Film Reviews

The Virgin Suicides Sofia Coppola

Rating - 9/10

In 1999, two wildly divergent teen films were released to American audiences. One raked in hundreds of millions and spawned a litany of sequels and straight-to-video follow-ups; the other introduced another fascinating talent from one of America’s premier filmmaking families. Ten years on, the original entry in the American Pie franchise flaccidly resides as a crude relic from the era of shallow late 90’s gross-out teen comedies, while Sofia Coppola’s magnificent, achingly beautiful debut The Virgin Suicides continues to slowly gather new admirers appreciative of its intuitive representation of teenage emotionality.

Based on a novel by Jefferey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is a remarkably assured and aesthetically sublime encapsulation of adolescence, with all of its lugubrious emotions, angst-ridden melodrama and vexatious awkwardness left in tact. Set in the middle-class Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, the film centers around the tragic and baffling demise of the five Lisbon sisters in the early 70’s. Almost a quarter of a century after their passing, the community and its members have yet to recover. For a collection of neighborhood boys, who act as the film’s investigative narrators, the Lisbon deaths become a defining moment in their adolescence.

In this way, Coppola’s film becomes a dreamlike treatise on memory, death, suburbia and the loss of innocence. The boys acts of remembering are pivotal to the film’s methodical re-construction of the Lisbon sisters' last moments. Clues are sought from faded memories, scribbled yearbooks, stolen diaries and worn-out vinyl collections. Nevertheless, the puzzle remains incomplete. By the film’s denouement, their amateur forensic observances amount to scarcely more than an anthology of vanished thoughts, hopes and dreams. An irretrievable portal to the past transformed from creamy lined diary pages turn into yellowed, crumbling shards of remembrance. 

As the film’s omnipresent adult narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) recounts the past, we detect the collective sense of sorrow and guilt amongst his peers. With their straight blonde hair and glowing pale faces, the Lisbon sisters immediately enchant the local boys in their neighborhood: forcing the latter to interrupt their falsified boasts of sexual conquests in order to ruminate on the enigmatic quintet. Rarely seen beyond their property line, the sisters often remain closeted in their rooms due to their overbearing and overprotective religious parents: both snappily underplayed by Kathleen Turner and James Woods.

Restricted in their social interactions, the girls convert into a fascinating specimen for the suburb's catalogue of awkward male youth. Intrigue in the sisters escalates when the youngest Lisbon, Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall) attempts suicide. At the same time, a strange disease begins to affect the local trees causing them to die. Despite efforts to thwart and restrict its profileration, the disease fails to subside and serves as a wonderful metaphor for the innate decay intoxicating the community beneath its picturesque Georgian homes, lush green lawns and wide streets. The poisonous atmosphere is perfectly represented through cinematographer Ed Lachman’s collection of  jaundiced visuals blended in with images of swooning daydreams and delicate introspection.

Coppola’s ashen and haunting representations of teenage suburbia increase in their vividity when the eldest Lisbon sister, the flirtatious Lux (Kirsten Dunst) engages in a fleeting romance with local hunk Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). Cocky and slick, high school football star Trip faithfully embodies the myopic high school heartthrob without cliche or parodic repercussions. In contrast to American Pie, The Virgin Suicides represents a teenage conception of sex that does contain consequences, genuine feelings of hurt and authentic emotional responses in its regretful aftermath.

Coppola’s female gaze is also important to the film’s elegiac and ethereal logic. In her successive work, Sofia Coppola has built upon themes dissecting the isolation of young women in strange and confined environments. Her critically acclaimed 2003 film Lost in Translation centered upon the loneliness felt by Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte in modern Tokyo, while 2006’s brilliant Marie Antoinette served as a stylish metaphor for the alienation and solitude enveloping a naive, teenage royal in unfamiliar foreign surroundings. In The Virgin Suicides, this theme is prevalent in the sisters’ collective ennui and the unbearable solitude found in their restrictive home life. 

The coiled mythology the Lisbon sisters represents never wavers throughout the proceedings. Elements of the mystery are partially unspooled, but are outweighed by the overwhelming array of unresolved questions. Impressively, there remains a consistent conviction and underlying tautness in Coppola’s film largely due to the restrained emotional realism displayed in the film’s key performances. By the film’s latter stages, the dreamy nostalgia Coppola builds upon is ultimately undercut by a dark, macabre finality, which continuously affects those touched by the Lisbon sisters’ collective charm and the bitter grotesqueness of their tragedy. The impact for their admirers is sobering, poignant and eternal.

With each passing year, the legacy of Sofia Coppola’s mesmerizing and stylish portrait of teenage suburban life continues to grow. With its ambrosial images and esoteric heroines, The Virgin Suicides casts a deep abiding spell that grows stronger with each additional viewing. Relevant and heartbreaking, Coppola’s film manages to breathlessly craft a devasting balance between the formidable highs and the cavernous hardships of adolescent womanhood. The overall melancholy textures highlight a film dedicated to the sorrowful longing to reclaim the nostalgic past and all its innocent entities.