31 January 2001 | d_fienberg
Captures the Dark Comedy and Lyric Poetry of the Book
I'm uncertain why the daughter of a Hollywood icon would select as her first director effort a nearly unfilmable book of linguistic time bombs and nearly unspeakable tragedy. Jeffrey Eugenides's book The Virgin Suicides is one of the underappreciated gems of the 1990s and surely Sophia Coppola must have known that the critics would have it out for anything she did (see reviews listed under "acting: Part 3, The Godfather"). So Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford, decided to do something unexpected: She made a gem of a movie that's easy to like and complex enough to savour.
Taking place "25 years ago" in "Michigan," The Virgin Suicides tells the story of a group of teenage boys and the Lisbon sisters, whose suicides changed them forever. The book is told with a rather unique choral narrator (the entire story is in the first person plural) which makes it clear that the focus of the story is not the Lisbons, but the boys and their attempts to restructure the events of what must have been their final summer of innocence. Similarly, the film features extensive voice-overs, culled from the book, coming from an unidentified member (or members) of the gang. You might wonder why you're never able to distinguish between any of the four or five or six males who wander through the story, or why at least several of the Lisbon girls also blend together, but rest assured it's intentional. The Virgin Suicides is very much about a baffled collective.
The movie begins with the first suicide attempt of the youngest Lisbon girl. When the doctor examining her asks why should would try to kill herself she offers the simple response, "Obviously, Doctor, you have never been a thirteen year old girl." The book and film are both really about men and how incapable we are of understand what it's like to be a thirteen year old girl or a thirty year old woman or really anything in between. And what's even more frustrating is the fact that women seem to understand men so devastatingly well (a trait perfectly personified in Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of middle sister Lux). The narrative such as it is marches inexorably through the gradual awakening of the narrators and the inevitable realization that they never knew anything.
Coppola, who also adapted the screenplay, makes decent use of the book's two metaphorical subplots -- an outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease and a cemetery worker's strike. The rot of suburban life lies at the core of this story and Coppola wisely never overplays her hand. She loves using mythic imagery, generally revolving around Dunst, an actress beginning to produce the kind of resume that speaks of longevity. Coppola's background in costuming is also evident, displaying the decadence and tackiness of the observing characters, contrasted with the spare Puritainism of the Lisbons.
Coppola gets mostly good performances from the young generation of her cast. As the only two characters to get individual notice, Dunst and Josh Hartnett do excellent work. She's the animal core of the film and he perfectly captures the perplexed, corrupted purity of the male side of the story. Playing against type, James Woods is excellent as the Lisbon's introverted henpecked father and Kathleen Turner is effectively scary as their domineering mother.
The film is also aided by some wonderful technical work including Jasna Stefanovic's nostalgic, but never cutesy production design and Edward Lachman's versatile cinematography. The soundtrack by the French band Air is also notable, mixed with various hit songs from the period.
The Virgin Suicides has perhaps too many moments of whimsy, where it seems too devoted to its source, even when the material doesn't translate properly. But still, it's the moments of magic -- the Lisbon girls prom, an eerie family party, and phone conversation spoken only with records -- that stand out. I'd give this one an 8/10.