Three Films In: Sofia Coppola – The Virgin Suicides

Coppola’s first film, The Virgin Suicides, can very easily feel like an enigma. It’s dark and sad, the film’s perspective is often skewed from where you would expect, you don’t have clear answers as to what drove the Lisbon sisters to take their own lives; all while the film is often full of life, comedy, honesty and authenticity about the teenage psyche that you rarely find in movies. The Virgin Suicides’ biggest hurdle to general accessibility (beyond the teen suicide, which, to its credit, isn’t too violent) might be that the film doesn’t try and tell you how to interpret anything that is happening.

Coppola adapted this into a film from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides and their dueling gender perspectives are melded beautifully by Coppola into her script. While the Lisbon sisters are meant to be a bit of a mystery to our narrator and his friends, Coppola is still able to give us so much detail in their lives; often through her lens with a simple pan over one of the girl’s bedrooms. We get to know so much about these girls, even while being, ultimately, left to our own devices to deduce much of how they got to suicide. Eugenides perspective from the teenage boy’s side of things feels just as fully realized and authentic as Coppola’s portrait of the Lisbon girls and Coppola’s ability to balance the two is astonishing to watch. She even layers in the suburban whispers underneath it all, while throwing the media’s take every few minutes when a news report pops up on the screen. All of the aural layers keep us listening for clues, but she throws us off the scent even more when she briefly breaks into the surreal or alternate realities.

Told from the perspective of the neighborhood boys who “loved” the Lisbon girls, you can deduce a multitude of reasons as to why these girls felt compelled to take their lives in a group suicide. Coppola lets you bring your experiences and state of mind to those questions, letting the viewer pass the blame for this tragedy to whomever they feel is the right fit. The narrator of the film is as confounded by the events as some viewers might be, and he was there and spent most of his life thinking about these young women. The whispering “they” of suburbia are always giving their two cents in The Virgin Suicides and they have a lot of words as to how these girls are raised. The suburbs are a cage in this film, Coppola never holding back at giving the viewer a chance to judge these detached commentators, or join in with them if that is the way you feel. I find myself joining in with them in passing blame, but I’d like to think I stay on my wavelength, not dipping to their judgey levels.

The reasoning in the film that I choose to roll with, for what drove these girls over the edge, has to be their oppressive mother. Mrs. Lisbon is clearly psychotic. The way she rules her house and shelters her daughters would qualify as child abuse. The passage of time in The Virgin Suicides can be fuzzy at times, but it feels like an eternity for the four teenage girls when they are locked in their house at the end of the film. You understand why these girls are driven over the brink. Mrs. Lisbon is oblivious and uneducated on what is best for a growing teenager in the late 70’s, but I do take a bit of pleasure in the not so subtle finger being pointed past Mrs. Lisbon and to the religious beliefs that are driving her decisions. There is no overt discussion of religion in the film, but that cross around Mrs. Lisbon’s neck is all we need to know where this behavior is coming from. I appreciate that the film doesn’t, again, get explicit, but I can’t help but see the criticism on religious upbringing here.

While Mrs. Lisbon’s behavior is astonishing in today’s world, what is even more so is the fact that Kathleen Turner is almost able to play her as sympathetic in the viewer’s eyes. This goes beyond the sympathy that comes with a parent losing a child (or five), Turner is just so spectacular at playing wicked without ever really coming across as so in the moment. It’s one of the most human performances in any of Coppola’s films, yet when you step back and put all the pieces together Mrs. Lisbon is basically a monster that is out of their depth. Maybe she never wanted kids. Maybe she is just so God-fearing there was never another choice. Maybe she pined to be a part of the sexual revolution and is taking it out on her children. You catch yourself trying to rationalizing Mrs. Lisbon’s behavior, a bit more on every rewatch as yourself gets further away from your own teenage years and this has everything to do with Turner’s performance. She’s selling you on Mrs. Lisbon’s properness, all while seeming right on the edge of a meltdown in every scene. Turner’s voice trembles and quivers like she’s barely holding it together. It’s amazing work.

Matching Turner is the almost as excellent James Woods as the girls’ father, Ronald. How the now exposed asshole, Woods, was able to turn in a performance like this is baffling in hindsight. A seemingly quality teacher, a loving father and a man who can show assertion when necessary, Ronald is absolutely railroaded by his wife when it comes to raising his children. We get to see a couple of small victories for his parenting desires, but once Lux screwed up homecoming, his voice is silenced for good. The saddest scene of the film might be Ronald, mumbling to himself as he looks over the school plants, brushing off his co-worker’s request to bring back his daughters as if this was an absurd and impossible request not even worth contemplating.

Josh Hartnett might be doing his career best work as the high school heart-throb, Trip Fontaine, and it’s always surprising, and impressive, the way the film gives itself over to him for its middle act. Trip becomes the lead of the film for about thirty minutes and Coppola uses that time to not only flip the gender perspective on its head, but crafts some of the most authentic and entertaining high school filmmaking ever thrown up on the screen. This feels like a real place, with no clichés or tired characters roaming the halls, and Coppola deserves so much credit for not succumbing to these traps. Every needle drop on the soundtrack, every awkward pause with the girls, every conversation with boys, it’s all perfect. Hartnett (and adult Trip, Michael Paré, in the completely affective and out of nowhere flash forward) makes us wholly believe in Trip’s uncontrollable love for Lux; and in turn the overall love the local boys have for all of the Lisbon girls. But, we just as easily buy his confusion and abandonment of her on that homecoming night. He’s a boy, who thinks he’s a man, and when he finally “conquers” this mythic Libson girl, he is left befuddled; for the remainder of his life. The fact that his love, and abandonment, of Lux (and, surely, the events that followed) clearly is a big reason he is in some sort of institution later in his life. Again, that sadness lingering on.

As good as Hartnett and Dunst are, the fact that Trip and Lux get so much focus in The Virgin Suicides might be my one nitpick with the film. I know I just talked about how perfect this sequence is, but I still wish the film was more evenly distributed among the four remaining Lisbon sisters. I think the boys as a whole get the perfect balance against the sisters, but Lux comes a bit too far out in front of her siblings. They are all given wonderful little beats here and there, but I would trade some Lux/Trip time to get to know these girls just a bit better. But, then I would be asking the film to be what it’s not setting out to be. The reason we get so much about Trip and Lux is because he is the one telling us that story; I get it. Coppola and her script are keeping us at an arm’s length from the Lisbon girls because no one knew who these girls were, and why they did what they did, but I still feel that urge to get a bit more with the other three Lisbon sisters during that stretch.

Coppola’s eye is astonishing for a first time feature director and you would be hard pressed to find many other debuts that would top this in the last twenty-five years. Her ability to juggle tone is something to marvel as well, as you will find yourself laughing one minute and full of sadness the next. The shifts never feel jarring, even with emotions swinging quite wildly a couple of times throughout the picture. It’s remarkable a film can make you feel so alive, yet is full of so much sorrow. The humor in the film is also often black, but Coppola’s biggest laugh in any of her films might be the news report where the teenage girl is talking about how she accidentally killed her grandmother with her own rat poison pie, “She at three pieces!” I don’t know if that is from the novel or something Coppola cooked up, but it makes me cackle every viewing.

I can’t wrap this up without giving a shout out to the women behind the Lisbon sisters, all of which leave an impression even if we wish we got to know more of them (Which, yes, is the point of the movie. Stop holding it against the film, Zac!). Hannah Hall plays the youngest, Cecilia, and is the first to live up to the title, but she is unforgettable and hangs over the whole picture. The “ghost” sequence of all the boys seeing her after she kills herself is haunting, with that shot of her in the tree being one of the film’s most beautiful and memorable. Cecilia’s death is the hardest to deal with, but her diary retroactively shows that she was onto something in the world her sisters couldn’t quite yet see coming. Cecilia saw the writing on the wall, if none of her sisters could escape the clutches of her mother, how would she?

Therese and Bonnie Lisbon were played by Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain, respectively, and while they both get the short straws when it comes to screen time of the sisters, the do make the most of their brief moments. A.J. Cook is the third most memorable Lisbon and she gets the most to do behind Cecilia and Lux. Is that a lot, no, but she stands out from the pack whenever she gets the chance.

Kirsten Dunst is the face of the Lisbons, and the film, and she is affectively alluring as Lux. It’s not Dunst’s most dynamic performance, as great as it is, but she serves the role well as an object of every teenage boy’s affection. Hartnett and her have some great chemistry, and Dunst mesmerizes in her final scene, but she doesn’t get the big moment you would expect for being the Kirsten Dunst of The Virgin Suicides. Then again, this movie isn’t about the Lisbons, is it.

Giovanni Ribisi also deserves props for giving the film its guide and focus as the narrator. A great voice and one that helps capture the confounding nature of the Lisbon sisters every time he comes through the speakers.

The Virgin Suicides gets better with age and stands as one of the most audacious debuts of Coppola’s generation. The film is a great look into her skills as a filmmaker and sets a lot of bars for herself that are going to be difficult for her to hurdle. The Virgin Suicides feels like the quintessential Sofia Coppola film in hindsight and it’s crazy that she was able to achieve that with her first picture. This doesn’t mean Coppola hasn’t evolved as a filmmaker, but when you look at a lot of recurring themes in her work The Virgin Suicides often features the best instance of them.

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