smothering them with her authority. Healthy devout families are everywhere, but the families that are not healthy can create a toxic atmosphere denying basic psychological liberty. *
Although writer-director Coppola hasn’t proven to be the bearer of a new age of cinema, she’s certainly chosen her film projects well. Several investigate the intimate moods of women, feelings that men seldom understand. Male directors have succeeded in communicating nuances like this, but Ms. Coppola does seem to have a direct conduit to some authentic insights. We closely follow the confusing feelings and attractions of these young women, and the flashes of joy that come over their faces when they’re happy. Coppola’s camera choices also make good sense. We know when what we’re seeing is filtered through the idealized thoughts of the Lisbon sisters’ admirers. 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 and Kathleen Turner play the oppressive parents as clueless 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. A couple don’t seem rebellious at all, as with the sister whose strongest memory of homecoming is her dislike of peach schnapps. Kirsten Dunst reveals Lux as to be 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.
The actors playing the teen knuckleheads made woozy by the Lisbon girls are well chosen for general immaturity and cluelessness. Coppola’s adaptation, combining a ‘communal boy narration’ by Giovanni Ribisi, and a distancing interview with a ‘future’ Trip Fontaine (Michael Paré) place the whole story as a box of incomplete puzzle pieces from the past, that don’t fit together well. The most empowering thing the Virgin Suicides did, was to take all the answers to the mystery with them, denying their tormentors the luxury of easy explanations. Lux’s last exchange with her teen admirers shows us this — for a few moments, she’s finally in control of her destiny.
I found The Virgin Suicides to be satisfyingly open-ended — it is indeed the kind of growing-up legend that haunts us later in life. Although I grew up in less prosperous conditions the same invisible social barriers and prejudices were present. Most of us kids only pretended to know exactly who we were or what we wanted. A glance at one’s high school yearbook from 25 years down the line shows one’s best friends to be veritable children, little-kid versions of people you only thought you knew well. Was I living underwater? I was well loved and felt secure in my family, but I was no less fragile than the next mixed-up kid. If conditions changed so that everyday existence seemed intolerable, any kid could go off the deep end.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Virgin Suicides is a sparkling transfer of this unusual, controversial drama. The director-approved presentation uses a 1:66 aspect ratio. It plays well, giving the image height as well as width in a wide shot of a football field at dawn, when Lux is a small figure at the bottom of the frame.
The clear soundtrack makes room for a modest set of hit songs the kids might have been into circa 1975. I suppose a sick joke would be to wish that the sisters could have held out long enough to experience disco and the Bee Gees. Criterion’s new featurette and interview material makes use of fresh interviews with the director, actors Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett, author Jeffrey Eugenides, and others. In addition to a trailer and a 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, about more social savagery in the 7th grade. The folding insert carries an essay by Megan Abbott.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Virgin Suicides
Supplements: New interviews with Coppola, Lachman, actors Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett, author Jeffrey Eugenides, and writer Tavi Gevinson; Making of The Virgin Suicides, a 1998 documentary by Eleanor Coppola; Lick the Star, a 1998 short film by Coppola, Music video for Air’s soundtrack song ‘Playground Love’, trailer, insert essay by novelist Megan Abbott.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2018
* If you’ve never encountered this, it definitely exists. 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 humbled 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, or to prove to the daughter that mixing with unclean outsiders was a dead end. They moved away without my seeing them again; I never really got a look at the girl. I don’t even remember what she looked like.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson