The Virgin Suicides

Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola (based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides)
Stars: James Woods (Mr. Lisbon), Kathleen Turner (Mrs. Lisbon), Kirsten Dunst (Lux Lisbon), Josh Hartnett (Trip Fontaine), Hanna Hall (Cecilia Lisbon), Chelse Swain (Bonnie Lisbon), A.J. Cook (Mary Lisbon), Leslie Hayman (Therese Lisbon), Danny DeVito (Dr. Horniker), Michael Pare (Adult Trip Fontaine), Jonathan Tucker (Tim Weiner), Anthony DeSimone (Chase Buell), Giovanni Ribisi (Narrator)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: U.S.
The Virgin Suicides Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Virgin Suicides

Sofia Coppola’s remarkable directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, is a hazy, dream-like tale of how the local teenage boys of a wealthy Michigan suburb in the early 1970s view the Lisbon sisters. These five daughters of the gawky high school math teacher (James Woods) and his sternly religious wife (Kathleen Turner) are all blond and beautiful, ranging in age from 13 to 17, and they are the subject of many private fantasies. A group of teenage boys watch them from across the street, talk about them, and save any and all souvenirs that might give them some insight into their otherwise opaque world.

Although the five Lisbon sisters are arguably “the main characters,” this is not the story of who they were, but rather the story of how they were perceived. This is driven home by the fact that the narration (read by Giovanni Ribisi) is a collective remembrance, using the inclusive pronoun “we.” The narrator is not one boy who grew up and looks back on the past with longing and a still-incomplete sense of understanding about what happened; rather, he is all the boys who share in the same feelings. Those feelings about the Lisbon sisters are often realized visually with near-kitschy moments of soft-focus fantasy in which the girls are seen in slow motion and extreme close-up, lit with setting sunlight in golden fields. Once again, while these moments border on parody, we realize they are not because this is how adolescent boys whose heads are filled with movie images and rock ballads about lost love would see them: as unreachable fantasy figures.

As the title of the film makes clear, the Lisbon sisters—Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman), and Cecilia (Hanna Hall)—will have killed themselves by the end. Why do these five girls kill themselves? What drives to them to such despair and unhappiness that they would end their own lives? The film presents a potential answer: the fact that their repressive Catholic mother becomes so fearful of their budding sexuality that she literally locks them up in the house and does not allow them to go out, thus killing their desire to live. Yet, this answer is so obviously trite and simplistic that it has to been seen as a screen. It is too easy, and the film is too smart to wrap up its story in such pat fashion. No, there is something more mysterious about the deaths of the five Lisbon sisters, and the reasons behind their suicides will never be answered. After all, how can anyone possibly trace the full explanation of what drives someone to end her own life? To suggest that such an extreme action can be boiled down to simple cause-and-effect reasoning is to wrongfully simplify the whole of human existence.

Much of the film is laced with a strong awareness of the Lisbon sisters’ emergent sexuality, especially Lux, who is the most ambitious of the five. Like the various “sex kitten” characters played over the years by Brigitte Bardot or the eponymous Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s coyly provocative 1962 comedy, Lux is almost overly erotic because everything about her is so ambiguous; every swish of her shoulder, every bat of her eye, every curl of her toes could be either harmless, unknowing, girlish flirtation or provocative, womanly seduction. When the story takes a long detour to tell how Lux becomes involved with Trip Fontaine (Josh Harnett), a high school stud who recently emerged from puberty to the delight of all the girls at school, the film becomes a compelling evocation of growing adolescent sexuality and the pangs and longing of true first love.

Because the sisters seem doomed from the opening frames—the sunny smiles and happy demeanors that characterize their introduction into the narrative have a tragic, somewhat sinister edge that that always accompanies characters who are going to die, but do not know it yet—the movement toward their eventual suicides does not feel like conventional narrative movement, but rather a slow and steady descent into the inevitable.

The Virgin Suicides was adapted from a talked-about first novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Sofia Coppola’s challenge was to capture the tone of the story—the unique sense of mystery and the longing the defines adolescence. She does this quite successfully, aided in no small part by cinematographer Edward Lachman’s soft, filtered cinematography that gives the film the sensation of a dream or memory, while also evoking the specific look of the early 1970s without descending into kitsch. The costumes by Nancy Steiner and set designs by Megan Less are all first-rate, bringing out just enough of that time period to set the tone without being overwhelming. Coppola makes magnificently effective use of period music by ’70s pop bands like Styx and Heart; rather than using obvious romantic ballads as an ironic counterpoint, she uses them in a completely straight fashion that somehow works. Coppola was clearly aiming to make to make an unconventional film about adolescence, and she succeeded admirably. Some of her more daring moments of visual flair, such as allowing the camera to have X-ray vision so that we may see that Lux has written Trip’s name on her underwear, are hit-and-miss. Sometimes they add to the mood, sometimes they distract.

Yet, even when the film doesn’t quite work, it still adds up to an impressive feat, especially for a first-time feature director who was still in her late 20s (albeit one who grew up in the industry as the daughter of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola). Throughout the film Sofia Coppola demonstrates a unique visual style and strong sense of personal artistry that would come to define her subsequent output as a filmmaker: Lost in Translation (2003), which remains her masterpiece; Marie Antoinette (2005), her unconventional take on the teenage French queen; and the evocative psychodrama The Beguiled (2017), among others. While some of her output has been uneven over the years, the singularity of her artistry is always in evidence, an artistry that emerged almost fully formed in The Virgin Suicides, which makes the film all the richer and more powerful.

The Virgin Suicides Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • “Revisiting The Virgin Suicides retrospective featurette
  • Video interview with novelist Jeffrey Eugenides
  • “Strange Magic” featurette
  • “Making of The Virgin Suicides” 1998 documentary
  • Lick the Star, 1998 short film by Coppola
  • Music video for Air’s soundtrack song “Playground Love,” directed by Coppola and her brother Roman Coppola
  • Trailers
  • Essay by novelist Megan Abbott
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateApril 17, 2018

    COMMENTS
    Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation of The Virgin Suicides comes from a new, digitally restored 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative that was approved by director Sofia Coppola. The resulting image is strikingly different from the previously available DVD. The film is now presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, rather than the more conventional 1.85:1. The film’s overall color palette is also quite different, with Criterion’s image boasting much stronger, brighter colors throughout, as well as more clearly differentiated color palettes for different scenes, a conscious artistic decision that cinematographer Edward Lachman discusses in one of the supplements. The temperature of the film leans more toward yellowish, away from the DVD’s reddish tones. The detail level is still notably high despite the soft focus, which brings out the fine nuances of the excellent production design. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack, which was mastered from the 35mm Dolby SR magnetic tracks and digitally restored, is also a notable improvement from the DVD, whose soundtrack had an odd imbalance between the dialogue and the voice-over narration, which was way too loud. That problem is not in evidence here, as the new soundtrack is nicely balanced and quite robust. The music score by the French group Air and the period music by rock bands like Styx and Heart sounds uniformly good, with strong bass and good surround effects. The subtle background noises of living in suburbia (the wind whistling through trees, cars in the distance) are natural and evocative.

    The supplements are a mix of the old and the new. New to Criterion’s edition are several substantial featurettes. “Revisiting The Virgin Suicides” is an excellent 26-minute look back at the film and its impact that features new video interviews with Coppola, Lachman, and actors Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett. There is also a new 15-minute interview with novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who discusses how he came to write the novel and how he sees the film in relation to his work. Criterion has also added “Strange Magic,” a 13-minute featurette focused around writer and Rookie editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson, who explores the film through the lens of adolescence, suicide, and memory via her own writing and imagery from a fanzine she made about the film in 2012. Fans of Coppola’s work will be particularly pleased with the inclusion of Lick the Star ,a 1998 short film she made in 16mm black-and-white just before she started production on The Virgin Suicides. From the Paramount DVD we have the 23-minute featurette “The Making of The Virgin Suicides,” which was shot primarily by Eleanor Coppola. It is more about Sofia Coppola than it is about the film itself, as most of the featurette consists of behind-the-scenes footage of Sofia working and interviews about her with numerous members of the Coppola family, including Eleanor, and Francis Ford Coppola. Also featured are a few of the actors, including Kathleen Turner, James Woods, and Scott Glenn, as well as Jeffrey Eugenides. There is one particularly interesting segment that juxtaposes a scene in the film with a voice-over of Eugenides reading directly from his novel, which shows just how closely Coppola followed the original book in this instance, right down to the descriptive details of when lights in a house turn on and off. Also from that disc we get the music video for Air’s soundtrack song “Playground Love,” directed by Coppola and her brother Roman Coppola, and a trailer.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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