The Virgin Suicides [DVD]
Screenplay : Sofia Coppola (based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : James Woods (Mr. Lisbon), Kathleen Turner (Mrs. Lisbon), Kirsten Dunst (Lux Lisbon), Josh Hartnett (Trip Fontaine), Hanna Hall (Cecilia Lisbon), Chelse Swain (Bonnie Lisbon), A.J. Cook (Mary Lisbon), Leslie Hayman (Therese Lisbon), Danny DeVito (Dr. Horniker), Michael Pare (Adult Trip Fontaine), Jonathan Tucker (Tim Weiner), Anthony DeSimone (Chase Buell), Giovanni Ribisi (Narrator)
Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, "The Virgin Suicides," is a hazy, dream-like tale of how the local teenage boys of a wealthy Michigan suburb in the early 1970s view the Lisbon sisters. These five daughters of the gawky local math teacher (James Woods) and his strongly religious wife (Kathleen Turner) are all blond and beautiful, ranging in age from 13 to 17, and they are the subject of many private male fantasies. Teenage boys watch them from across the street, talk about them, and save any and all souvenirs that might give them insight into the world of the Lisbon sisters.
Although the five sisters are arguably "the main characters," this is not the story of who they were, but how they were perceived. This is driven home by the fact that the narration (read by Giovanni Ribisi) is a collective remembrance, using the inclusive pronoun "we." The narrator is not one boy who grew up and looks back on the past with longing and a still-incomplete sense of understanding about what happened; rather, he is all the boys who share in the same feelings.
These feelings about the Lisbon sisters are often realized visually in the film with near-kitschy moments of soft-focus fantasy in which the girls are seen in slow motion and extreme close-up, lit with setting sunlight in golden fields. Once again, while these moments border on parody, we realize they are not because this is how teen boys whose heads are filled with movie images and rock ballads about lost love would see them: as unreachable fantasy figures.
As the title of the film makes clear, the five Lisbon sisters--Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman), and Cecilia (Hanna Hall)--will have killed themselves by the end. Why do these five beautiful young girls kill themselves? What drives to them to such despair and unhappiness that they would end their own lives?
The film presents a potential answer: the fact that their repressive Catholic mother becomes so fearful of their budding sexuality that she literally locks them up in the house and does not allow them to go out, thus killing their desire to live. But, this answer is so trite and simplistic that it has to been seen as a screen. This answer is too easy, and the film is too smart to wrap up its story in such pat fashion. No, there is something more mysterious about the deaths of the five Lisbon sisters, and the reasons behind their suicides will never be answered. After all, how can anyone possibly trace the full explanation of what drives someone to end her own life? To suggest that such an extreme action can be boiled down to simple cause-and-effect reasoning is to wrongfully simplify the whole of human existence.
The film is short on narrative, but that is because it is not so much about plot as it is about feeling. When the story takes a long detour to tell how Lux becomes involved with Trip Fontaine (Josh Harnett), a high school stud who recently emerged from puberty to the delight of all the girls at school, the film becomes an evocation of growing adolescent sexuality and the pangs and longing of true first love.
Much of the film is laced with a strong awareness of the hypersexuality of the teenage girls, especially Lux, who is the most ambitious of the sisters. Like all the sex kitten characters played by Brigitte Bardot, Lux is almost overly erotic because everything about her is so ambiguous; every swish of her shoulder, every bat of her eye, every curl of her toes could be either harmless, unknowing, girlish flirtation or provocative,womanly seduction.
Because the sisters seem doomed from the opening frames--the sunny smiles and happy demeanors that characterize their introduction into the narrative have a tragic, somewhat sinister edge that that always accompanies characters who are going to die, but do not know it yet--the movement toward their eventual suicides does not feel like movement at all. In fact, one could almost argue that the plot of "The Virgin Suicides" goes almost nowhere, and those who rely on traditional cinematic storytelling might find themselves restless.
Sofia Coppola (daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola) shows a strong sense of visual style in her directorial debut. The film was adapted from a talked-about first novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Coppola's challenge was to capture the tone of the story--the mystery and the longing. She does this quite successfully, aided in no small part by cinematographer Edward Lachman's soft, filtered cinematography that gives the film both the sensation of a dream or hazy memory, while also evoking the look of the early 1970s. The costumes by Nancy Steiner and set designs by Megan Less are all first-rate, bringing out just enough of that time period to set the tone without being overhwelming. Coppola also pulls something of coup with her use of period music by '70s pop bands like Styx; rather than using the now-kitschy romantic ballads as an ironic counterpoint, she uses them in a completely straight fashion that somehow works.
In "The Virgin Suicides," Coppola aimed to make an unconventional film about adolescence, and she has succeeded quite admirably. Some of her more daring moments of visual flair, such as allowing the camera to have X-ray vision so that we may see that Lux has written Trip's name on her underwear, are hit-and-miss. Sometimes they add to the mood, sometimes they distract.
This was obviously an important film for Coppola, as she has been accused of riding her father's coattails as an actress (she was widely and, some would say, unfairly criticized for single-handedly ruining "The Godfather Part III"). With "The Virgin Suicides," however, she has shown herself to be not only a competent director, but also one of good instincts and imagination. Perhaps she's not a good actress, but her talent behind the camera is readily evident.
|The Virgin Suicides DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (5.1), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| "The Making of The Virgin Suicides" Featurette|
Original theatrical trailer
"Playground Love" Air music video
|Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), Edward Lachman's soft, hazy-filtered cinematography looks exquisite. The overall picture is quite soft, which is the intended look of the film. Colors are strong and natural, although in keeping with the overall dream-like image quality, they seem to have been just slightly desaturated, which makes the film look like a product of the 1970s. The detail level is still notably high despite the soft focus, which brings out the fine nuances of Jasna Stefanovic's excellent production design.|
|I found the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack to be a bit problematic. While Air's musical score and the period music by rock bands like Styx and Heart sounds uniformly good, with strong bass and good surround effects, and the subtle background noises of living in suburbia (the wind whistling through trees, cars in the distance) sounded natural and evocative, Giovanni Ribisi's voice-over narration was too loud. The mix is often quite soft during the dialogue portions of the film, and when you turn up the volume to hear what the characters are saying, the narration becomes jarringly loud. Otherwise, the soundtrack is well-mixed and effective without being showy.|
| The 23-minute featurette "The Making of The Virgin Suicides," which was shot primarily by Eleanor Coppola, who also made the excellent feature-length documentary "Hearts of Darkness" about the making of "Apocalypse Now," is more about writer/director Sofia Coppola than it is about the film itself. Most of the featurette consists of behind-the-scenes footage of Sofia working and interviews about her with numerous members of the Coppola family, including Sofia's mother, Eleanor, and father, producer/director Francis Ford Coppola. Also featured are a few of the actors, including Kathleen Turner, James Woods, and Scott Glenn, as well as author Jeffrey Eugenides, on whose novel the film was based. There is one particularly interesting segment that juxtaposes a scene in the film with a voice-over of Eugenides reading directly from his novel, which shows just how closely Coppola followed the original book in this instance, right down to the descriptive details of when lights in a house turn on and off. |
Although the back of the DVD case lists two theatrical trailers, I could only find one, which is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen. Also included is a brief slide-show gallery of a few dozen photos taken during production and an Air music video for "Playground Love."
©2000 James Kendrick