Entertainment Magazine

The Virgin Suicides

Posted on the 21 July 2015 by Christopher Saunders
The Virgin SuicidesSofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999) ranks high on the list of that year's 5,000 suburban angst dramas. Coppola's stylish, evocative direction makes a strong impression, helped by a strong cast. Yet the movie never quite satisfies, sacrificing depth for atmospherics.
Set in 1970s Michigan, The Virgin Suicides focuses on the Lisbon sisters, five daughters of a milquetoast teacher (James Woods) and his oppressive wife (Kathleen Turner). Their inaccessibility tantalizes the neighborhood teens, who spy on and stalk them. When thirteen year old Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall) attempts suicide, the Lisbon parents panic, allowing the sheltered girls more contact with their peers. Then 14 year old Lux (Kirsten Dunst) hooks up with bad boy Trip (Josh Hartnett), provoking a parental crackdown.
Based on Jeffrey Eugindes' novel, The Virgin Suicides is an ambitious debut. Coppola invokes Picnic at Hanging Rock, grafting Peter Weir's eerie atmospherics and repression onto American suburbia. She enhances the alienation, with bland art direction, Kubrick-esque long shots of intimate conversations, televisions and class lectures droning on behind dialog scenes, preventing connection. Coppola matches these with incredible images, notably the boys' glimpse in Cecilia's diary and the prom scene: a montage of laughing teens and popping balloons, climaxing with Lux awakening, alone, in the blue-filtered dawn.
Suicide's portrait of repression works than the incurably smug American Beauty. Mom's a records-burning Jesus freak; Dad, a henpecked loser who prefers plants to people. Fleeting efforts to open up only exacerbate things: a birthday party leads to a tragedy; the homecoming dance, a forlorn hookup and parental crackdown. Defending the family elm tree from contractors provides brief solidarity, but public humiliation. Lux's clash with her parents evokes another Weir film, Dead Poets Society. But that film suggests following your dreams as a way out. What dreams do Lux and her sisters, suffocated at home, alienated at school and trapped in their diary poems, have?
Yet The Virgin Suicides doesn't always work. Like Picnic, everything's pitched an opaque level that frustrates more than it engages. But Weir's film works because of its supernatural air, centering on an insoluble mystery. Suicide offers no comparable mystery: anyone with these parents would want out. Just because the adolescent boys, stalking Lux and droning David Duchovny-like about the Unfathomability of Woman, can't see what's going on doesn't fool the audience. Simultaneously, Coppola's detachment often works to Suicide's detriment, as the girls become more pathetic symbols than rounded characters.
Kirsten Dunst gives her best performance, ethereal yet grounded enough to earn our sympathy. Josh Hartnett steals the movie with what's basically an extended cameo. With this film and O, Hartnett's early roles suggest a talent barely tapped in his subsequent career. Kathleen Turner is stern and repressed without becoming a caricature; James Woods plays brilliantly against type. Danny DeVito, Scott Glenn and Michael Pare have minor roles. Giovanni Ribisi provides tedious narration.
Sofia Coppola's work ranges from the measured (Lost in Translation) to the gauche (Marie Antoinette), but even at her weakest, she's a remarkably assured filmmaker. The Virgin Suicides isn't an unqualified success, yet its boldness and style deserve consideration.

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