The Virgin Suicides, 2000. Directed by Sophia Coppola. Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner, James Woods.

Thirteen year old Cecilia Lisbon is found in her bathtub after attempting suicide. She has slit her wrists. Her psychiatrist tells her that she isn't old enough to have the kind of pain that drives one to suicide; she replies: "Try being a thirteen year old girl sometimes." The film's narrator, one of the boys who become obsessed with Cecilia and her four sisters, tells us that she is the first of them to kill herself. She is the first blip on their radar. The boys become obsessed with these girls, who seem to be raised in a bell jar (to borrow a metaphor). The film could very well be one of those boys. We see the Lisbon family as a repressive, hermetic society. The girls' father is a math teacher who is so alienated that he has conversations with his plant about photosynthesis. The girl's mother is an authoritarian who adds inches to the busts and hems of the girls' prom dresses, creating "four identical sacks." They supervise their daughters' interaction with boys their own age in a ritualized party (where Cecilia finally manages to kill herself), then in awkward family dinners and television-watching sessions. This all comes apart when the surviving girls attend the prom. Lux Lisbon, the oldest of them, has fallen for bad boy Trip Fontaine, who takes her virginity on the footballl field and leaves her there. In retaliation for her oldest daughter's indescretion, Mrs. Lisbon imprisons her daughters in the house and commands Lux to burn all of her rock and roll records. The girls send out messages for help to the neighborhood boys, who communicate with rock and roll songs over the telephone. One night, the girls ask them to help make their escape. When they get there, the boys discover that they have all committed suicide. This burns itself into their memories.

The Virgin Suicides is a puzzling movie. It provides a reason for the girls mass suicide, but why then, is the youngest daughter the first to kill herself, long before her mother's crackdown? The movie doesn't tell us. Mrs. Lisbon doesn't seem abusive, just over-protective (and, really, she is dealing with the suicide of her youngest daughter, so maybe she is somewhat justified). The reason for the suicide provided by the movie is unsatisfying. It doesn't explain things. Of course, the movie is aware of this, it seems, and tells us so in narration. The point seems to be that not everything is explicable, which is true to an extent. If this is so, then why tell us so much about the Lisbons? Why provide a reason at all? Like I said: puzzling.

This is the first film by Sophia Coppola, who is imfamous for allegedly wrecking The Godfather Part III*. She wrote this film (based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides) in addition to directing it and demonstrates far more talent behind the camera than she did in front of the camera. Like her father, Francis, she makes her movie a family affair. There are a whole bunch of Coppolas involved. Like her father, she is infatuated with tricky camera effects (most notably one sequence filmed in time lapse). But on the whole, she is pretty good at what she does. The film has an agreeable atmosphere, drawn from a 1970s that never existed, and mythologized the way other movies mythologize the 50s and 60s. Certainly, the Lisbon daughters are mythologized. When they come down the stairs for the prom, the scene is composed like that painting by Edward Burne Jones with all of the maidens on a spiral staircase. Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon, in particular, is filmed in a perpetual wash of light that hints of nostalgic longing. Every so often, the nostalgaic veneer slips, though. There are a couple of shots of Cecilia Lisbon after she is dead that deliver the jolt of a good ghost story, and the final walk through the Lisbon house with the girls already dead is chilling. It isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn't really provide a feeling of closure, and lacking that, it doesn't seem to add up to much.

*Some time ago, I saw a hilarious "Double Features We'd Like to See" that paired The Godfather Part III with Not Without My Daughter. It had me rolling....


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