‘The Virgin Suicides’ and the loneliness of girlhood
At the tender age of 28, Sofia Coppola (“The Beguiled”) wrote and directed the 1999 drama, “The Virgin Suicides,” based off of the 1993 Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name. The film set Coppola apart from her legendary father — Francis Ford Coppola of “Godfather” fame — and highlighted her dreamy, unique and definitively brilliant style. Coppola the younger has gone on to write and direct award-winning films such as “Lost in Translation” (2003), “Marie Antoinette” (2006) and “Somewhere” (2010), making her an auteur in her own right.
For one night and one night only, the Michigan Theater screened Coppola’s first film, “The Virgin Suicides,” as a part of the nationwide initiative called Science on Screen, which pairs films with science speakers. “The Virgin Suicides” was screened in conjunction with national youth speaker Jim Tuman on the teen suicide epidemic. Tuman spoke about his own experiences with suicide, from clients to parents to fan mail. Tuman reiterated how the film depicts loneliness as not necessarily being by oneself, but a sort of existential solitude that can be felt even in the most crowded of places.
“The Virgin Suicides” takes place in Grosse Pointe, Mich. in the mid ’70s. The film centers on the tragically beautiful and sheltered Lisbon sisters. The five girls — Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux and Cecilia — are an enigma to the neighborhood boys. Told from the boys’ perspective, the audience looks upon the Lisbon girls with the obsessive and voyeuristic, telescope-clad eyes of hormone-heavy, brace-faced, adolescent boys. The story starts the summer when the youngest sister, Cecilia (Hanna Hall, “Visible Scars”), slit her wrists in the bath tub at the age of 13. She survived her suicide attempt, but with it came a plethora or rumors, whispers and neighborhood gossip. The film approaches the taboo and elicit topic of suicide with finesse and care. While the subject matter is bleak and objectively tragic, Coppola applies a dreamy, hazy sepia filter to counteract the pain. The film — at points — is hilarious. Using Giovanni Ribisi’s (“Sneaky Pete”) ambiguous narration as an omnipresent documentarian, commenting and criticizing the story from within through the third-person perspective of the novel. The film raises questions on helicopter parenting, fetishizing tragedy and the loneliness of girlhood with such expertise and nuance that it is hard to believe it was Coppola’s first feature film.
Kirsten Dunst (“The Beguiled”) steals the screen as the flirtatious and rebellious Lux Lisbon. The former child star commands the screen with her seductive gaze and youthful vigor, permitting an abundance of eager eyes to fall in love with her. Dunst’s Lux personifies the film’s message of isolation — the way it feels to be surrounded by people but still alone. She is the object of unattainable desire, an untouchable celebrity drenched in self-doubt and overcome with the intoxicating and isolating feeling of total and complete solitude. Trip Fontaine, the epitome of the ’70s high school sex god, played by a baby-faced Josh Hartnett (“6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain”), is infatuated by Lux’s indifference towards him. Interestingly, Trip is the only one we see in the future as the narrator details the events from a place far, far away from Grosse Pointe. Future Trip is no sex god, rather an institutionalized man-child, still thinking about the night he took Lux’s innocence on an empty football field. Lux and her sisters left a dark hole in the psyche of their neighborhood, turning their lives into more of a myth than a reality. Coppola beautifully captures the pains of girlhood, from boys to tampons to homecoming dances. What the audience hears is the narration of a fan boy, recalling the girls he never understood, but what they see is the unequivocal and crippling solitude of adolescence. This dissonance is the hallmark of Coppola’s filmmaking, creating a dialectic between the internal and external, the seen and the unseen.
In addition to marking the beginning of Coppola’s successful career, “The Virgin Suicides” highlights some of the auteur’s most identifiable and appealing stylistic choices. Coppola’s photography background is evident in her films from the concentration on framing and composition. She clearly takes her time on the art of the shot, creating tiny masterpieces within the larger masterpiece of her motion pictures. Framing is a key aspect of the director’s work, highlighting the character’s feelings and state of mind by showing, not telling — using the actor’s expressions and body language to capture the mood. The soundtrack plays like a high school mix tape from the ’70s, featuring the Bee Gees, Steely Dan and Boston. The original score, conveying the ethereal tone of the film, was composed by the French duo Air.
On Apr. 24, the Criterion Collection will release a digital restoration of the film, including interviews with the actors, a documentary from the director’s mother Eleanor Coppola, “Making of ‘The Virgin Suicides’” and the director’s 1998 short film, “Lick the Star.” The Criterion Collection beautifully sums up, that: “‘The Virgin Suicides’ conjures the ineffable melancholy of teenage longing and ennui,” adding that “the film secured a place for its director in the landscape of American independent cinema and has become a coming-of-age touchstone.”
The fleeting, ghostly beauty of Coppola’s masterful first foray into her own coming-of-age as a filmmaker is iconic in its own right, paving the way for female filmmakers to make movies that matter. Just like the brief, transitory lives of the Lisbon girls, Coppola’s film lingers long after the screen fades to black. It is a true testament to Coppola’s talent that the film has remained so current. Based on the ’70s, released in the ’90s and revived in 2018, the film is still relevant as ever for generations of girls.