The Virgin Suicides
directed by Sofia Coppola
(Paramount, 1999)

"Cecelia was the first to go," the nameless narrator recalls. That and the title, The Virgin Suicides, tell us all we need to know about where Sofia Coppola's film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel is headed.

How it's going to get there also is revealed in the opening scenes: a 14-year-old girl sucks a lollipop; a middle-aged guy waters his lawn; two women walk a dog; two workers tack a notice of removal on an elm tree; a kid shoots some hoops; a fan sits on windowsill. We hear dripping. Cecilia Lisbon lies in a tub of water, her eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.

The next thing you know she's whisked away to a hospital, where a doctor wants to know what she's doing there: "You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets," he tells her. "Obviously, doctor," she replies, "you've never been a 13-year-old girl."

The Virgin Suicides is a lot like that from beginning to end: a cinematic scrapbook of images, voices, song snippets and pieces of dreams -- romantic fantasies as well as nightmares.

It all takes place in an upper-middle-class suburb in Michigan in the mid-1970s, a time of loud ties and quiet cries for help. Coppola, in her first film, captures it all and ties it neatly together with the recurring narrative supplied by a former neighbor of the Lisbon girls.

"We knew that they knew everything about us," the narrator says, "and that we couldn't fathom them at all." But that didn't stop him and his friends from trying, imbuing Virgin Suicides with a voyeuristic quality that adds to the already offbeat nature of the proceedings.

For in a time when all -- make that nearly all -- of America was letting its hair down, the Lisbon girls -- Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), Mary (A.J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman), Bonnie (Chelse Swain) and Lux (Kirsten Dunst) -- are all but shuttered in their house by their overly repressive mother (Kathleen Turner) and geeky math teacher dad (James Woods).

Especially threatening to Mom are Trip Fontaine, a dope-smoking football player with designs on Lux, and Trip's plan for him and his teammates to take Lux and her sisters to the homecoming dance. The event provides cinematographer Edward Lachman with two of his best images: Lux sleeping alone on the vast expanse of the football field after Trip has sneaked off, followed by Lux chewing on her homecoming crown in the taxi on the long ride home.

Yet for all the serious events of Virgin Suicides, Coppola keeps the tone remarkably light. Between suicide attempts, the film has a kind of Wonder Years quality to it, documenting the romantic gestures teens come to laugh about years later. And Coppola's sendups of TV newscasts -- with the ever-unsuccessful attempts of News 8's Lydia Perl (Suki Kaiser) to turn the Lisbon girls' stories into 30-second sound bites -- are a hoot. Ultimately, though, one image sticks with you: the girls locked in the house, lying around in their rooms, looking for all the world like an underage harem about to explode.

The Virgin Suicides is a cinematic gem, a quiet film that says a lot and will continue to say a lot, for as long as people are willing to listen.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 17 May 2003

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