There are some things in life that may only be understood as formative events in one’s life through aging and retrospection. This is particularly true of the tragicomic period of one’s adolescence. In this sense, Sofia Coppola’s feature debut The Virgin Suicide is less about suicide as such; it is more about understanding the resonance of individual moments. The process of understanding may even appear to be psychoanalytical – conclusions are formed through a reconstruction of the events and a formation of discourse. However, the film pits the usually implied objectivity of traditional cinematic storytelling against the subjectiveness of a story told by a male protagonist, retrospectively, who looked at the events from a distance. Therefore, the film is nothing but a constructed truth, informed by neither insight nor understanding, but by a selfishness that is very human in nature, and particularly in the middle class, in this case, of the suburban area of Michigan where The Virgin Suicides is set. Indeed, this narrative device creates an unsettling atmosphere that underlines the nostalgic romanticism of the images and events that play out on the screen.
Coppola adapted the screenplay of The Virgin Suicides from a 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Briefly the story: it starts off with the attempted suicide of the youngest of the Lisbon sisters, Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), and ends with the suicide and destruction of the entire family – the four sisters Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Mary (A.J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman) and Bonnie (Chelse Sawin), and Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kathleen Turner, respectively).
Before directing this film, Coppola starred in her father Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III (1990), but the experience left a bad taste in her mouth and she subsequently attempted a career in photography and fashion design. Her experiences definitely informed what would be her filmmaking style, and show up in a number of ways: her attention to details in creating atmosphere; her understanding of the resonance of an image; the importance of texture – the film’s use of filters add an uncanny vulnerability that enhances the importance and fragility of memory (and the possibility of manipulating it for whatever reason). Coppola understands the 1970’s like George Lucas understood the early 1960’s of American Graffiti – in an impressionistic way. She creates a very original image of this time frame that is not only formed through its visuals but also through her use of music, which instead of relying on the usual songs, makes use of one-hit wonders and pop hits seldom heard in movies (and a wonderful atmpspheric score by Air).
The title of the movie not only promises suicide, which Robert Bresson once defined as the result of feeling a void which is impossible to bear. It also promises sexuality and a sexual discourse. There are numerous references to sexual awakening, and it is represented by the awkwardness shared by the girls and the boys as they talk to each other, or in the boisterous way in which a guy with slicked back hair blatantly lies about his precociously promiscuous sex life. It is also represented by the references to voyeurism – the group of boys looking at Lux having sex with random guys on the roof of her house, for example. But of course, voyeurism is constantly implied by The Virgin Suicides‘ aforementioned storytelling devices, told from the point of view of someone from the outside looking in. As such, there are many gray areas in the movie and a number of inconsistencies in the characterization that can be traced back to the voice that is manipulating the narration (and who we never confront in his adult form).
In the prologue of the movie, the film unexpectedly shifts our attention to what might have been the point of the film all along: class division. The Lisbon family have become victims of the middle class. After their death, we are shown sequences of a grotesque “asphyxiation party” with smoke machines and funny-looking drinks, which was inspired by the Lisbon tragedy. We understand the grim vision of this movie, the dark morale of this contemporary fable, is that it is much easier to exploit tragedy than trying to understand it – the truth may take us closer to the “void” Bresson referred to. It’s much easier to repress it. Or turn it into a cocktail party story. – ★★★★★
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES || 1999, USA || Drama || Directed by – Sofia Coppola / Produced by – Francis Ford Coppola, Julie Costanzo, Chris Hanley, Dan Halsted / Written by – Sofia Coppola (based on The Virgin Suicides and Jeffrey Eugenides) / Music by – Air / Cinematography – Edward Lachman / Edited by – James Lyons, Melissa Kant / Starring – James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Harnett, Michael Paré, Scott Glenn, Danny DeVito, A.J. Cook / Running time: 97 mins.