The Virgin Suicides - 1999
Director(s): Sofia Coppola
Writer(s): Sofia Coppola (screenplay) / Jeffrey Eugenides (novel)
Cinematography by: Edward Lachman
Editor(s): Melissa Kent and James Lyons
Cast: Kathleen Turner, James Woods, Kristen Dunst, Josh Hartnett, A.J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman, Chelse Swain and Danny DeVito
There are very few names that are as profoundly associated with Hollywood than Coppola. From screenwriter Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs), to Nicolas Kim Coppola or the laymen Nic Cage, to the great Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) to name a few. One of the names that stands out among the rest of the family tree, Wikipedia, is Sophia Coppola. The director behind Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and one of my favorite films of 2017, The Beguiled (link). So, I decided to go back and watch a movie from her that I had never seen before, her directorial debut, 1999's The Virgin Suicides. It's also celebrating its twentieth anniversary, coincidences. Let's talk about it.
The story takes place in a suburb of Michigan during the mid-1970s. It is told through the perspective of the boys from the neighborhood, as they reflect on their memories of the five Lisbon sisters and their tragically short lives. Coppola adapted the screenplay from a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, in where the framework of a narrator is used to put the audience in the POV of the boys. We see the world, the neighborhood, the school and more importantly the girls through their perspective. By placing the narration outside the Lisbon household, we are left to speculate along with the boys as to why they would end their lives, all the while creating the same attachment they had towards the girls. The screenplay frames them in a way that they feel unreal, almost a figment of the boys' imagination.
And the aspect of the film I did not expect coming in was its dark sense of humor and the many times that it had me laughing. From unusual ways of displaying your eternal love, jumping out of a window, to Lux (Dunst) begin her mother (Turner) not to burn her vinyl albums. Watching Turner regret the punishment as the house fills up with smoke is hilarious. However, the films comedic tone belongs to the emasculated and disconnected math teacher, James Woods, father of the girls. Watching him act as if nothing is wrong, avoiding any moment of real conversation, opting at one point to have a moment of communication with a plant is just perfect. He captures the stereotype of the distant father figure of the era.
Coppola took a minimalistic approach behind the camera, and it serves the story. Not to say that some stylistic choices weren’t made. The way the girls are shot, with the light coming from the back creating a glow from their golden locks of hair, adds to the mystic and aura the boys placed over their memory. The reveal of the girls' demise is creative and by not showing the full details, allows the audience to fill in the blanks, as the boy had to do. She brings out great performances from the parents, James Woods and Kathleen Turner. And in this film, we see the birth of the partnership between Dunst and Coppola. Here Dunst plays Lux, the object of desire for all the boys, and the closest character we have as a protagonist - despite the narrative being from the perspective of the boys. She is funny, flawed and desperately trying to live her life, something that is morbidly ironic knowing how the film ends.
The Virgin Suicides is an odd film to recommend, as it was hard to compare to many other movies. Sure, it has its dark comedic moments, yet I wouldn't call it a dark comedy, and while the drama is ever present, there is never a cathartic moment to anchor the film. A lesson learned if you will. We are left with the mystery of why these girls would end their lives, with a full world in front of them. And with the film not having a protagonist per se, we cannot track an arch. So, when the movie ends you are left with a sense of uncertainty and befuddlement, questioning your experience - mirroring the way the boys are reflecting on theirs. If that was the goal, Coppola knocked it out of the park. Sofia Coppola is why I love movies.
The Virgin Suicides is Glass Half Full.
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