Oddly shaped emptiness
ecilia was the first to go.”
The Virgin Suicides
James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Hanna R. Hall
US theatrical: 12 May 1999 (General release)
It’s hardly a new idea, to read into adolescent girls’ suicide something poetic, passionate, and deeply meaningful. Neither is it a secret that countless girls have admired Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman, seeing in their wounded and inviolate art reflections of themselves, their own pain and enchantment. Still, Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides refracts and refines this familiar notion, such that the romance appears strange and revealing in new ways.
In part, this strangeness is a function of the movie’s source, Jeffrey Eugenides’s lyrical, crazily detailed 1993 novel. But Coppola’s script is more pithy than the book, less concerned with situating itself in relation to the disturbing phenomenon it describes, namely, the suicides of the five blond Lisbon sisters, 13-year-old Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), 14-year-old Lux (Kirsten Dunst), 15-year-old Bonnie (Chelsea Swain), 16-year-old Mary (A.J. Cook), and 17-year-old Therese (Leslie Hayman). The general shape of the girls’ experience is recounted by Giovanni Ribisi’s unseen narrator; as in the novel, his is the collective voice of the girls’ young male neighbors, now looking back on the past with self-indulgent nostalgia. But the film never pretends to get beneath the girly surface that so mystifies their chroniclers. Coppola’s Virgin Suicides delicately highlights its narrator’s limits, and so, performs much like Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s American Psycho. Though, in their themes and aesthetics, these films couldn’t be more different, they both remake novels written by men so that what critics have read as their misogyny or self-preserving ignorance is more charitably transformed into a genuine lack of understanding: in other words, boys just don’t get it.
This would be the most obvious interpretation of Virgin Suicides. The boys who observe and moon over the Lisbon sisters reveal themselves in that collective voiceover, to be trapped in an emotional netherworld, an arrested adolescence that, the film implies, results more or less directly from their inability ever to know the objects of their infatuation, to save them, to possess and understand them. Set in a Michigan suburb during the early 1970s, the film takes the boys’ ambiguously restricted point of view, sometimes imagining scenes they could never witness, other times watching the girls’ house from a distance, using binoculars and telescopes. A haunting soundtrack by the French band, Air (especially the recurring, nearly weightless theme, “Playground Love”), and Edward Lachman’s cinematography approximate the boys’ combination of longing and confusion. The camera seems to dance over translucent, gold-inflected surfaces, the kind typical of the decade’s pop-sentimentality and more recently, ironically cheesy evocations of same (as in Beck and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion music videos). The lovely Lux appears repeatedly in such images, captured forever in the boys’ memories as a Breck shampoo commercial girl, with sunlight creating sheer, pale yellow halos from behind her, as her flowery dresses glow transparent, the outlines of her immaculate thighs barely visible.
Apparently the boys have been remembering and recalculating the sisters’ situation for some 20 years. Now young men, they invisibly recall their vision of the sisters cruising the halls at school, in slow motion, moving as if one creature, or less fearfully, the evenings when they call the girls and play on their stereo, songs full of yearning and loss by Gilbert O’Sullivan (“Alone Again, Naturally”) and Jim Croce. In the boys’ recollection, the girls reciprocate, with Carole King and Janice Ian, and you see them as the boys picture them, lying about in one of their oh-so-feminine bedrooms, their heads in one another’s laps, their fingers trailing over album covers, their dreams tending to escape. That they desire escape is one of the film’s perfect fictions: you can only go along with it, given what you see. For one thing, you see the unreasonable restrictions placed on them by Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kathleen Turner), fretful parents loathe to let their precious girls out of the house, for fear they will be corrupted.
Exhibit A for the parents’ righteous fear is provided in the film’s opening moments, with the invocation of Cecilia’s death the above quoted “Cecilia was the first one to go” accompanied by images of her first, unsuccessful attempt, a bit of tentative wrist slashing that lands her in the hospital. Lying wan and waify in her bed, Cecilia looks out at you, positioned behind her white-coated pediatrician as he shakes his head. “You’re not old enough,” he says, “to know how bad life gets.” To which Cecilia has a remarkable and sensible response: “Obviously Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” Her wisdom, however, is lost on all the adults looking after her. Her shrink (Danny De Vito) shows her some Rorschach blotches and advises her parents that she should socialize with “boys.” And so, the Lisbons hopefully organize a party in their rec-room basement. Mom serves punch, dad (a physics teacher at the high school) shows the guests his model airplanes. His deadly dull explanations of aerodynamics theory make the kids to slink off one by one, almost seeming afraid that if touched by this nerdy guy, they’ll turn into him. And yet, they’re happy enough when a mentally retarded neighbor boy arrives at the part: he “sings” a song, while everyone laughs and looks away from everyone else, performing the young guests’ anxieties and allowing them a focus other than themselves.
Cecilia sees through this charade, or so the boys’ version of the story goes. They watch her beg off the rest of the evening and climb the stairs to her bedroom. Within minutes, she’s jumped out her bedroom window and impaled herself on the spiked iron fence in the front yard below. All the kids rush to see and not see (alternately craning their necks and turning away in horror), as Mr. Lisbon tenderly holds her lifeless body so that it doesn’t just hang off the fence like a rag doll. It’s an awful moment, and in another movie, it would be tragic spectacle. But in Coppola’s perversely delicate rendering, it’s less emphatic and more nuanced than it is dramatic. The next day, workmen appear to dig the fence up and tow it away, while the neighbors watch, one woman in her tennis costume and another balancing multiple glasses of iced tea on a tray. It’s a neighborhood event, not especially surprising: whispers suggest that they all think the Lisbons are weird “anyway.”
This trauma, not surprisingly, frightens the boys but also reignites their enthrallment with the surviving sisters. One of them steals Cecilia’s diary, and together they pore over its pages, hoping to discover in its dull descriptions of meal menus and nonevents, the girls’ secret selves. Soon their interest becomes focused through the most popular and prettiest boy at school, the appropriately named Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). Cocksure and charming in his way, Trip (introduced swaggering down the locker-lined high school hallway to Heart’s “Magic Man”) finds himself irresistibly drawn to the girl he considers his equal in beauty and desirability, the unattainable Lux and determines to make her his date for the prom. At first she demurs, but then she invites him to an evening spent watching tv at the Lisbon home; there he’s treated to a glimpse of her toes on the coffee table (before Mrs. Lisbon shoos them away) and of her family in elaborately posed non-action, the girls lounging and their parents fussing.
Trip is the only boy from these scenes whom you see as an adult (weathered by substance abuse and other fast living into Michael Pare). His story is, you quickly learn, full of regrets, mostly, for the film’s purposes, concerning his treatment of Lux. He wins her over and convinces her father to allow her out for the prom (as long as he provides respectable dates for all the sisters). On the big night, the girls wear mom-made dresses (no cleavage, baggy cotton fits). With Lux and Trip voted Queen and King, and Styx’s “Come Sail Away” booming on the soundtrack, the scene drifts into dreamland, though again, the ownership of the dream is uncertain. Is Lux so thrilled to be crowned Queen? Or do the boys imagine she’s so thrilled?
Even when Lux opens her eyes the next morning, alone on the football field, the movie doesn’t launch into explanations about her disappointment or Trip’s panic. Instead, The Virgin Suicides maintains its careful distance and deliberate vagueness. Lux’s sexual awakening proves disastrous, as such events do in the minds of boys. Her own feelings remain tantalizingly beyond reach, so that the boys must impute to her a romantic and self-abhorring misery, locked up in her mother’s house, sealed away from the corruptions of material desires and consumptions. How else can the boys who survive just fine by consuming and desiring explain the “oddly shaped emptiness” that swallows up Lux and her sisters? As the narrator mourns still, long after the events, “It didn’t matter how old they were, or that they were girls, but only that we loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling…” What the boys can never know, of course, is whether the girls heard them calling or not, or whether the girls cared that they were calling. The boys can never know this, and yet they must hang onto what matters to them. This is what The Virgin Suicides, for all its many ambiguities, makes achingly clear.