Virgin Suicides, The (1999): Sofia Coppola’s Moody, Promising Directing Debut

In her promising feature directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, which was produced by her noted father, Sofia Coppola tackles the relevant issue of teenage suicide with an assured treatment that employs effectively a serio-comic tone.

The Virgin Suicides
VirginSuicidesPoster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Set in a Michigan suburb in the early 1970s, this darkly humorous exploration benefits from an original narrative structure that views the story from a contemporary male perspective, and from the fact that, unlike most American teen pix, its appealing cast consists of actors who are the same age as the young characters they play.

Theatrical prospects are good for a timely and accomplished movie that, with the right handling, may generate social controversy and perhaps even bring to the theaters youthful as well as more mature viewers.

Adapting to the screen Jeffrey Eugenides’s well-received 1991 novel, scripter-helmer Sofia is young enough to revisit the 1970s and offer critically alert insights that older, usually male, filmmakers are less capable of. Though her direction is uneven, Sofia should be credited for avoiding an easier satirical approach a la Heathers and steering clear of the trivial and pandering nature of so many American youth pix at present. Humor prevails throughout, but it doesn’t deflate the disturbing elements of the tale, which miraculously manages to stay droll, heartfelt and poignant to the end.

Headed by a quirky high school math teacher (James Woods) and his rigid religious wife (Kathleen Turner), the Lisbons appear to be a healthy, functional American family. Living in a typical suburban house, they have five daughters who are a year apart in age, the youngest (13) being Cecilia and the eldest (17) Therese. However, any illusion of ordinariness or normalcy are shattered in the first reel, when the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) announces: “Cecilia was the first to go.”

When Dr. Hornicker (Danny DeVitto) reproaches Cecilia that she is not old enough to know how bad life is, she says matter-of factly: “Obviously, you have never been a 13-year old girl.” After slitting her wrists, Mr. Lisbon removes rather naively the sharp fence over which Cecilia jumped, hoping that her act was just a random accident. Cecilia is brought home, and Father Moody (Scott Glenn) recommends more socializing with boys, which encourages the Lisbons to give what turns out to be the first and only party in their house

Told through the recollections of the boys as mature men, the film provides a multi-layered view of their incessant fascination with the quintet of girls. Quite inventively, yarn switches smoothly from voice-over narration to flashbacks that recreate all the adolescence rites of passage that viewers can easily relate to.

The central reel is devoted to Lux (Kirtsin Dunst) who, along with Cecilia, are the only fully developed characters; the other sisters are mostly in the background, as entourage. Trip (Josh Hartnett), the school’s hunk, who can get any girl he wants, is smitten with Lux at first sight. In a series of charming scenes, he goes out of his way to impress her father that he is a gentleman with honorable intentions.

After numerous family discussions, the girls are given approval to go to a dance ball, in which Trip and Lux consummate their passion. In a most devastating scene, lenser Ed Luchman shows with a bravura high-angle long shot how Trip inexplicably leaves the scene as a bewildered Lux finds herself at dawn all alone in the football field.

After Cecilia’s death and this incident, the Lisbon family begins to disintegrate, spiraling downward into a creepy state of isolation. The girls are taken out of school and are quarantined by their zealously protective mother. But the neighborhood boys become even more intrigued and they continue to watch and spy on the girls, particularly Lux, as she loses her self-worth and throws herself indiscriminately into sexual abandon on the roof.

Finally, the boys decide to take action and contact the secluded girls. In a series of serio-comic scenes, they exchange messages by playing popular songs one the phone. Then, late one night, they pull courage and sneak into the house with Lux’s encouragement. It seems as if the girls are going to be rescued and escape out of what earlier a gossipy neighbor describes as a “decorating scheme,” referring to the Lisbons’ tacky taste. The resolution, in which the quartet commits suicide in various ways, is not only shocking, but also deeply upsetting, particularly as Mrs. Lisbon continues to insist “there was always plenty of love in our house.”

Presented as a puzzle, which the boys–and the viewers–attempt to piece together, Virgin Suicides has the good sense of furnishing hints of the ills that beset this archetypal nuclear family, but no easily-digested psycho-social explanations. It’s also significant that the last word belongs to the men, who continue to mourn the girls they have loved but never really understood.

Overall, Sofia acquits herself better as helmer than scripter: The narration suffers from being both too lieral and too literary. Though her direction is not as sharply focused as it should be, for a first effort, pic reps an honorable achievement, particularly in the credible, often touching performances of the entire youthful cast. Of the girls, Dunst and Hall stand out, and of the boys, Hartnett, Tucker, and DeSimone. In restrained, understated roles, Woods and Turner are excellent as the bourgeois parents. Production values are impressive, especially Lachman’s precise rendering of mundane suburbanism, Jasna Stefanovic’s tacky design of the Lisbons house’s interiors, and Nancy Steiner’s tawdry costumes, all vividly capturing “ordinary” American life in the 1970s.

Credits:

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Julie Costanzo, Chris Hanley, Dan Halsted

Screenplay by Sofia Coppola, based on The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Music by Air
Cinematography Edward Lachman
Edited by James Lyons, Melissa Kent

Production company: Paramount Classics, American Zoetrope, Muse Productions
Eternity Pictures

Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date: May 19, 1999 (Cannes Film Festival); April 21, 2000 (U.S.)

Running time: 97 minutes
Budget $6.1 million
Box office $10.4 million