Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Classic Throwback: The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)

The Virgin Suicides is written and directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel of the same name. It is Sofia’s debut feature film, yet the third film I have seen directed by Sofia. As one of the most well regarded female directors in the business today, I thought I would take a look at where her talents, so obvious in Lost in Translation, originated from. 

This is the first film I am critiquing in my focus on female filmmakers, for the month of May. Kirsten Dunst, already a well-established child actress, is seventeen performing this role, and it is commonly accepted as one of her strongest. While I admired the hypnotic lyricism of Sofia’s tone, and the film is beautifully composed - sensual and visually elegant yet haunting and accompanied by an ever-present sense of dread – I felt like there was something missing. The film culminates how we knew it would all along, and knowing what happens to these girls early on is not a disservice, but I felt it was missing sufficient explanation and justification.

Warning: this analysis delves into key parts of the plot, and contains SPOILERS.

Narrated by Giovanni Ribisi, The Virgin Suicides is told from the collective perspective of four teenage boys who reflect on the lives of their neighbours, the teenage Lisbon sisters. The story is set in an upper middle-class Detroit suburb in 1974. When their younger sister, Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), commits suicide, the four remaining sisters, Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A.J Cook), Bonnie (Chelsea Swain) and Lux (Kirsten Dunst), become the talk of the town, overprotected by their strictly conservative and authoritative parents, Ronald (James Woods) and Sara (Kathleen Turner).

Their well being is not only placed under scrutiny by their parents, who believe that the outside world, and Cecilia’s growing discontent with it, can ruin a young woman, but also other members of the community. But these are pretty blonde-haired girls, and Lux especially, possesses ethereal beauty – and the constant subject of the four boy’s conversations and dreams. To them, they were like unattainable angels – and one of the film’s moving qualities is how committed these boys remain to aiding the girls’ quality of life.

The Virgin Suicides briefly looks at suicide in the context of the United States – 80 suicides a day (30,000 a year) – with the students given a pamphlet educating them on the prevalence of suicide, following Cecilia’s death. Was Cecilia looking withdrawn from her peers, as the common diagnosis claims? The boys in the Lisbons’ neighbourhood, who feature as the narrators, try and reach out to the girls after their sister commits suicide, and are all-but shunned. 

It is school heartthrob, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), having taken an interest in Lux, who convinces Ronald to allow her to attend the Homecoming Dance, provided he finds three friends (including a young Hayden Christensen) to accompany Lux’s sisters to the dance. It is this night, with the girls breaking through the protective bonds of their parents and the boys envisioning their romantic fantasies coming true, that changes everything.

Like all of Sofia's films there is something hypnotic about The Virgin Suicides. The beautiful use of score, a trademark of all of her films, the unique way that 70's suburbia is captured, and the convincing performances from the young cast, layers this film with impressive features, and demonstrates an assurance of craft that Sofia continued to develop in Lost in Translation, nominated for Best Picture.

The tragedy of the Lisbon girls becomes larger than the confines of family, but one that affects the whole Grosse Point community. Those girls, with the media attention that followed the death of their sister, were never going to have a normal adolescence. They were celebrities, in a way. They had the overprotective parents, they had everything they could possibly want – they were smart and beautiful - and yet obviously unhappy.

When Trip Fontaine enters Lux’s life, it is one of the first real connections she has with someone other than her sisters, and each one following was just to quench her adolescent urges. Trip was a big deal, and though she is reluctant to express her feelings in front of others – she, and he, would become the talk of the town, and the subject of overzealous discipline from her mother – in private, she lets herself go. Though she is humiliated by Trip, further (and worse) humiliation comes when she is forced to cope with her conflicting emotions alone and in such an unhealthy, unsupportive environment.

The Virgin Suicides is a critique of upper middle-class teenage disillusionment. It is not solely because of the struggles of being a teenager – in addition to the natural obstacles of adolescence, there are pressures to be successful, and requirement to have more responsibility from a young age - but also factors that could have certainly been avoided. That almost makes the film just as angering as it is devastating.

I understand why Lux was punished, but the other girls too? What was the reasoning? Three of them were older than Lux, and in their age they should have been viewed as being more responsible. Were they punished for ‘failing’ their younger sister? They are allowed out once and never again. Their access to education and to normal social interaction is removed, and they are under house arrest, and while they are isolated, they don't seem to be taught anything by their parents.

I found it strange that the Lisbon's reasoning was not revealed. Ronald, for the most part, seemed like a reasonable man. He was justifiably worried about his daughters’ well being, but even he seemed to see that his wife’s overbearing philosophies were unreasonable. Why did he accept this form of punishment? We never know, and I would have liked to know. Though the film has an air of mystery to it, I would have been more satisfied if Ronald and Sara’s decision was further justified. The impact is somewhat lessened because of this lack of conviction. These well-meaning boys take out the girls for an innocent dance; an unexpected series of events unfold, but the justification isn't there. Just because Lux faces a confusing situation with a male, doesn't mean the whole world is evil.

Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the film. Dunst has always been a talent, and she is excellent. As are James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Josh Hartnett (what has he done recently?). Not my favourite of Sofia Coppola's films - that is obviously Lost in Translation - but still a very assured debut, and I see why critics viewed her as a director to watch following this still eerily relevant adaptation.

My Rating: ★★★1/2 (B)


  1. It's a very ambiguous film that leaves more question than answers. I have read the book although it took me a lot longer to read and it only added more questions than answers. It's been a while since I've seen the film. I was more entranced by the visuals and the story.

    I think the father is more of an aloof figure who is just trying to sit back and not deal with anything. The mother is the disciplinarian.

    I think the reason the girls ended up being punished was to be made as an example where if one of them fucks up, they all fuck up.

    Of the films I've seen by Sofia... I would rank it below Lost in Translation and Somewhere though slightly above Marie Antoinette. I would also recommend checking out her short film Lick the Star which would pre-date a lot of the teenage/female alienation of her earlier work.

    1. Yeah, I see what you are saying. He did seem to be very aloof and pressured by his wife. For me, it would be below Lost in Translation, but I liked it about as much as Somewhere, though I have revisted Somewhere again since, and I would re-visit it again before The Virgin Suicides.

      I liked that it left a mystery, but I didn't think the POV of the boys was part. well established, and then there was the absence of justification. The main catalyst for the girls was their parent's disciplinary actions, and because it wasn't explained why they decided to keep them cooped up, it felt a bit lacking.

  2. Yeah I keep saying that I wish I got this completely. However unlike other highly ambiguous movies that tend to frustrate me, this one just seems to entice me more and more.

    This is my second favourite S. Coppola film and probably my favourite debut ever. I would love for her to go back to something like this. My favourite film by her is Marie Antoinette, though that's not a very popular opinion.

    1. That isn't a popular opinion. It is now her only film I have yet to see.

  3. I recently saw this one for the first time (and reviewed it), so this was a very interesting read.
    I understand why you were frustrated because there are many open questions, but I personally liked the mystery. The mother I think is the personification of "evil" in the film, while the Lisbon sisters are the "good", and the father somewhere in between.
    So it doesn't really matter why the mother decides to lock the girls up - maybe she doesn't even have a reason.

    This was only the second Coppola film that I saw, after Marie Antoinette, so until now it's my favourite. I think I'm going to love Lost in Translation though.

    1. You raise some excellent points and I sense you are right. People do terrible and misguided things. I think you will love Lost In Translation.

  4. I agree that the film is missing a piece. Part of the problem for me was that knowing at the beginning that these girls were going to commit suicide meant that I never connected with them, not even Dunst's character. When we reach the climax of the movie I didn't feel anything.

    1. I totally understand that reaction. It has the potential to take you out of the film with that knowledge. That was also partly why I didn't feel particularly moved.