Maybe I’ll finally watch all of a director’s work in the order that it was actually released. That would be a nice change. I say that having just noticed that The Virgin Suicides, the first Sofia Coppola film I’ve seen, is actually Sofia Coppola’s first film. I thought it was a very good film, especially considering it’s a directorial debut. It creates a nice air of mystery, evokes the 70s nicely, and deals with some interesting themes concerning voyeurism and loss of innocence. Most impressively, its tone is very assured and controlled, putting us in the middle of a strange, dreamlike landscape without eschewing humor or genuine sentiment.
The Lisbon family is ostensibly like any other, until the layers are peeled back. The father (James Woods), a mild mannered math teacher at the local high school and the mother (Kathleen Turner), an extremely overprotective and religious housewife, conspire to keep their five daughters isolated from anything that could harm (or instruct) them. A group of adolescent boys in the neighborhood are obsessed with them, viewing their isolation as perfection. The youngest, Cecilia (Hanna Hall) commits suicide at a party after one failed attempt, and a year later, after more and more strictures from the mother, the other four follow suit. In the intervening time, attention is paid to the second youngest, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), and her doomed romance with Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett).
The interesting thing about this movie is not that it is about the suicides of seemingly perfect teenage girls, but that it is about the boys’ fascination with them. Their fascination makes the movie into the mystery that it is; without the adoration and bafflement of the boys toward the girls the movie would probably be fairly straightforward. As it is, it offers no easy answers to the mystery the boys seek to solve, but depicts wonderfully their motivations for solving it. The girls are shown as mysteries that can’t be solved, but the boys suffer exquisitely in trying.
While the boys seem to keep this romantic outlook throughout the rest of their lives, the girls sacrifice theirs after realizing that it is false. It’s hard to really tell if it’s Cecilia’s suicide that sparks the others or if it’s Lux’s loss of innocence. After Trip leaves her, the girls are shut up in their house by their mother. They don’t go to school and dream of escape. Presumably they could have tried, but chose death instead. Stripped of their romantic ideals, perhaps it wasn’t worth leaving the house.
The film is shot beautifully by cinematographer Edward Lachman, instilling the picture with a sense of nostalgia, longing, and idolatry of the Lisbon girls. There are many dream sequences that only happen in the boys’ minds, showing the girls frolicking in sunny wheat fields like they are in a Terrance Malick film. The whole film has a slightly blurred and fuzzy look to it, like looking at an old photograph. The sound design plays into this sense of nostalgia as well, we can often hear the dead space on a record for no discernible reason at all. There is also a good bit of voyeuristic camerawork in the film that enhances the fact that we are viewing the girls from the boys viewpoint and not their own. This isn’t about the girls’ lives as they experienced them, but about how the boys saw them. Several conversations are shot from behind a closed door, and we can only half hear what is taking place. There are multiple shots of actors viewed from behind; they are talking but we can’t see their faces.
So all in all, I’d definitely have to say that The Virgin Suicides was both a promising introduction to Coppola’s work as well as an impressive first feature. It dealt with some interesting issues and was shot and acted very well, and kept me watching throughout its running time. One can’t ask too much more from a film.
“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading: