The Virgin Suicides (1999) Directed by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola’s profound, mysterious elegy The Virgin Suicides has always left me conflicted. After so many attempts at deciphering the indecipherable, I find this undeniably compelling feature film debut just as ambiguous as the mystifying effects it leaves on me. It is evident that the dreamlike, somniferous style in which the atmospheric gloom of the story -based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel- is imbued opts determinedly for a *distancing effect, which functions remarkably well to preserve the oneiric and metaphysical mood of its immaculate imagery. However, the virulent melancholy that pervades the five teenage girls in this story is an enigma that I believe deserves to be demystified, not pretentiously concealed. Sofia Coppola is a perceptive and most importantly formal filmmaker – at all times she knows exactly what she is doing and why she is doing it, nothing is extraneous in her highly sophisticated direction – but her artistry exchanges complexity for abstraction from one moment to the next and she completely loses empathy for her characters.
The tragic story is dramatized as a philosophical chronicle by the male perspectives of a group of teenagers mesmerized by the five fair-haired, cherubic daughters of an ironic fundamentalist mathematics professor (James Woods) and a strict religious housewife (Kathleen Turner). The events unfold in a sleepy Michigan suburb, where, with clever temporal juxtapositions, the doleful plot kicks off. Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A. J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Lux (Kirsten Dunst) and Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), live as prisoners in the puritanical home of their parents, who overprotect them from the temptations of the adolescent milieu. However, fate is contradictory when this overprotection is the main cause of not only the loss of innocence of the 5 sisters but of their lives. The boys in the neighborhood do not observe them as a sexual fetish, the attraction is obviously sexual curiosity, but the poetic sensuality of the images suggests something more ethereal than vulgar, conjuring up a quasi-religious admiration for them rather than carnal veneration. The storytelling cautiously deals with the controversial subject of suicide without being tediously moralistic; although suicide is the cause and effect of the plot’s situational determinism, the true essence of the film is its psychological deconstruction of puritanical morality in the conservative politics that reside in many modern American homes. If there is one thing this film is perfect at, it is showing you forthrightly the dangers of defining women by traditional roles. There are many complex issues that enter into contentiously sensitive territory, yet Coppola is aware of this, privileging subtlety over explicitness to scrupulously communicate these issues.
The visual emphasis on the wistfulness of the five sisters’ faces, particularly that of the heartbreakingly gorgeous Lux, played magnificently by Kirsten Dunst, forcefully expresses what the dialogue cannot. But in the midst of all this pensive lyricism, there are moments of ephemeral happiness and adolescent exhilaration typical of a conventional coming of age – when Josh Hartnett with an insufferable, goofy haircut is introduced into the plot, Coppola sacrifices arthouse density for romantic platitudes. Somehow explicably, these sequences are necessary to potentiate the disturbing denouement, yet they feel more gimmicky than essential. The spiritual atmosphere loses weight, and the uncanny serenity of the mise-en-scene loses visual eloquence; I don’t know exactly if the erratic middle act was responsible for that, but it certainly had something to do with it. It’s the kind of movie where everything looks irresistibly beautiful but lacks emotional cohesion in form and content. Perhaps there will come a day when I begin to see the significance of this elegy, but for now I can only add that I respect it as an unfathomably strange piece of cinema. Sofia Coppola pulls back when her characters demand closeness, and the final result leaves you more obfuscated than amazed.
*Sofia Coppola uses this same technique in Lost in Translation with vastly superior results.