Z To A: The Virgin Suicides (1999)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: In the mid-1970s, in a sleepy Michigan community, live the Lisbon sisters, five teenagers whose beauty has bewitched a group of neighborhood boys. Isolated by their over-protective parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner), they move like fleeting visions against the suburban landscape, luminous and unattainable…  But when school hunk Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) convinces Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) and her sisters to go to the homecoming dance, the boys’ romantic fantasies threaten to come true- until they are engulfed in a stunning chain of events that will change their lives forever.

– From DVD production notes

The first time I read about The Virgin Suicides was in a film magazine (possibly Premiere) and before its debut at Sundance or its release nationwide. I saw an image of Sofia Coppola directing Kirsten Dunst (below):

as well as the title: The Virgin Suicides. Virgin. Suicide. What a combination of words. I read further, taking in details of its plot, its upcoming premiere and the novel it was based on. At the time Sofia Coppola’s debut held the promise of a heady, honest portrayal of a teenage girl’s inner life. Was I interested? Well, I was a teenage girl. The answer was yes.

An unreleased movie means having to wait, though. I was curious about the novel, so I bought it. I read it in four days. It was brilliant. It was gorgeous. It was devastating. In the end it wasn’t so much a book, but a place in time that is hard to shake from your thoughts. Around that time I wrote, “each sentence is perfect.” I was floored by Jeffrey Eugenides’ abilities as a writer. I still am.

In short, I loved what I’d read. So I was really, really excited for the movie. When it finally came to Minneapolis, I drove over an hour to see it.

Coppola’s Suicides proved to be a mere shadow of the novel. It is feminine and dream-like, but, as Rolling Stone noted, “reaches for a profundity it doesn’t earn.” As the first film of Coppola’s repertoire, it set the standard for her concern with beauty and surface, not so much what is happening underneath. Her tone is affectionate but detached.

I’m not saying I dislike the movie. I mean, I own it, right? It is beautiful and charmingly clumsy at the same time. Every image seems to be sun-drenched and the frame is often crowded with beguiling faces. Most of the film, in fact, is Kirsten Dunst’s face. Suicides is a vehicle for Dunst more than anything else. It is saturated with images of her- laughing, flirting, crying, silent, in repose, etc. Her role of Lux Lisbon is, as Trip Fontaine puts it, “the still point of the turning world.”

And yet, beginning with Lux, I encounter my biggest problem with Suicides. For all the visual emphasis on the character, we never really get to know her. Her emotions are nearly impenetrable. She is pretty and doomed, a girlish paper doll to project fantasies on, not much else. The same could be said of her sisters. They are seen remotely as if they were specimens behind glass. Sure, we know they’re beautiful. We’re told they’re sad by the leaden voice of the Narrator (Giovanni Ribisi). But we don’t know them. We hardly hear them speak.

This brings up the usual annoying book vs. movie argument, but it applies here. First of all, Eugenides’ novel isn’t only about Lux, but the other Lisbon girls as well: Therese, Mary, Bonnie and Cecilia (in the film played by Leslie Hayman, A.J. Cook, Chelse Swain and Hanna Hall, respectively). In the book each sister emerges as their own incomplete puzzle- flaws, dreams, disappointments and mystery. A patchwork of voices brings each of them to life, but never into complete focus.

In contrast, the film gives us images upon images rather than any character development. For example, there is a fantasy montage of the girls flouncing around in fields, surrounded by dappled sunlight, unicorns and clouds. Even in the darkened theater I was thinking, “I… hate this.” There was this underlying tone that these girls were simply meant to be looked at, not empathized with or valued.

And man, you should feel for the Lisbon sisters. That’s the point Coppola misses. In the book their suffering is so drawn out and suffocating it’s hard to fathom. It lasts over nine months. In the film the final freefall of the Lisbon family takes place over a few weeks.

Despite my misgivings Suicides is quite beautiful and, at times, surprisingly funny. I also think Coppola does her best work with her casting decisions. Although I’ve never been a fan of Dunst I can’t imagine another girl playing the alluring, rebellious Lux. She is the living embodiment of Eugenides’ character. Hanna Hall was also perfectly cast as the “first to go”- the stoic, 13-year-old Cecilia Lisbon. And, of course, Josh Hartnett fills Trip Fontaine’s shoes effortlessly.

Interestingly, Coppola opted for non-actors when it came to casting the neighborhood boys who watch the Lisbons so intently. The only recognizable faces are Jonathan Tucker as Tim Weiner and a then-unknown Hayden Christensen as one of the girls’ homecoming dates. The more recognizable faces were cast in roles you would never expect (Scott Glenn as a priest, Danny DeVito as a psychiatrist- who would have thought?). However, this applies most to James Woods and Kathleen Turner as the Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, who may just be the best part of the film. Their scenes are the most moving and filled with unexpected subtlety.

Since The Virgin Suicides‘ release over ten years ago, it has retained its critical appeal as well as its influence on fashion and teenage girls’ web journals alike. I think it will always be sought out by the dreamy and unhappy.

As for me, this film will always be an artifact that accompanies one of my favorite books. I appreciate it, I own it, but really wish I liked it more.


4 thoughts on “Z To A: The Virgin Suicides (1999)

  1. Agreed. The girls hardly had dialogue. My favorite thing about the movie will always be the music.

  2. I agree with you. I just finished watching the film and aesthetically, it’s quite beautiful. But I didn’t really see any aspect of the girls that would make me attached to them or even feel for them. When the ending credits rolled, I simply thought.. they died. So what?
    I didn’t much care (I didn’t read the book) for them because I wasn’t able to know them. It’s as if I was only given their pictures and I wasn’t drawn to their world or isolation. I was a detached presence instead of having a detached but loving/admiring/sympathizing presence like the neighborhood boys.
    Great story, nice pictures.. but I guess that’s about it. Quite disappointed because I expected far, far more for this movie.

  3. Pingback: Z To A: Girl, Interrupted (1999) | The Holy Shrine

  4. Pingback: // score: The Film Mixtape – The Holy Shrine

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