PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

The Lisbon Bunch

The infamous Lisbon Sisters at the center of Jeffrey Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides

Purposefully ending one's life is often seen as a last act of personal desperation. But in Jefferey Eugenides' poignant, bewitching novel, it may actually be a form of salvation.


The Virgin Suicides

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Hanna R. Hall
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount Classics
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 1999-05-12 (General release)

I first read The Virgin Suicides in 1995, two years after it was originally published, and I was immediately consumed with it. Any book that begins with the line “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide” is sure to grab you and pull you in. After 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon indeed tries to end her existence by slitting her wrists in the family bathtub, the hospital psychiatrist tells her that she’s too young to take her own life. Her response? “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

The novel, as the title suggests, is about the eventual suicide of the youngest Lisbon sister and the subsequent downfall of the remaining four. Lovely, blonde, and capable of driving the neighborhood boys into a hormonal frenzy every time they leave the house, the five sisters are the clear cut stars of Jeffrey Eugenides' poignant, bewitching novel.

Set in ‘70s suburbia, the story is a snapshot of middle class America: lush lawns, split level homes, and the dark secrets that lurk beneath the neatly groomed exteriors. The circumstances surrounding the Lisbon household throws the whole community (which remains unnamed in the novel, but appears to be - from all inferences - a suburb outside Eugenides’ native Detroit) for a loop. There are a lot of allusions made to the repression inherit in the community, along with the way that denial sculpts its inhabitants. After Cecilia’s death, Eugenides writes, “most of us had never been to a cemetery. Occasionally we heard gunshots coming from the ghetto, but our fathers insisted it was only cars backfiring.”

The story is told in a very unconventional way – using the first person plural. The narrator (who remains anonymous) is one of a group of neighborhood boys who are rightly obsessed with the girls. This technique is voyeuristic, putting the reader right alongside the lads who watch the Lisbon house for clues as to why Cecilia would kill herself. They also try to decipher what is going through the remaining sisters’ heads.

As the story progresses, the narrator(s) refer to various artifacts belonging to the girls, items that were collected over the years since the suicides. They include family photographs, the girls’ cosmetics, and Cecilia’s diary. Referenced like museum pieces being viewed from behind protective glass, the men telling the story are now grown and reflecting back on their time living among the enigmatic gals. They even interview various people who knew the sisters, and with their testimonials, try to solve the riddle that still haunts them.

For both reader and characters, it remains a cold case. The book never comes to any concrete conclusions as to why the girls did what they did, but that is perhaps the appeal of the story. A lot is veiled in mystery and left open ended instead of being neatly tied up. Not knowing why things happened the way they did lends the book a sense of reality and becomes one of its many solid strengths.

I recently read the book again after re-watching the movie adaptation. Released in 2000, the film was brought to life by Sofia Coppola who wrote the screenplay and directed it for the big screen. While I don’t believe anyone could ever truly do the book justice, I do think Coppola’s attempt is the closest thing we could hope for using only the original material. Critics heaped all kinds of praise on her for her efforts, which were accolades I’m sure she could have used after her lambasted acting debut in father, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III

Coppola captures the dream-like quality present in the book via the use of lulling music (the film is scored by the French band, Air) and ethereal cinematography. Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon is wraithlike, constantly shrouded in soft sunlight as the camera admires her the way the neighborhood boys do. Interestingly enough, Lux means “light” in Latin, something Eugenides, I’m sure, was aware of when he named her. As the most sexually aggressive and admired of the sisters, Lux acts as a “beacon” in the murky storm that is the Lisbon household. She is the only sister to rebel against the strict rules the parents have laid down, and acts as a mouthpiece for her remaining siblings.

It’s the juxtaposition of the light and the dark that makes the book so compelling. Eugenides couples the enchanting blonde sisters with the secret squalor they live in - a cemetery workers’ strike has unburied caskets piling up within the picture-perfect town. Similarly, he offsets the beloved family tree with the Dutch elm disease that’s eating it from the inside out. Coppola does a nice job of conveying these unlikely unions by focusing on physical beauty -- the girls, nature, sunlight -- as well as the macabre. One brilliant scene exemplifying this conceit occurs near the beginning of the film. During the girls’ one and only party, Cecilia succeeds in ending her life by jumping out of her bedroom window and onto a spiked iron fence. As everyone rushes out of the house, the camera focuses on her lifeless body impaled on the railing, her frilly white dress fluttering in the breeze.

In addition to the fine directing, the movie is very well cast. Kathleen Turner trades in her usual come-hither characterizations to play the matronly, unglamorous Mrs. Lisbon, the strict, religious matriarch of the household. She perfectly embodies the kind of woman who would make her daughter Lux burn her rock-n-roll albums in the family fire place, or force all her children to wear “shapeless sacks” to the school dance. James Woods brilliantly captures Mr. Lisbon, the bumbling dad and henpecked husband. Kirsten Dunst is fantastic as the free-spirited and sexy Lux, while her love interest in the story, Trip Fontaine, is portrayed with panache by Josh Harnett (despite a really bad period wig). There’s also a nice little cameo by Danny Devito as Dr. Horniker, the psychiatrist who treats Cecilia.

Just as surely as the book draws you in, it leaves you spellbound by the haunting reflections of grown men remembering their teenage obsession with five doomed sisters. As the movie comes to a close and the camera pans over the street where the Lisbons lived, Coppola includes a voiceover with original prose from Eugenides' book:

“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us. . . calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time. . .”

The scene is one example of how Coppola manages to accomplish the tricky stunt of visually conveying the voyeuristic aspect that powers the story while capturing the difficulty of being young and misunderstood. It’s a kind of inherent understanding that would make Cecilia and her sisters proud.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.