Released in 1999, The Virgin Suicides marked the beginning of the career of writer/director Sofia Coppola, who to my mind is the best American filmmaker to emerge in the 21st Century [for more of my reviews of her films, see the links at the end of this article]. Thought not as accomplished as what was to come--and really, all things solidified in Coppola’s second feature, Lost in Translation--this oddly compiled, dreamy coming-of-age tale--or, alternately, a failure to come of age--displayed the promise of everything that was on the way. The ethereal soundtrack, the fascination with sisterhood and youth, and a sense of isolation so contained that it at times feels (and is) otherworldly.
The Virgin Suicides is based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, a male author, which is part of what gives this film such a unique vibe. Though a story with five young women at its center, Eugenides tells it from the point of view of the teenage boys observing them. In its way, it’s stereotypical of memoir-istic first novels of young men, approaching the female of the species as if they are an unknowable riddle. In this case, the boys view the Lisbon Sisters as elusive phantoms--and not just after their deaths, but also before--and even in their adult lives, they can’t shake the influence the sisters had on them. The scenes with a grown-up Trip Fontaine (played by Streets of Fire’s Michael Paré, who is believable as a hard-living adult Josh Harnett) reminiscing on his brief relationship with Lux (Kirsten Dunst, also Coppola’s muse in Marie Antoinette) is like a pitiable version of the Edward Sloane monologue in Citizen Kane. “She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”
In her staging of the narrative, Coppola embraces the male gaze while simultaneously jumping to the other side and looking back (particularly, again, where Trip Fontaine is concerned). Her Lisbon Sisters are not a mystery to her, and she is permitting us to view their private lives. As viewers, we are privy to things that the obsessed teen boys never would be, and the secret we share with the Lisbon girls is that we are just aware as they are that their increasingly knowing laughter over the boys’ behavior is justified. The men circling them are silly and obvious, their gaze nearsighted at best. Sadly, it’s also that awareness that means the Lisbon Sisters can’t carry on.
Backing up a bit: for those not familiar with The Virgin Suicides, the story is set in the late 1970s in an upper-middle-class Michigan suburb. Mr. Lisbon (James Woods, Videodrome [review]) is the high school math teacher, and Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner, Romancing the Stone) is a stay-at-home mom. They are the epitome of square parents who themselves grew up in post-war America (nerdy dad is totally obsessed with WWII aircraft). One can guess a devotion to their Catholic ideals is partly to blame for their having five daughters, each born a year after the next, now aged thirteen to seventeen. A strict upbringing has limited the social interaction the girls have had with the outside world, and the quintet has formed their own solid bond, moving and acting as a single unit, a troop of perfect skin, white teeth, and blonde hair.
After the youngest, Cecilia (Hanna Hall, also the young Jenny in Forrest Gump), attempts to kill herself, it’s recommended that the Lisbons loosen the apron strings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite get at what is bothering the sensitive young teen, and as their attempts to be more open go wrong, the parents clamp down harder. Put under permanent house arrest, the girls grow even more distant and more insular, while the neighborhood boys start to plot ways to communicate with them and, ultimately, save them.
The Virgin Suicides has the dreamy air of youth culture, with Coppola adopting the airbrushed aesthetic of the time period, including fanciful montages that mimic 1970s advertising. This creates a very real distinction between the perception of the Lisbon Sisters and their reality. Likewise, it plays into the delicate balance between drama and satire that makes The Virgin Suicides all the more special. Coppola’s script expertly skewers the overly manicured banality of suburban life. It’s given an added sharpness by her embracing of the standard model of adolescent stories: teenagers are more acutely aware of the world than the adults who make them miserable. Indeed, at the core of The Virgin Suicides is a belief that as the 20th Century wore on, things had grown more complicated and difficult to navigate for developing youth--a theory that has only gained traction in the new millennium.
Adding to this push and pull is how the girls alternate between being in control and having it taken away from them. This is the most pronounced in Dunst’s Lux, the most adventurous and also the most desired, whose actions bring the most consequences. Again, while the majority see Lux as carefree and rebellious, all sunshine and smiles, Coppola gives us glimpses of her many disappointments. The common pose of the pouty teenager smoking a cigarette gives way to a more knowing look of defeat, a replica of a much older woman, a femme fatale who has seen what beauty and seduction has gotten her. It is interesting to compare this with the role Dunst played in Coppola’s most recent picture, The Beguiled. In that movie, she plays Edwina, a teacher who is on the cusp of becoming a spinster whose embracing of her own sexuality also brings despair.
There are actually many comparisons to be drawn between The Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled. Both are stories about women who are secluded by circumstance, who have reason to fear the intrusion of men from outside and are surrounded by death. There are even parallel dinner scenes where an unsuspecting man finds himself at a table full of women, suddenly awash in a subtext of competition and desire (in one, the student Peter Sisten (Chris Hale) invited over by his teacher; in the other, Colin Farrell looking for safe haven). It’s almost as if The Beguiled is The Virgin Suicides made with a more experienced eye, even if the characters are possessed of a similar naïveté.
Speaking of that famous family, a couple of them show up on the bonus features. Brother Roman (director of CQ, regular Wes Anderson collaborator, and second-unit director on The Virgin Suicides) teams with his sister to direct the amusing music video tie-in for Air’s “Playground Love,” taken from the score. And mother Eleanor Coppola, the regular chronicler of Coppola productions (most notably, Hearts of Darkness), shot the 23-minute Making of “The Virgin Suicides,” an illuminating behind-the-scenes press kit featuring on-set footage and interviews with cast and crew, including Jeffrey Eugenides, who himself sees the difference between the director’s interest in his characters and his own. There’s a whole section on what different family members that chipped in or participated, including Robert Schwartzman playing the gangster’s son, Paul Baldino. The image portrayed is of a fun, collaborative set. Though, the opening clip of James Woods declaring his “crush” on Sofia hasn’t aged as well as the rest...
Also included is Sofia Coppola’s 1998 short Lick the Star. This black-and-white tale chronicles the fickle ins-and-outs of seventh-grade social structures, focusing on a group of girls concocting a scheme to poison high school boys, inspired by their love of Flowers in the Attic. The cool contemporary soundtrack and the script’s shifting character allegiances prefigures The Virgin Suicides. Blink and you might also miss both Robert Schwartzmen and Anthony DeSimone, who show up again in Suicides, as well as cameos by filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Zoe R. Cassavetes, another second-generation director with a famous father.
For fans looking for more updated special features, Criterion also provides plenty of new interviews, as well as a retrospective by Rookie-creator Tavi Gevinson, a devotee who discovered the film in her own early life (she was three when The Virgin Suicides was released).
My other Sofia Coppola reviews:
Lost in Translation
Marie Antoinette theatrical
Marie Antoinette home video
The Bling Ring