THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
Review by Michael Jacobson
Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett
Director: Sofia Coppola
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 96 Minutes
Release Date: April 24, 2018
“Cecilia was the first…”
The Virgin Suicides is a masterpiece of quiet,
surreal sadness, seen through the innocent eyes of four young boys infatuated
with five beautiful sisters. This
film represents their vision: the
girls seem angelic and pristine, as if carved out of porcelain, and the boys
spend their time looking across at their house with a telescope, reading the
same catalogues the girls get in the mail, and daydreaming of romantic
adventures with them.
Their point of view gives the tragedy of the suicides a
completely different and fresh perspective.
The emotion of the story doesn’t come from their relationships, or lack
thereof, with the girls, but instead, gives a monumentally sad event a rather
strange, frozen quality, as if it were a moment when time stood still.
Twenty-five years after the events, we learn from the singular voice
narrative of the boys, it was still all they could think about.
Another interesting point is the fact that the movie
doesn’t necessarily encourage the ‘why’ questions.
You’re free to ask them if you want, but many neighbors in voiceover
give their opinions and theories about the girls and why they would do what they
did. And you get a feel from
watching the picture, and understanding the kind of life they led, why they
would do it. But why is not the
central issue. The issue is the
juxtaposition between the fantasized and the real.
To the boys, the Lisbon sisters represent
perfection…everything they could want in the opposite sex.
They’re blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, ranging in ages from 13 to 17.
But when we, the audience, look more closely at their family life, we can
see it’s a life out of joint. The
father (Woods) is a meek, emasculated math teacher, and the mother (Turner) is a
strict Catholic. Religious icons
infiltrate every corner of their home, even the bathrooms.
At the film’s opening, when the narrator speaks those quoted words, we
see the youngest daughter, with bandaged wrists, being taken from the bathtub
where she tried to kill herself. Some
kind of Virgin Mary trading card falls from her hand to the floor, along with
drops of her blood.
The only real interaction between the girls and the
admiring boys takes place in a basement party at the Lisbon house (“the only
party” ever thrown there, the narrator informs us).
It was thrown at the advice of a psychiatrist in order to raise
Cecilia’s spirits after her attempted suicide.
The end result: she tries
again that very night. And this
Come school time, the four remaining sisters return to
their Catholic school, where a new force enters the picture:
Trip Fontaine (Hartnett), a popular boy whose image in the film seems
equally distorted by idealistic memory (especially when intercut with ‘present
day’ scenes, where we see Trip as he is today).
He falls for fourteen year old Lux Lisbon (Dunst), and, despite the
parents’ strict rules preventing dates with their daughters, begins to charm
his way into the picture.
Eventually, the Lisbon parents agree to Trip’s proposal
of a group date for all four girls going out with him and three buddies to the
homecoming dance, where Mr. Lisbon will be a chaperone.
The excited girls pick out their dress patterns, though by the time their
mother finishes with them, they look more like hospital gowns.
The boys show up, pin their corsages on their dates, and set out for what
might have been a wonderful first night out for the girls.
But there is no hope for such a night.
These older boys, like the younger narrating ones, also view the Lisbon
girls as something more than what they are.
And though Trip claimed his intentions were honorable, it isn’t long
before he has Lux drinking, and eventually out on the football field in the
middle of darkness for a romantic romp.
The other girls return home; Lux doesn’t.
In a series of haunting unfolding scenes, we see Lux awakening on the
football field at the break of dawn. The
light is strange. She’s alone. The narration tells us that she and Trip never saw each other
again. She makes her way home in a
taxi, holding the homecoming crown she had worn gloriously the night before
between her teeth. There is a
solemn sense of change in the air. For
the surviving Lisbon girls, it would be the beginning of the end.
They would be taken out of school and made virtual
prisoners in their home. Their
mother would force Lux to burn her rock records (though, after the house fills
with suffocating smoke, quickly decides that throwing them out works just as
well, if less symbolically). And
their young admirers still watch and love them from afar, with their youthful
romantic fantasies, as the girls begin the inevitable processes of fading away
Even the first real communications between the groups
isn’t direct: they begin to call
one another to play parts of records for each other, though it’s easy to read
their respective feelings by the song choices.
The girls soon ask for the boys’ help in getting out…but, as the
title of the film indicates, it’s not the kind of getting out the boys were
The question is begged:
why did Trip abandon Lux that night on the football field?
The answer is more than mere macho posturing, or a matter of getting what
he wanted and then being finished with her.
A later flashback from Trip shows him getting up and walking away,
looking back down at Lux with confusion, and maybe a little sadness.
It was simply the danger of mixing fantasy and reality.
If the boys in the town were going to look at the Lisbon sisters as
something so beautiful, so pure, and so unattainable, then ironically, to have
sex with one of them was the worst thing that could have happened.
Illusions always crumble in the face of cold, physical reality.
When Trip’s dream of Lux was gone, he was left with nothing more.
This is easily the best film of the year for me.
First time director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola may have had a master
mentor in her father, Frances Ford Coppola, but for those who would guess this
film was either heavily influenced by or a pale imitation of her famous dad’s
style are in for a surprise: she
speaks with a clear and unique cinematic vision that owes more to the stylings
of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging
Rock than anything else, although The Virgin Suicides does not mimic
either picture—it merely explores similar themes.
Like the Lynch movie, Ms. Coppola takes an ordinary, wholesome appearing
suburban setting and slowly reveals the underside that escapes even most of the
people in the neighborhood. And
like the Weir film, she toys with the idea that sexual repression equals
eradication from existence, and sex equals death.
It also boasts a memorable musical score by the French duo Air, with some of the saddest and most haunting themes I’ve heard in a while. I'm looking to add the soundtrack to this film to my vinyl collection.
The cast is first rate, too, though it’s important to
remember that it’s not really the characters that drive the story, but rather,
the characters’ senses of illusion vs. reality. And that’s the ultimate brilliance of the piece.
It’s not really the story of five sisters who ended their lives.
It’s the story of the boys who worshipped them from afar, yearned to be
with them, and saw them as the most ideal of women…and the pain that would
stay with them forever because of their inability to connect their delicately
constructed fantasy with the reality of the Lisbon sisters.
This is a beautiful, 4K transfer from Criterion. It actually occurred to me how 'deliberate' the look of this film is, with deliberate softness and hotter colors used to make it look more like a film from the 70s than near the new millennium. It works overall. It's not as sharp as some, and colors are oversaturated a bit, but it all serves to give the movie a very specific look.
Though mostly dialogue oriented, this uncompressed soundtrack has moments of multi-channel life. My favorite scene in the film is when Trip and Lux are named homecoming royalty at the dance: “Come Sail Away” by Styx comes blaring out, as balloons fall from the ceiling down to the enthused dancers. The music is loud and strong, and with the sense of open reverb one would get from inside a gym. The front and rear stages are used together to create this effect. The loud popping of the balloons, obviously another deliberate distortion, emanates from all channels effectively. As mentioned, the score by Air is beautiful, strong, and a wonderful listen as well. Stay for the end credits to hear how well “Playground Love” sums up the mood of the film. Oddly enough, there are no subtitles.
The disc doesn't boast a commentary track, but there are a number of good featurettes, including a modern look back with Sofia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett and others, plus the original production featurette filmed by Eleanor Coppola. There is a new interview with author Jeffrey Eugenides, who remains a big fan of the film. Fan writer Tavi Gevinson talks about the movie and Coppola, plus there's a trailer and the music video for Air's "Playground Love".
Best of all is the inclusion of Ms. Coppola's first film; a short black and white offering called "Lick the Star".
The Virgin Suicides was 1999's best
movie for me. You can safely
consider Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut among one of the greatest ever, on
a short list that would include Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and
Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
It really is that good…a unique,
masterful, haunting, and supremely sad composition about adolescent fantasy and
reality and the vast expanse that exists between them.