VOD film review: The Virgin Suicides
Ivan Radford | On 01, May 2017
Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, James Woods, Kathleen Turner
Watch The Virgin Suicides online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Lost in Translation. Somewhere. Sofia Coppola is queen of mood. That much was evident right from her astonishing debut, The Virgin Suicides. The film follows the lives of the five Lisbon girls in Grosse Pointe, Michigan – and their inevitable deaths promised by the ominous title.
That knowledge of what’s to come is vital to Sofia’s spellbinding piece of cinema, which breathes in the atmosphere of tragedy and doom just as it exhales the excitement of youth coming of age. If Lost in Translation and Somewhere seem like distant cousins of Coppola’s 1999 feature, they share a DNA of existential malaise, of people caught between worlds and lives – and nowhere is that more tangible, more pressingly urgent, than the gap between being a child and a grown-up. The Virgin Suicides dives into that limbo and ingests it through every pore.
From the soundtrack by French group Air to the softly-lit, glowing visuals, everything about the movie is intoxicating, even as it becomes more and more distressing. In the opening minutes, the tone is set by the attempted suicide of Cecilia Lisbon, placing her family on the path to somewhere much darker and sadder.
“You’re not even old enough to know how hard life gets,” a doctor says to Cecilia, during one counselling session. “Obviously, doctor,” comes the reply, “you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” There’s a dry wit to the whole affair, but one that only reinforces the complex issues lying beneath the surface, as Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner and James Woods) fail to listen, support or understand their children, instead responding to Cecilia’s act by tightening the locks and keeping the family more sternly removed from the 1970s happening on their doorstep.
Turner and Woods play their parts with a dash of ironic humour, but mostly a desperately misplaced and misjudged discipline, one that only brings out the insubordinate streaks in their daughters more. Kirsten Dunst is perfectly cast as eldest daughter Lux Lisbon, who is on the cusp of womanhood – or, perhaps more accurately, is thought to be on the cusp of womanhood. Coppola transfers Jeffrey Eugenides’ charged novel to the screen without any sense of inappropriate voyeurism; events are framed from the perspective of the local boys (led by a young Josh Hartnett) who stare at the Lisbon girls with fear, wonder and adolescent lust. It’s a tricky balancing act of gazes filtered through gazes, but Coppola acts like she’s been doing it for years, capturing the thrilling rush of teenagedom, while shooting it down with the melancholy of what will ultimately be lost.
It’s oddly fitting that future stars Dunst and Hartnett should be at the forefront of the movie, both showing glimpses of what they would come to offer as fully-grown actors in future years. Hartnett’s high-school heartthrob (check out that 70s hair) is a source of sadness as much as sauciness, while Dunst is restrained and rebellious in equal measure.
There’s little more to the plot than their burgeoning whirlwind of emotions and desires, set against the superficially similar but misunderstood tumult in Cecilia’s life, but Coppola’s movie doesn’t want there to be. If this were a true story, you can imagine a documentary attempting to recreate the scenario and uncover the reasons, motivations and answers behind all the unanswered questions – the film is punctuated throughout by a local reporter trying to drum up a news story about the Lisbon’s religious, repressive family life – but The Virgin Suicides is a triumph precisely because it prioritises the tone before the tale. Heightened with the aesthetics of awakening adulthood, this is a seductive, swooning study of sexuality as remembered nostalgically by those who have since gotten older – a paean to past urges that laments the lost innocence of all involved, both the Lisbon girls and the boys who looked at them in the school corridors with awe. Vivid, chilling and throbbing with subtle complexities, The Virgin Suicides conjures up a heady mood that dissipates in an instant – and haunts the air for days afterwards.