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The Virgin Suicides

The Occasional Golden Moment

By Roy Rodenstein

Staff Writer

1999, 1 hr 37 min

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Written by: Sofia Coppola, Jeffrey Eugenides (novel)

Cast: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, and Josh Hartnett

The film The Virgin Suicides arrives in theaters with a good deal of buzz a full year after its Cannes debut. It’s not hard to see why, as a high-profile cast headlines Sofia Coppola’s directing debut. Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’s well-received novel and scripted for the screen by Ms. Coppola, The Virgin Suicides chronicles the lives and deaths of five blonde sisters, told largely from the point of view of a group of boys enraptured by their mythic womanhood as much in life as in death. Assured direction and superb attention to detail come together in this memorable story sabotaged by its constantly changing tone.

In the mid-1970s, the Lisbon family lives in suburban Michigan, in a neighborhood with the kind of narrow streets that invite neighborly eavesdropping. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon are strict parents, or rather, Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) is strict with both her daughters and her husband (James Woods). The Lisbon sisters inhabit the stuffy household, dying to get out and about, as a cadre of worshipful neighborhood boys watches their every move and tries in vain to decipher them. The suicide of Cecilia, at age 13 the youngest Lisbon, ensures neither group will have an easy time of it.

Cecilia is treated by Dr. Hornicker (Danny DeVito), a psychiatrist who thinks she knows nothing of life’s pain. She feels the same way about him. Dr. Hornicker asks the Lisbon parents to loosen the reins on their girls, but this strategy backfires. After getting a taste of teenage adventure, the sisters naturally can’t let it go. Lux (Kirsten Dunst), age 14, is the boldest, as her explosive interlude with suave cutie Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) results in her missing her parents’ curfew. The ensuing crackdown sends the girls into a spiral of despair, as they are taken out of school and locked up at home for weeks. The neighborhood boys’ distant friendship never can fulfill the idealized passions festering unsated in the girls’ minds, aches that shall be stopped one way or another.

Bright and handsome photography go a long way toward establishing a mood of unsustainable orderliness. Coppola expertly employs a full arsenal of styles to create particular emotional contexts, including soft-focused fantasy shots, stop-motion film, and occasional quick-cut sequences. A haunting original score by Air works alongside period music. The director has such command of scenes that even Styx’s kitschy, catchy “Come Sail Away,” piped at full blast during a prom scene, results in a believably affecting moment of youthful awakening. Several other sequences are evoked with emotional, crushing perfection, most of them small, private instants of coming of age.

As good as these sequences are, the film suffers from a maddening case of featuritis. Now it’s an ethereal poem about the flower of youth, now a dark suburban comedy American Beauty style, now a lighthearted high-school farce. When Cecilia tries to end her life, a neighbor comments that the poor girl was probably just trying to escape her mother’s lacking talent for interior decoration. Soon after, at a gathering at the Lisbons’, a nonsense sound-effect is heard which the characters instantly sense forewarns of Cecilia’s death. The next moment, neighbors are heard saying the parents are probably to blame, and a second later even this issue is dropped in favor of yet another topic.

As if such schizophrenia were not enough, the film is riddled with vacuous narration. Giovanni Ribisi (Boiler Room) can pull off believable voice-overs, but here his observations are stone-dull and repetitive, each time saying that even decades later, the boys have not figured out the Lisbon sisters’ minds. A grown-up Trip Fontaine, retelling his perfect night with the alliterative Lux Lisbon, is suddenly called by an offscreen voice to a “group meeting” and is never seen again. It’s clear that The Virgin Suicides suffers from the common pitfall of trying to pack every last plot point of the novel into the film. Visual attention to detail, on the other hand, is fascinating, with a lovely and meaningful title sequence as well as tenderly crafted bedrooms plastered in teenage iconography.

The film’s biggest failing is that Coppola gives short shrift even to the handful of devastatingly powerful scenes she achieves. Just when characters live a genuinely heart-rending stirring, when emotional textures begin to emerge, the script cuts away and completely breaks the affecting tone. At a mere hour and a half running time, there is no justification for the film’s aversion to dwelling on profound developing scenes.

Nevertheless, the moments before these cuts can reach stormy heights. A sequence where the boys and girls communicate by telephone, not speaking but simply exchanging songs that express their feelings, paints perfectly how near yet how far from each other they are kept. Another astonishing scene occurs at the end of Trip’s first date with Lux, where the two watch nature shows with Mrs. Lisbon sitting solidly between them on the couch. The power of such repression to magnify the slightest interactions into maddening sensuousness is beautifully illustrated. When Trip grins “goodbye” to Lux, the waves of emotion washing over Kirsten Dunst’s face are as unexpected as they are nuanced, bespeaking the movie’s entire theme in a few seconds’ reaction. Trip heads back to his car and, though the would-be lovers exchanged barely a look the entire night, sits panting in the dark, overwhelmed, a chillingly real portrait of the pangs of adolescence.

Though Dunst is pitch-perfect as the most self-aware, afflicted sister, the entire young cast is effective, particularly Hanna Hall as the young Cecilia and Josh Hartnett as the disarmingly good-natured Trip. Unfortunately, the adults’ roles are so severely underwritten that Turner, Woods, and DeVito sound flat as leftover pancakes when talking to any of the kids, despite their best attempts.

The Virgin Suicides is in many ways a modern updating of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s 1975 classic about girls from a repressive Victorian schoolgirl who disappear during a picnic in the Australian wild. While that film took full advantage of the disappearances’ unexplainable nature, Coppola’s film is too fickle and heavy-handed to draw sustained strength from the girls’ suicides. The instants where everything comes together, however, are precious emotive land mines worth experiencing.