The Virgin Suicides (2000)

D: Sofia Coppola
S: Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner, James Woods

Like Boys Don't Cry, The Virgin Suicides is a film about an enclosed, ritualistic world which fascinates outsiders. In this case it is a feminine world, specifically the life of a Catholic family in the 1970s. They have five beautiful daughters who prove an endless source of wonder and dumbfoundment to a group of high school boys who observe them from afar. The boys never understand them, and years later they continue to speculate on why all of them committed suicide (not a spoiler: the voice over tells us this at the beginning). As a cinematic essay about enigmas and the impenetrable, almost arcane firmament of Catholicism and femininity, director Sofia Coppola's film works pretty well. She demonstrates some understanding of composition and narrative rhythm which keeps the audience at arm's length from the action, inviting them to share the male narrator's sense of curiosity and frustration. Like a suburban American Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts, refusing resolution, investigation, and analysis in favour of a sort of transcendent mystery. This will appeal to those who find the only shred of explanation offered ("you've obviously never been a thirteen year old girl") reason enough to do this, but may frustrate those who, like the hapless males who watch and fail to learn throughout the movie, would like to know more and understand the consequences of what we see.

To be fair, Coppola gives us plenty of incidental detail which contextualises the events. We are presented with enough visual evidence to understand the psychological enclosure and sense of familial bonds which has created this largely hidden world. Kathleen Turner (Peggy Sue Got Married) and James Woods (The General's Daughter, Contact) give quiet but excellent performances as the well-meaning parents whose own mental entrenchment is at least partly responsible for the tragedy. Neither are completely irredeemable, and the script provides moments of insight into their personalities which show them not as repressive ogres or caricatures, but people attempting to raise their daughters well (according to their standards, of course). But, through the use of costumes and decor, Coppola presents physical space in the family home in terms of claustrophobia, and the relatively simple visual style of the movie adds to this. The girls are rarely separate from one another as personalities, with only Kirsten Dunst (Small Soldiers, Little Women) emerging as a rebellious spirit who expresses herself through sexual energy (adding to the boys' fascination with her, of course, and providing the film with the opportunity to make some references to voyeurism). Keeping the action and characters this tightly drawn together, Coppola gives herself less room to make mistakes, and this pays off at least insofar as it does give a sense of the hows and whys of the girls' psychological and physical incarceration. It also further contribute to the frustrating sense of borderline mysticism, of course, but this is, after all, precisely the point. The same flaw (or feature) mars (or reinforces) the sub-text of exploring the role of teenagers in society, with a hissable news reporter popping in at the fringes of the story every now and then to remind us that such things have wider importance.

Yet as a salutary lesson about repression, angst, and teenagers, the film lacks the force of the black comic Heathers, or the full-bore horror Carrie, and despite the lack of specific fantastical content, the film does lend itself to comparison with these rather than more conventionally dramatic films on the subject. It ultimately has little to say other than that it is impossible to understand the inner lives of suffering teenage girls, and despite all of the additional detail and the potential references to cultural, political, and social questions, it presents itself eventually only as an ethereal and ephemeral fantasy of adolescent inscrutability which is more likely to appeal to and reinforce the delusions of angst-ridden teenagers than cause them to ask questions of themselves and their lives. Even those scenes which do invoke specific indignation are directed outward (at a particularly clichéd lothario portrayed as an adult by Michael Paré (Moon 44, Streets of Fire) and as a youth by Josh Hartnett (The Faculty, Halloween H20), and at a society coming-out ball which amusingly takes place in a green haze signifying contamination and decay). Though it seems to have been Coppola's intention to make the film this way, and therefore we must respond to it on its own terms, it is too easy to pose a problem and not bother to solve it, or at least suggest that it can be solved through either human understanding or social activity. This is ultimately a film in favour of suicide, because in these circumstances, where no one can understand you and where your world is too enclosed and repressed for you to be able to express yourself, what other choice do you have? This is a dangerous message, and Coppola tries hard to make the story sad and tragic at least, but it is difficult to see any meaningful external consequence to the deaths or read the film any other way given the thematic and stylistic choices she has made. All the way through the male narrator expounds on his continuing fascination with the girls, and his continuing failure to understand them, and this continues to the end. All we can take from this is that the tragedy still has no meaning. It remains an enigma, a puzzle, a mystery without a solution which inspires only gobsmacked awe and wonder. This is not a good note to end on, and the final scene where one of the boys raises a burning cigarette lighter to their memory as if in a rock concert seems horribly inappropriate.

Of course, one's predisposition to the material will vary with age, gender, and temperament, and it is both well made and thought-provoking. Coppola may have proved a serious liability as an actor in The Godfather Part III, but she establishes herself here with a distinctive cinematic vision. Whether it will translate into as distinguished a filmography as her father's remains to be seen, but it seems to me that she requires greater moral conviction to progress further. The Virgin Suicides is worth seeing, but I would express some caution about the context in which it is viewed. The film may superficially resemble Citizen Kane with its multiple narrators and focus on a labyrinth without a centre, but it is a lot softer on its characters than it needed to be to make it more than just a meandering metaphysical conundrum.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.