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THE VIRGIN SUICIDES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett
Director:  Sofia Coppola
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  December 19, 2000

Film ****

“Cecilia was the first…”

The Virgin Suicides is a masterpiece of quiet, surreal sadness, seen through the innocent eyes of four young boys infatuated with five beautiful sisters.  This film represents their vision:  the girls seem angelic and pristine, as if carved out of porcelain, and the boys spend their time looking across at their house with a telescope, reading the same catalogues the girls get in the mail, and daydreaming of romantic adventures with them.

Their point of view gives the tragedy of the suicides a completely different and fresh perspective.  The emotion of the story doesn’t come from their relationships, or lack thereof, with the girls, but instead, gives a monumentally sad event a rather strange, frozen quality, as if it were a moment when time stood still.  Twenty-five years after the events, we learn from the singular voice narrative of the boys, it was still all they could think about.

Another interesting point is the fact that the movie doesn’t necessarily encourage the ‘why’ questions.  You’re free to ask them if you want, but many neighbors in voiceover give their opinions and theories about the girls and why they would do what they did.  And you get a feel from watching the picture, and understanding the kind of life they led, why they would do it.  But why is not the central issue.  The issue is the juxtaposition between the fantasized and the real.

To the boys, the Lisbon sisters represent perfection…everything they could want in the opposite sex.  They’re blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, ranging in ages from 13 to 17.  But when we, the audience, look more closely at their family life, we can see it’s a life out of joint.  The father (Woods) is a meek, emasculated math teacher, and the mother (Turner) is a strict Catholic.  Religious icons infiltrate every corner of their home, even the bathrooms.  At the film’s opening, when the narrator speaks those quoted words, we see the youngest daughter, with bandaged wrists, being taken from the bathtub where she tried to kill herself.  Some kind of Virgin Mary trading card falls from her hand to the floor, along with drops of her blood.

The only real interaction between the girls and the admiring boys takes place in a basement party at the Lisbon house (“the only party” ever thrown there, the narrator informs us).  It was thrown at the advice of a psychiatrist in order to raise Cecilia’s spirits after her attempted suicide.  The end result:  she tries again that very night.  And this time, succeeds.

Come school time, the four remaining sisters return to their Catholic school, where a new force enters the picture:  Trip Fontaine (Hartnett), a popular boy whose image in the film seems equally distorted by idealistic memory (especially when intercut with ‘present day’ scenes, where we see Trip as he is today).  He falls for fourteen year old Lux Lisbon (Dunst), and, despite the parents’ strict rules preventing dates with their daughters, begins to charm his way into the picture.

Eventually, the Lisbon parents agree to Trip’s proposal of a group date for all four girls going out with him and three buddies to the homecoming dance, where Mr. Lisbon will be a chaperone.  The excited girls pick out their dress patterns, though by the time their mother finishes with them, they look more like hospital gowns.  The boys show up, pin their corsages on their dates, and set out for what might have been a wonderful first night out for the girls.  But there is no hope for such a night.  These older boys, like the younger narrating ones, also view the Lisbon girls as something more than what they are.  And though Trip claimed his intentions were honorable, it isn’t long before he has Lux drinking, and eventually out on the football field in the middle of darkness for a romantic romp.

The other girls return home; Lux doesn’t.  In a series of haunting unfolding scenes, we see Lux awakening on the football field at the break of dawn.  The light is strange.  She’s alone.  The narration tells us that she and Trip never saw each other again.  She makes her way home in a taxi, holding the homecoming crown she had worn gloriously the night before between her teeth.  There is a solemn sense of change in the air.  For the surviving Lisbon girls, it would be the beginning of the end.

They would be taken out of school and made virtual prisoners in their home.  Their mother would force Lux to burn her rock records (though, after the house fills with suffocating smoke, quickly decides that throwing them out works just as well, if less symbolically).  And their young admirers still watch and love them from afar, with their youthful romantic fantasies, as the girls begin the inevitable processes of fading away to nothing.

Even the first real communications between the groups isn’t direct:  they begin to call one another to play parts of records for each other, though it’s easy to read their respective feelings by the song choices.  The girls soon ask for the boys’ help in getting out…but, as the title of the film indicates, it’s not the kind of getting out the boys were imagining.

The question is begged:  why did Trip abandon Lux that night on the football field?  The answer is more than mere macho posturing, or a matter of getting what he wanted and then being finished with her.  A later flashback from Trip shows him getting up and walking away, looking back down at Lux with confusion, and maybe a little sadness.  It was simply the danger of mixing fantasy and reality.  If the boys in the town were going to look at the Lisbon sisters as something so beautiful, so pure, and so unattainable, then ironically, to have sex with one of them was the worst thing that could have happened.  Illusions always crumble in the face of cold, physical reality.  When Trip’s dream of Lux was gone, he was left with nothing more.

This is easily the best film of the year for me.  First time director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola may have had a master mentor in her father, Frances Ford Coppola, but for those who would guess this film was either heavily influenced by or a pale imitation of her famous dad’s style are in for a surprise:  she speaks with a clear and unique cinematic vision that owes more to the stylings of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock than anything else, although The Virgin Suicides does not mimic either picture—it merely explores similar themes.  Like the Lynch movie, Ms. Coppola takes an ordinary, wholesome appearing suburban setting and slowly reveals the underside that escapes even most of the people in the neighborhood.  And like the Weir film, she toys with the idea that sexual repression equals eradication from existence, and sex equals death.

It also boasts a memorable musical score by the French duo Air, with some of the saddest and most haunting themes I’ve heard in a while.  I’m hoping this picture racks up numerous Oscar nominations come award time, but if “Playground Love” doesn’t get a nod for Best Original Song, that would be a crime.

The cast is first rate, too, though it’s important to remember that it’s not really the characters that drive the story, but rather, the characters’ senses of illusion vs. reality.  And that’s the ultimate brilliance of the piece.  It’s not really the story of five sisters who ended their lives.  It’s the story of the boys who worshipped them from afar, yearned to be with them, and saw them as the most ideal of women…and the pain that would stay with them forever because of their inability to connect their delicately constructed fantasy with the reality of the Lisbon sisters.

Video ***1/2

This is a beautiful, anamorphic transfer from Paramount.  I should point out that not all color and lighting schemes are natural, but deliberately altered in subtle ways for effect by Ms. Coppola and her cinematographers.  Some dreamy scenes take on a slightly yellow tint, making the images a bit sunnier in appearance and purposely less real.  Others have slight blue tints for emotional impacts.  Still, images remain sharp and crisply rendered throughout, and the coloring always equals terrific representations of the director’s intended images.

Audio ***1/2

Though mostly dialogue oriented, this 5.1 soundtrack has moments of multi-channel life.  My favorite scene in the film is when Trip and Lux are named homecoming royalty at the dance:  “Come Sail Away” by Styx comes blaring out, as balloons fall from the ceiling down to the enthused dancers.  The music is loud and strong, and with the sense of open reverb one would get from inside a gym.  The front and rear stages are used together to create this effect.  The loud popping of the balloons, obviously another deliberate distortion, emanates from all channels effectively.  As mentioned, the score by Air is beautiful, strong, and a wonderful listen as well.  Stay for the end credits to hear how well “Playground Love” sums up the mood of the film.

Features ***

The disc contains a trailer (the box says two, but I only saw one), a music video for “Playground Love” (which is a very cool one—I wonder if Sofia Coppola directed it?), an entertaining and informative making-of featurette, mostly filmed by mother Eleanor Coppola (who also documented her husband’s movie Apocalypse Now in Hearts of Darkness), and a photo gallery.  Plus, the main theme plays behind the special features menu screen.

Summary:

The Virgin Suicides is simply the best film of the year for me.  You can safely consider Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut among one of the greatest ever, on a short list that would include Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.  It really is that good…a unique, masterful, haunting, and supremely sad composition about adolescent fantasy and reality and the vast expanse that exists between them.