Lost in the Movies: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides

Few things are as intriguing and as vexing as a film at odds with itself. Particularly when that same film shows such stylistic verve and moody vision that you suspect it may be winking at you behind its confusion. Sofia Coppola's turn-of-the millennium debut, The Virgin Suicides chronicles five lovely adolescent girls who, as the title suggests, off themselves. If it sounds like I'm being flippant, be not alarmed: the movie is just as cavalier in tone...or is it? The film is narrated by the collective voice of the neighborhood boys, who are fascinated by the mysterious Lisbon sisters but can never figure out what made them tick, let alone stop ticking. Just like its subjects, Virgin Suicides proves to be inscrutable.

Is it a distanced black comedy? A tragedy disguised as a melancholy tone poem? Is it about the yearning of the boys or the suffering of the girls? Are they even suffering? We can never be sure, but as if that weren't enough, Coppola and her unique voice complicate things further. The screenplay, and supposedly the novel it is based on (which I haven't read), takes the male point of view. To the horny and goofy but also somewhat dreamy and romantic teenage boys, the Lisbons are like beautiful Martians. The boys read the sisters' diaries, filled with casual banalities, and look between the lines for hidden meanings and psychological clues. Trying to play it cool, they munch popcorn and leer through a telescope at one of the sisters as she screws random men on her rooftop, but they seem more genuinely excited later when the girls communicate with them by playing records over the phone. They watch them walk around school, flipping their hair, flirting with the stupidest guys, giggling. And this is all after they've lost their little sister, who jumped out of a window in one of the early scenes.

The first suicide occurs after a coed party where the kids, good-naturedly callous, tease a boy with Down’s syndrome. One of the sisters, recovering from a recent suicide attempt (an array of a dozen bracelets attempts to cover up her slit wrists) takes in the casual cruelty without saying a word, then asks to be excused, goes upstairs, and within a couple minutes she's impaled on the spiky fence conveniently placed outside the suburban home. Played by Hannah Hall, whose sad eyes also conveyed hurt as the childhood Jenny in Forrest Gump, youngest sister Cecilia comes the closest to articulating the film's semi-hidden credo, its defiant obstruction of any attempt the boys mount to understand the girls from the inside-out. Facing down a doctor who tells her she doesn't even know how bad life can get, she deadpans: "Obviously, you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl."

Well, neither have I, but it's not merely my gender that prevents full understanding. The story is designed to reflect its narrator's (narrators'?) mystification, echoed in dimmer form by the stupefied reactions of the adults, from the exploitative newscaster to the gossipy neighbors to the drunk partygoer who jumps in a pool in the end and mock-whines, "You don't understand! I'm a teenager! I hate my life!" And the one time the film breaks its connection to the 70s setting is to show a grown-up Trip Fontaine (played by Josh Hartnett in his teenage incarnation) reminiscing on his ill-fated romance with Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst, who is photographed by Coppola as if she were her secret crush). A ladies' man to his core, Trip remains haunted and perplexed by Lux. Did their romance lead to his current status as an (apparent) recovering addict? So, on the face of it, The Virgin Suicides should be an affirmation of the "male gaze" theory, using the camera and soundtrack to idolize young women beyond all proportion, treating them as goddesses, divine beings beyond rational understanding, or else silly schoolgirls crying over burnt vinyl records and playing with little boys' hearts out of boredom.

Ah, but this film is directed by Sofia Coppola; a friend once said that her movies could be essentially summed up as "girls falling onto beds in slow-motion." True, this approach may affectionately place women under a gaze no less objectifying than that of the classical Hollywood film, but the emphasis is on "affectionately." Coppola as a director stands in two spots at once: she adores her female subjects with girly glee, while sharing a conspiratorial understanding with them, a wisdom that doesn't need to assert itself in words. This understanding is manifested in every close-up, every yearbook-handwriting flourish Coppola incorporates, every moment alone with Kirsten Dunst, riding home in a taxi, uneasy after a midnight football-field fuck, blushing and relaxing into her chair after a silly but exciting flirtation with Trip, even in one of the film's first shots, sucking on a lollipop and glancing past the camera as if she knows the score.

Coppola circumvents her material, allowing its structure to stand in place but poking a feminine understanding through the cracks and fissures, finding opportunities to reaffirm the girls' perceptions and the reality of their separate existence. Usually a director will find his or her point of view and share it with the audience. Coppola has a foot in both worlds, but she keeps one to herself. This is a pretty rare thing and this wilful withholding may partially explain the detestation of Coppola by so many (though it's also aided by the perception that she's disproportionately benefited from her father's success, and the presence of a kind of privileged elitism in her work).

True, Virgin Suicides does not entirely cohere. Though the discrepancy between what we see and what we sense may be fascinating, sometimes the aloofness of the tone borders on obscurity. Certain elements feel out of place. The mother's conservatism, culminating when she locks the girls indoors, juts out uneasily, never convincingly reconciled with the film's laconic tone or Kathleen Turner's generally sympathetic and hardly overbearing performance. Indeed, the parental element feels forced, as if it wasn't enough to lock the girls away in their mystery, and some sort of "see-this-is-why-teenagers-kill-themselves" reportorial explanation had to be added. On another note, the flavor of the neighborhood can occasionally be erratic; most of the time it seems to be your standard, if slightly upscale, middle-class suburbia, but at film's end we see country clubs and debutante balls at mansions. Unlike in Coppola's masterpiece, the great Lost in Translation, we're never entirely sure where we stand. And while this can be justified as an approximation of the adolescent confusion and boy-girl mysteriousness, it makes for a less satisfying and enriching experience than the perfectly modulated and encompassing mood piece that is Translation.

Nonetheless, Suicides' voice comes through clearly, which is quite an accomplishment for a directorial debut. Enough mystery is accumulated along the way, so that when the boys discover the suicides in an anticlimax that finds them stumbling across dead bodies as if they were simply cheap props in a haunted house, it feels less like a rushed denouement than another final, and fatal, miscommunication. Perhaps the girls finally grew bored with all the pallid romanticism and timid adventurism of the boys and decided to check out. After all, the girls are not all virgins and the title more likely refers to the philosophical conception of the "virgin suicide", not driven by passion but a rational conclusion that life is not worth living. Certainly, Dunst's bored final encounter with the boys, coupled with the cigarette hanging from her dead fingers out the car window, suggests as much. And yet, there remains just a hint of despair in her eyes before she leaves the last human company she'll ever experience. Something in her expression seems to be calling out, "Help!" Ultimately, for all the charms of the movie we see onscreen, there's always the suggestion of another, more ravishing, ethereal movie underneath, frustrated in its attempts to break away from the imaginative shortcomings of the boys' story. And it's this subterranean movie, which could perhaps only exist in fleeting, tantalizing suggestions, that gives The Virgin Suicides its greatest potency.


Anonymous said...

Amazing review. Amazing. No one has covered this better.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Anon - glad you enjoyed it.

matthew forde said...

what do u think are 8 symbols you can connect with this book?

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