The Lisbon Bunch

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.