THE VIRGIN SUICIDES Sofia Coppola, Director Paramount DVD (2000)

This is a film that was never given its proper due when it first came out. Those who saw it either loved it or hated it, and some people never saw it at all. In each of the three cases the viewer was most likely have made their decision based, unfortunately, on the fact that Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, was the director. Sofia took a severe lashing when she appeared in her father’s third Godfather movie (even though it was her eighth film), and it must have taken a great deal of courage to adapt a popular book, direct it and then put it on the screen for everyone to judge. I must admit I was one of the people who went to see Sofia Coppola’s film rather than a film called THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. Recently, when it came across my desk for review in DVD form, I took the time to really look at it as a film rather than as an artifact of a film family. I must say that I was genuinely surprised and pleased to realize what an amazing film it is.
The story follows the short, tragic lives of the Lisbon sisters, five girls ranging from 13 to 15, who live in an upper middle class neighborhood and are the focus of every wet dream had by any boy who casts a hormonal eye on them. As the title suggests, the Lisbon sisters are the stuff that myths and legends are made of: five girls, one in each adolescent age group, who live a cloistered life watched over by their prude, controlling mother Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) and capitulating high school math teacher father (James Woods). They have little contact with the outside world except as subjects of discussion, which only fuels their mythic status.
We hear their story through the narration of a neighborhood boy (voiced over by Giovanni Ribisi), and not since the Great Gatsby has there been such an unreliable narrator. Of course he is unaware that he is unreliable because he considers everything he thinks and feels about the Lisbon sisters to be true. He seems to have the inside track on the girls, relating what we assume to be well known facts about them, and he uses his limited knowledge and unlimited imagination to suck us into a belief that he knows what he’s talking about…but then maybe he does. After the girls are put under house arrest, a group of boys, including we must assume, the narrator, makes contact with them by calling and playing a succession of 70’s top 30 hits to communicate their feelings. No real dialogue is seen, however he manages to continue telling us details of what happens to them in the house. It was only on a second viewing that I realized how fantasy driven his report of the girls was. We are given hints all throughout the film that we are being told a tale, but the truth is we want to believe it because we like the fantasy too. Coppola constantly shows us the girls, especially Lux, as the boys see them, in a light reminiscent of the soft glow of dawn, looking unreal in their beauty with empty, but pleasant expressions that seem to imply a bittersweet happiness. This coupled with the hypnotic musical score goes a long way toward lulling us into believing the story as it is told to us.
The story begins after the suicide attempt by the youngest of the girls, Cecilia. A psychiatrist, played with a certain lucid befuddlement by Danny DeVito, suggests that the some social activity outside of school might be in order. Reluctantly, their mother allows a basement party where boys are invited. In a case of too little, too late, the suicidal girl excuses herself and goes upstairs to throw herself from her balcony, impaling herself on the iron banister below her window. Things begin to look up when the lothario of the school, the outrageously named Trip Fontaine (played to perfection by Josh Harnett) loses his heart to Lux (Kristen Dunst). He convinces her parents to let the girls go out on a group date to the prom with him and his friends. He believes he is in love, but we are never told what Lux believes, we only see her actions. After Trip and Lux have awkward sex on the football field and he deserts her we hear only his explanation. When she wakes up the next morning alone and is forced to take a cab home, the fate of the girls, in the hands of the tremblingly prudish Mrs. Lisbon, turns a normal teenage indiscretion turns to a tragedy of staggering proportions.

   Kathleen Turner’s Mrs. Lisbon is a portrayal of a woman afraid of the world. She lives in the claustrophobic model home of 70’s décor with a lot of shag and Formica, while her husband goes off to teach mathematics to teenagers and her five luscious daughters go off to the sexually dangerous world of high school. Her fear translates into control as she struggles to keep her family confined in their stifling faux Brady Bunch routine. He denial of the inevitability of the outside world mirrors the boys in the neighborhood and their denial of the reality of the Lisbon sisters as individuals. She is convinced that her girls are separate from the world and she can keep them pure if she can only confine them to the house. The boys are sure that the girls are akin to heavenly creatures that have no real world problems or desires. Mrs. Lisbon and the neighborhood boys are in an unwitting collusion to keep the girls from ever being allowed the joy of a real life subjugating them to a life as mythical beings who must remain pure in order to keep the fantasy of their watchers alive.
Purity is a theme in the movie that, like adolescent sexuality (not sex per se), is never discussed aside from a crude passing remark about a joint being passed on prom night (“Don’t let it die a virgin”). It’s right there in the title, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, two words when placed together cause fantasy and reality to collide in what should be a horrible way, but is actually unnervingly seductive. There is some inference that Lux is not pure before the prom, and plenty of proof afterward. Even her name, Lux, the name of a dishwashing soap, and Latin for light, makes us think of her as creamy-white, clean and radiant. (Not that any of these things indicate true purity.) Of course, virginity here is more than a maidenhead, the girls true virgin state lies in their unrealized lives.
The fabulous thing about the film is that director Sofia Coppola never forces any information on you. Her style is reminiscent of the serious early directing efforts of Woody Allen. INTERIORS comes to mind when seeing how Coppola slowly reveals the characters to you, not through obvious dialogue or aggressive camera work, but by allowing the characters and their world to bloom, and die, right in front of you. Coppola has a snapshot sense for the 70’s small town middle class. Everything has a gloss of perfection, and yet the very existence of something so perfect makes us uneasy. Coppola’s use of lighting is very thoughtful. From the soft glow she gives the girls to the harsh lighting of the garish décor of the nosey neighbor’s house, she sets the fine line between the real and the surreal with light.
Her use of sound and score are also masterful. There is a quiet that borders on violence in the scenes that take place inside the Lisbon house. Accented by the ethereal score from Air, it makes you feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. This is Coppola’s greatest mark on the film, that she uses sound (or lack of it), lighting and settings to make you feel the underlying claustrophobic unease of society in the early 70’s. As it is struggles to hold on to the middle class values of the 50’s and 60’s by shrinking in on its self.
In the end the girls take control of the only thing they have left, their lives. The adult Lisbon’s lose everything they tried to hold on to and the Lisbon girls become immortal. Our narrator ends his tale by telling the audience that the neighborhood boys still get together to go over the “evidence” and try to figure out the meaning of what happened with the girls. This is, off course, just one more fantasy constructed to keep the girls from becoming real.
I highly recommend that anyone who hasn’t seen the film run right out and rent a copy of the DVD or tape. The DVD has the digital advantage of making all that gorgeous cinematography look as close to theater quality as you can get without going to a revival house, which will have an over used print anyway at this stage. I also recommend that those of you who did see it and weren’t impressed should take a second look. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you see.