The Virgin Suicides (1999)

by Todd R. Ramlow


Magic Men

Sofia Coppola’s feature length directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, as much anticipated for its potential excellence as for its potential failure (her acting in The Godfather, Part III was met with quite a gleeful game of “let’s bash the famous family”), is an ambitious and enjoyable piece of work. Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel of the same name, Coppola’s film is moody and atmospheric (and is helped in this by its soundtrack, produced by French DJ-duo Air), as well as seductive and visually arresting.

And yet, for its many pleasures, I find myself conflicted in thinking about The Virgin Suicides. For me, the film’s major disappointment is that, although it ostensibly tells the story of five sisters’ suicides, nevertheless, those girls are silenced, and events befalling them are related through, and becomes the story of, a group of neighbor boys who are unable to come to grips with the trgaedy. At the same time, the girls’ silence and the appropriation of their story by the boys is also the film’s most powerful insight, as its story coincides with the end of an era that witnessed the efflorescence of minority voices in the public sphere, and its narrativization anticipates the rebirth of a conservative, heteronormative, and masculine America.

cover art

The Virgin Suicides

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Hanna R. Hall

(Paramount Classics)
US theatrical: 12 May 1999 (General release)

The Virgin Suicides follows the chain of events initiated by one of the Lisbon sisters’ suicide attempts, and its effects on their family, their suburban town, and, most importantly to the story, the young men who love the Lisbons from afar. Their narrative (that is, the boys’ retelling of the suicides) is presented simply and directly, without being pedantic, and the motivations, the logics and reasons for the sisters’ drastic actions are not reduced (or reducible) to mere psychological teen-girl pathologies, but are much more complex and inscrutable than can be “answered” by adolescent psycho-drama. Refreshingly, the film demonstrates the inability of psychoanalysis to fully comprehend complex mental health issues, and demonstrates how psychological “cures” usually entail only the imposition of simplified textbook meanings onto real individuals.

Shortly into the film, we find thirteen-year-old Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna R. Hall) in the hospital, following a failed suicide attempt. We watch as Cecilia’s parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) try to make sense of their youngest daughter’s act, and weakly attempt to reorganize their home and family life accordingly. In many ways, Cecilia is the film’s most engaging and elusive character, though all five Lisbon girls are elusive, and this is one of the film’s primary cliches, that teenaged girls are a mystery to everyone. What makes Cecilia so interesting, then, is not so much her opacity, but rather that, even though she gives us a stereotypical answer to questions about her suicide attempt (as she remarks to the ER doctor, “You’ve obviously never been a thirteen-year-old girl”), you can’t help but feel that this is exactly the answer that is expected from her (by the audience, by her doctor, by her parents), and she dutifully offers it, knowing full well her “truth” is somewhere far beyond that simplistic sentence.

Cecilia’s disaffected boredom with doctors and analysts is equally obvious in her dealings with Dr. Hornicker (Danny DeVito), to whom her parents send her for inkblot therapy. He suggests to the Lisbon parents that, given their strict Catholic household in which the girls are isolated and not allowed to date, perhaps what Cecilia needs is more social interaction with boys her age. Just so, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon organize a boy-girl party for the daughters. Hoping that this “interaction” will be the answer to Cecilia’s “problems,” a clearly nervous Mrs. Lisbon encourages her to join the party and talk with the boys, to which Cecilia responds with disdain and despair. Where she failed in her first attempt, Cecilia quickly succeeds in her second, throwing herself from an upstairs window onto the iron, spiked fence in the front yard, during the party.

The impossibility of ever knowing “why” Cecilia kills herself defies easy psycho-babble, and haunts the rest of the film quite literally, as Cecilia’s ghost seems to haunt the front yard elm tree that she so loved. Following the suicide, we see the struggles of her sisters, her parents, and the boys across the street to make sense of and deal with the repercussions of her act. Mrs. Lisbon’s tidy household falls apart, as she is unable to come to terms with her grief, while Mr. Lisbon retreats into an intractable silence. Indeed, the Lisbon parents’ inability to make sense of their daughter’s suicide is manifested in their inability even to talk about it. When the family priest (Scott Glenn) comes around, he finds Mr. Lisbon drinking beer and watching television, unable or unwilling to make any but the most banal of sports chatter, and Mrs. Lisbon nearly catatonic, hidden away in her upstairs bedroom.

The reactions of Cecilia’s four sisters (Kirsten Dunst as Lux, Chelsea Swain as Bonnie, A. J. Cook as Mary, and Leslie Hayman as Therese) are, not surprisingly, enigmatic. We watch as the sisters pass time in the front yard, Lux sunning herself for the enjoyment of a traveling knife salesman. We see Lux flirting with high school heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), and we watch the four girls walking the halls of their high school together shortly after Cecilia’s funeral, with cryptic, Mona-Lisa-like smiles on their faces. These soft-focus, dream-sequence style scenes remind me of other films dealing with high-school girls, like Michael Lehman’s Heathers, or Andrew Fleming’s The Craft. But in these other films we know who the girls are and what they stand for, and in The Virgin Suicides, there is no such knowledge to be had. Or, rather, the only knowledge we get of the Lisbon sisters is through the boys next door, and the only answers they have are either reductive (as I will explain below), or no answers at all. As the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) continually reminds us, these girls (and, presumably, all girls) are a mystery.

What all the images after Cecilia’s suicide are leading up to is the inevitable final tragedy, and as we know from the plural title, hers will not be the only suicide. Of course, where Cecilia’s death remains a mystery, the narrator makes a number of attempts to give the story some closure. Following Lux’s wooing of and by Trip Fontaine, the girls’ attendance at the Homecoming dance, and Trip’s callous post-coital abandonment of Lux, Mrs. Lisbon (for lack of a better term) freaks out. The door of her Catholic discipline slams shut, and the girls essentially become prisoners in their own home, at least until the tragic finale. While the intrusive narrator, whose musings form a collective voice for all the boys, claims that even after all these years, after all the witnesses to the Lisbon tragedies have grown up and moved away “the only thing we are certain of is the insufficiency of explanation,” the boys’ retelling desperately offers parental control, oppression, and discipline as a sufficient answer to teen girl suicide.

This is one of The Virgin Suicides‘s more uneasy (although productive) tensions; that even though it refuses to give explanations for the five sisters’ actions, the male narrator tirelessly seeks out such an understanding, often chasing after the easiest of answers. Invoking the clich‚ of teenaged inscrutability, the film refuses to give it up, and tries to take this stereotype in perhaps unexpected directions, directions that might very well be empowering to young girls in terms of an independence and autonomy garnered through a self-knowledge outside of the normative logics of maturation, psychoanalysis, or parental authority. Nonetheless, the narrative voice of authority tries again and again to make sense of the whole series of events, and to confine the Lisbons’ lives to a psychological reductionism that forecloses this very possibility of independence.

This grasping at pat psychoanalytical answers is, of course, a function of the interpretation and retelling of the story through a male perspective that is continually bewildered by girls (and, undoubtedly, women, now that the neighborhood lads are all grown up). The story turns into one about the lapses and anxious reassertions of male prerogative and access to knowledge/power. For these boys, this is a story of their own victimization, of their inability to put the suicides behind them, or to move on with their own lives. As the narrator remarks, unlike boys, girls suffer various confinements which encourage their mental development, making their minds “all dreamy and active.” While the Lisbon girls “knew everything about us,” he says, “we couldn’t fathom them at all.” Yet, fathom them is precisely what the boys attempt, as the narrator claims their story as his own. And this is the final independence taken away from the Lisbon sisters, the ability to tell, or, more pointedly and importantly, not to tell, their own story.

And yet this silencing of the Lisbon girls is also the movie’s most pointed critique (and thus its most difficult tension), as can be seen by paying attention to the film’s social and temporal backdrop. Although the year in which the film takes place is never specified, its repeated use of Heart’s “Magic Man,” from Dreamboat Annie, places the film smack in the middle of the ‘70s, in 1976, not insignificantly America’s bicentennial birthday. The film takes place in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, affluent Detroit suburb, and home to America’s auto industry executive elite. Grosse Pointe and 1976 mark the frenzied end of one of the most turbulent eras in U.S. history, and the end of a “traditional” American way of life and industry. As the narrator remarks, neighbors saw in the Lisbon girls’ tragedy the “wiped-out elms, the harsh sunlight, and the continuing decline of our auto industry.” The year was also, for those of us who remember, characterized by the “energy crisis” (which, of course, meant oil crisis), and the increasing import of cheaper, more gas efficient foreign cars, that would shortly lead to the demise of Flint, Michigan and Detroit auto workers, one of the historical backbones of the US economy. All these details — Grosse Pointe, the end of the ‘70s, and the reference to the “demise of the auto industry” — make the Lisbons representative of the decline of the normative characteristics of a national community. The failure of the Lisbon family reflects the failure of the American Dream and the conservative values that underpinned it. Simultaneously, the national bicentennial denotes a new beginning, the emergence of a new social order. After the social and political upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s, after the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the Brown Power movement, the Gay Liberation Front, the women’s movement and ERA, and after the sexual revolution, 1976 also marks the end of the nationalist fantasy of a unified citizenry and national interest.

It is in regard to these surrounding cultural and political conditions, then, that The Virgin Suicides is most provocative, and its pervasive male narration presciently looks toward its own future (and our recent past). Mrs. Lisbon’s attempt to retreat with her daughters into the “safety” of the domestic realm signals her attempt to ignore or escape the radical social, political, economic and sexual changes reshaping the nation, just as the girls’ tragedy signals the impossibility of such an escape or turning back. And yet, attempt to turn back we did, and The Virgin Suicides anticipates the national hangover that would shortly ensue, as conservatism and “family values” came to dominate the cultural and political life of America for the next twelve years, just as the silencing of the Lisbon girls, and the boys’ reclamation of their story as their own, anticipates the reemergence in the ‘80s of a “battered” and “victimized,” yet nonetheless triumphant, masculinity.

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