Director: Sofia Coppola (USA). Year of Release: 2000
Michigan, 25 Years Ago – which in modern currency is nearly 50 years ago. Can you really believe that The Virgin Suicides was released last Millennium? This must have been the first time I’ve seen the film in 20 years, and on my way to the cinema I really couldn’t think of much that happened in the film. Which, I learned, is because very little does happen.
Not that you’d expect this from one of the first lines: “Cecilia was the first to go” to her attempted suicide in the opening scenes. Cecilia is the youngest of the 5 Lisbon sisters – all blonde, pretty and winsome – and although she survives this attempt to slit her wrists in the bath, it’s not long before she has successfully suicided.
All attention now turns to Lux, the second youngest sister, and the object of all the local boys’ desire. The other three sisters are pretty much interchangeable – so much so that when the school heartthrob Trip Fontaine is allowed to take Lux to the prom as long as he finds people to accompany the other girls, his mates don’t really seem to care who gets which girl.
The film is narrated by an unnamed voice, which is presumably the adult version of one of Trip’s mates, although he never identifies himself. The adult Trip also appears on screen to tell his story before returning to his next session at the rehab centre. If this sounds like a clumsy narrative method for a film, well that’s probably because the story has been taken wholesale from Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel of the same name.
In the film version, I’m not sure that this distancing actually adds much to the story – if anything it makes it unnecessarily complicated. It also reinforces the idea that although this is nominally about five young women, everything is mediated entirely through not just male eyes but the eyes of adolescent boys, who are not the most reliable people to understand the feelings and emotions of their female counterparts.
That’s ok as far as it goes. We get to know this group of lads who use a telescope and binoculars to spy on the girls in the opposite house, and who steal the girls’ diaries and other possessions as some sort of trophy. When Trip does get to sleep with Lux on a muddy football pitch, he leaves her alone overnight – not entirely because he’s a bastard but because he’s incapable of dealing with his emotions (not that that’s an excuse).
It’s an interesting enough story, but not half as interesting as the one of what motivates the five sisters – each of whom has killed herself by the end of a film (not a spoiler – we are told this at the start of the film, and it’s kinda in the title). In a captured diary, one girl writes about “the imprisonment of being a girl”. Now that sounds like a story that I’d like to see and feel for.
Given all this focus on the blokes, you might say that it’s a surprize that this is a film that’s been directed a woman – although this woman is Sofia Coppola, who has always seemed to prefer pretty settings than attempting to understand what her characters are thinking and feeling. After The Virgin Suicides, Coppola made Lost In Translation which I quite liked, followed by a series of vapid, solipsistic films about extremely rich people being bored and sad.
Meanwhile, Eugenides’s follow up novel Middlesex is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest books in modern, if not all, literature. Which could be an indication what separates The Virgin Suicides from Coppola’s later films. Having said this, apart from Lux (pretty) and Trip (hunky), none of the other younger characters has any discernible characteristics to distinguish them from any of the others.
As the adults, Kathleen Turner and James Woods do add a bit of vitality as the girls’ Christian fundamentalist mother and henpecked father, who’s also the kids’ maths teacher. And there is a cameo from Danny de Vito playing Danny de Vito with a moustache. But that’s about it. And yet for all this, the film does give the impression that it’s a lot more substantial then it actually is when you start to think about it.
The Virgin Suicides is probably Coppola’s best film to date – if that’s not damning it with too much faint praise. Many of the characters are potentially interesting, or at least they could be, if she’d bothered to develop them. And although this all takes place in a sickeningly wealthy community, the inhabitants are not so different to the rest of us than in Coppola’s later films. Conclusion: it’s ok – will this do?