The Virgin Suicides
It seems to be a trend in Hollywood to tackle depressing subjects. Many modern movies explore the darker aspects of the human condition. Addiction, hatred, jealousy and despair so deep that it leads to suicide. There is more difficulty in ensuring a film with such a dark essence remains entertaining. It should come as little surprise that this admonition would apply to the film under consideration, The Virgin Suicides’. The movie was as written and directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola (and cousin of Nicholas Cage) proving that talent runs deep in this family. Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the film chronicles the lives of the Lisbon girls, five sisters doomed to take their own lives. To best experience this film, it is necessary to keep in mind that is an example of artistic expression through Cinema. A large part of this is to explore the depths of the emotional spectrum of humanity which runs the gamut from the joyful innocence of a baby to the turmoil of armed conflict. In this instance a favorite trope pertaining to teenage angst is examined, extending the story to the unfortunate conclusion many depressed teenagers turn to, taking their own lives. This is the feature film directorial premier for Ms. Coppola, establishing her as an artistic voice distinct from the other members of the exceptionally talented family.
The narration for the story was achieved through a voice over by (Giovanni Ribisi, who in his youth was a contemporary of the sisters and the neighborhood boys that were interested in them. It is told through details recalled some 25 years after the tragic events. The mood is set of this film right from the very first words spoken, "Cecilia was the first to go’. The five Lisbon sisters were the natural center of the local boy’s attention. All five were blonde, pretty, and daughters of the local math and science teacher. With all this going for them everyone wondered what would drive them to suicide. After a failed attempt at killing herself, young Cecilia summed it up, "you were never a 13-year-old girl". It is little moments like this that makes this film simultaneously riveting and poignant. While the narrative of the story utilizes the voices of five, exceptionally close sisters. The result is a touching examination of young lives ill prepared to cope with the emotionally arduous and psychologically convoluted transition between the dependency of childhood and the requisite independence expected from adults. The Lisbon home was a religious one. Formal prayers were said at mealtime, pictures, and statues of saints were predominantly on display around the house even in the girl’s bedrooms. The parents, played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner, provide a stark counterpoint to the girls. In this home, there is a generation gap, so wide nothing could span it.
The cast in this film was well chosen. Kirsten Dunst as Lux, the most outgoing and adventurous of the sisters. Ms. Dunst truly outdoes herself. While her roles as a child were anything but usual, Interview with the Vampire for example, here Dunst has a chance to explore a very different character. Lux is the world one of the five sisters. She smokes in the bathroom at school, drunks at the big dance and is the most attracted to boys. In contrast to this is Leslie Hayman who plays Therese. She is by far the more subdued sister. Older than Lux but far more reserved. James Woods as the father was also a different role for this most accomplished actor. His Mr. Lisbon is a milquetoast, dominated over by his wife he tries his best to run the house but gives in to his wife at almost every point. The audience is more used to Woods playing the dominate, very in charge character. Its good to see him take such a different part. There are some interesting cameos appearances in this film. Look for Danny De Vito as Celica’s psychiatrist and Michael Pare as Lux’s boyfriend as a man in the present time.
Freshman director Sofia Coppola does an excellent job of holding this film together. Retaining the original novel's choice of narration, the voice a neighborhood boy is used, one that knew the girls during these tragic events. This is far more effective for the audience than if the story was told through the eyes of one of the girls. That would have given it the feel of a Lifetime Network movie of the week or an after-school special. By using the voice over looking back at the events, the audience feels more of empathy to the story. Since the narrator is an outsider to the events, he doesn’t wind up with the answers or any special insight into the tragedy. I found this better at the end to leave the questions in the mind of the audience than if all was suddenly made clear. Coppola does not imitate her famous father’s directorial style. She has a gentler, more subdued style albeit with some rather strange little effects thrown in. For example, there is the scene that the girls are about to leave for the big homecoming dance. We see a brief x-ray view of Lux’s dress revealing she has written the name of the boy on her panties. This was very contrived and did break the mood of the scene. It was also done before in Tarantino's Dawn to Dusk. The film did manage to capture the look and feel of a 70’s movie with the split screen and fast cuts. For a first effort it wasn’t bad, just don’t compare her to her father.
Most fans of Ms. Coppola’s oeuvre undoubtedly already own a previous DVD or Blu-ray of this movie. Finally, the craftsmanship infused in this movie is recognized by his induction into the much-lauded Criterion Collection. Not only is the mandate of this collection requiring as close adherence to direct his original vision as possible, but induction into the Criterion Collection deserves the investment of a repurchase. The inclusion of extra material allows the viewer to delve deeply into the stylistic decisions of the production achieving her vision of how the story should be told. This additional material goes far beyond the usual bonus content of blooper reels a scene swept off the floor in the editing bay. They provide a scholarly deconstruction of the filmmaker’s process. While this treatment is always fascinating for the serious film buff but in this instance this effect is substantially enhanced. It is a rare opportunity to gain intimate insight into the nascent opus of an influential auteur.