Credit: Criterion Collection
by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Virgin Suicides — Sofia Coppola

May 12, 2023

Tucked deep in the uncanny valley of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, is a street of towering, decaying Dutch Elm trees. Probe deeper, and beneath the tarmac lies a network of sewer tunnels from which a teenage peeping tom can spy a 13-year-old girl bleeding out in her bathtub. A fun house reflection of his native 1970s Detroit, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel The Virgin Suicides chronicles an amorphous set of adolescent boys who pine over the mysterious, alluring, and forever unknowable Lisbon girls: Cecilia (Hanna Hall), whose self-defenestration is the harbinger of a coming plague, and her sisters Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), and Therese (Leslie Hayman). 

Sofia Coppola’s 1999 adaptation is startlingly faithful to the source material, while imbuing its appalling subject matter with a delicate, knowing tenderness that casts as many shadows as it illuminates. As an avatar of doomed, fragile femininity, the film would make a fine double feature with Peter Weir’s equally dreamy 1975 feature Picnic at Hanging Rock; even the costumes (gauzy white dresses) and cinematography (scorching sunlight filtered through leafy trees) are similar. Not much happens in either, but Coppola understands, instinctively — and to devastating effect — that so very little happens in girlhood to begin with. It’s a waiting game: for your body to start changing and then, almost immediately, for it to stop. For creeps to leave you alone. For things to make sense, or at least get easier. Both films allow their girls to be swallowed whole by symbolism, either lost in a monstrous, maze-like rock structure or within the cloistered rooms of their childhood home. 

And neither film answers any questions about what happened or why. In Coppola’s retelling, the Lisbon sisters are positioned somewhere between angels and saints, existing as much in the boys’ imagination as they do on earth. They are firmly not of this world and therefore owe nothing to anyone, even their parents: they’re excruciatingly free from ordinary obligations or expectations. In this light, the meager artifacts that the boys have painstakingly preserved since the girls’ demise — diaries, photos, even medical records — take on the weight of priceless relics, entries in a collective hagiography rather than snippets of individual biographies.

The Lisbon parents, as played by an anxiety-ridden Kathleen Turner and a passive, oblivious James Wood, seem both perplexed by the existence of their five beautiful daughters and almost fearful of their responsibility toward them. But it would be unfair to pin the suicides solely on their overbearing parenting, just as it would be unfair to label the boys as nothing more than lecherous cretins. That’s because, if the boys are obsessed, the girls are fatally, existentially repressed, not just by their eventual house arrest or their grief at Cecilia’s death, but by the very fact of life and all that it entails. Whether it’s innocent animals going extinct, their faithful Dutch Elms getting chopped down, or “my sister, the mean one, pulling my hair,” they intuit on an almost cellular level that life doesn’t have to — isn’t supposed to — be this way. It won’t be for much longer.

When the novel was published, critics made much of Eugenides’ decision to use the unusual first person plural, which implicitly includes readers in the “we” of the narration. This collective voice elevates his story from standard teen angst to Greek tragedy, as the jostling voices meld into an ever-present (but not all-knowing) chorus. Coppola preserves this device through voiceover, letting audiences join the boys’ sweet, pathetic, and ultimately futile attempts to make sense of tragedy. Even in the film’s now, decades after the suicides, these middle-aged men still gather to discuss unanswerable questions and sift through their memories and the ephemera that the sisters left behind.

The Virgin Suicides tells a highly specific story, rooted firmly in a time and place: is there anything more poignant, and analog, than playing your crush records over a landline phone? Yet it’s told almost in the style of a parable or fable, with the narration taking on the gravitas of oral tradition. In painstakingly preserving the memory of the sisters, they’re also archiving their own stunted childhoods. The Lisbon sisters used the boys as an escape hatch into another life, but for the boys, the sisters were life: “the still point of the turning world.” While undeniably a story of mass suicide, Coppola also probes, with utmost delicacy and sensitivity, the aftermath that such trauma inflicts on those left behind. Just ask Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the charismatic school heartthrob turned recovering addict who took Lux to homecoming, had sex with her on the football field, and left her there — not to physically come to harm, but to experience something worse. The unequivocal death of both their childhoods, perhaps.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 19.