in Criterion Month

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, was released in 1993 and instantly drew critical acclaim. One of the book’s fans was Sofia Coppola, the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola who had been heavily criticized for her performance in 1990’s The Godfather Part III. Declaring her acting career over, Coppola turned her efforts toward filmmaking and found inspiration in The Virgin Suicides, which she decided to adapt. At the time, she claimed it was just a writing exercise, but the rights became available shortly after she finished her treatment of the screenplay. Soon enough, she was making her first feature film. What are the chances, am I right?

The Virgin Suicides takes place in Grosse Point (yes, the same place as Grosse Pointe Blank!) sometime in the late 1970s. A group of neighborhood boys are obsessed with the mysterious Lisbon sisters, five pretty girls ages 13-17 who live under the watchful eye of their profoundly overprotective parents. They get a chance to meet the sisters when their parents let them throw a party to help make the youngest, Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), feel better after a suicide attempt. Unfortunately, festivities are cut short when Cecilia excuses herself from the party and jumps out a window, dying after becoming impaled on a fence below.

Following Cecilia’s death, the Lisbon parents begin watching their daughters even more closely. Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) becomes especially oppressive, which frustrates all the sisters but none more than the second-youngest, Lux (Kirsten Dunst). As the school year begins, Lux catches the eye of class heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), who takes it upon himself to be the one to solve the Lisbon enigma.

Trip’s courtship of Lux is difficult but not especially atypical for the genre. His first date with Lux is at her house, where he joins her family in a night of television viewing. As he gets in his car to leave, Lux sneaks out and they make out in the front seat for a bit. This inspires him to try to take her to homecoming, which adds the additional obstacle of none of the Lisbon sisters ever being allowed to go to the dance. But Trip is smart enough to convince Mr. Lisbon (James Woods) to let all the girls go with him and some fellow football teammates. Mr. Lisbon is more passive than his wife, so the plan works.

Where The Virgin Suicides goes from there is probably easy enough to predict. The movie has many of the typical elements of a coming-of-age story, but it’s the way that the story is told that makes it interesting. Giovanni Ribisi narrates the film, representing one of the boys (or perhaps all of them, he uses plural pronouns) reflecting on this tragic year multiple decades later. The implication seeming to be that they all ended up leading boring, typical lives and yearn for the one thing that made them unique: proximity to those sisters.

After all, the boys’ only connection to the Lisbon sisters is the suicides. The rest of the time, they observe them from afar, desperately searching for clues and patterns but unable to actually know them. In the end of the movie, they admit they hardly know anything about the sisters. Coppola undercuts this blatant objectification by occasionally showing slivers of the interior lives of the girls and revealing them to be normal people who are annoyed with their parents’ authoritarian ways and, for the most part, bored of being stuck in the house all the time. But truth is fleeting, of course. Whoever the sisters were pales in comparison to who everyone wants them to be.

Many first-time filmmakers are drawn to genre pictures, especially coming-of-age stories. Artists have to make art about what they know, and when you’re young the experience of growing up is about the only thing you really know. But Sofia Coppola took on an unusually difficult challenge in trying to tell a coming-of-age story through the lens of memory, and made a movie that is just as much about growing old as it is growing up. It’s an auspicious way to begin a new career, and an encouraging sign that I should probably check out more of her non-Lost in Translation movies.