Why I Love… #56: The Virgin Suicides

56Year: 1999

Director: Sofia Coppola

Stars: Kirsten Dunst (Lux Lisbon), Kathleen Turner (Mrs Lisbon), James Woods (Ronald Lisbon), Josh Hartnett (Trip Fontaine), Scott Glenn (Father Moody), Hanna Hall (Cecilia Lisbon)

Genre: Comedy / Drama / Literary Adaptation

Memories. Nostalgia. Growing pains. The Virgin Suicides holds a special place for me for a number of reasons, but my path to it is an unusual one. In late 1999 I was sixteen years old, still developing an appreciation for films and books and music. It was music that started it for me as far as this movie goes. I’d cottoned on to Air’s “Moon Safari” album a little late, and as a revival of easy listening and ‘chill-out’ moods swept back into popular culture, that record became its emblem. It still sounds great today, somehow ageless. Nevertheless at the time I was eager to hear more, but finding only dissatisfaction with their peers, turned back to Air. Their next release was to be the score to a movie. The Virgin Suicides.

I bought the CD the day it came out, right around the time I was tuning in to 70s prog rock. I may have bought it at the same time as The Dark Side Of The Moon. Anyway, the film wasn’t out yet, and I didn’t really know what it was, but I loved the music. Most of all my curiosity was piqued by the last track “Suicide Underground” on which Giovanni Ribisi’s augmented voice intones lines from the film. Narrative pieces creating a puzzle. Lines, I learned, that were also from a book. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

Keenly spiderwebbing my way through pop culture, and with the movie not yet released, I picked up a copy of the book and found my world transformed by its lilting lyrical beauty. It’s still a key book to me. Here was an author with an unusual but striking voice who was able to pitch directly into teenage ennui, as well as conjure nostalgia for a time I never knew. Reading that book, listening to Air and Pink Floyd, and having already swooned to Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused, I was a teenager in the 90s wishing he’d been a teenager in the 70s.

Sofia Coppola’s film received a modest UK release, and in order to see it I had to travel to an independent cinema (now my local). Previous to this all of my cinema experiences had been large-scale multiplex films or major releases being shown in a chilly, cavernous, small town cinema that still employed ushers to walk the aisles selling ice creams (remember those people?). So The Virgin Suicides was also my entry into a more selective, (dare I say it) venerated approach to watching a movie. For the first time I felt as though I was directly linking a trip to the cinema with a sense of artistry. It may be what made me love seeing films on the big screen.

Having so rapturously received the score and the book, I was initially a little cold toward Coppola’s movie. Her style felt new and overly precious and naturally, as with all literary adaptations, the film felt like cliff notes. Not enough. However I could still see it was a good movie, and later in 2000 it fulfilled another landmark for me; it became the first film I owned on DVD.

Repeated viewings (any excuse to see a picture that clear and shiny after the grain and fuzz of VHS) brought out the film’s numerous beautiful grace moments. Soon I knew it as well as the book, if not better. Air’s dreamy music cues became synonymous with the scenes they underscored, whilst Coppola’s approach, which I at first saw as awkward detachment, soon came to feel just right. Arguably the best film of her career thus far, The Virgin Suicides sees her creative eye already fully formed. A plaintive, rueful and yet voyeuristic sensibility which has served her subject matter since.

Adapting the book herself, Coppola’s film wrestles the unusual narrative (which has no clear lead narrator, instead relying on the reflections of an unreliable and amorphous chorus) into a successful film about memories, nostalgia and growing pains. The universal awkwardness of being a teenager. The indulgence and selfishness of a crush. How looking back on a specific time in your life is tainted by your life since then. The mood throughout is oddly subdued, like “a room dim at noon”. Coppola’s film views lost innocence with an autumnal regret. The heartache that we can’t stay in a perfect moment forever.

Yet for its undeniably glum title, The Virgin Suicides is a surprisingly warm film (the sequence in which the neighbourhood boys read Cecilia’s diary is exquisite) and one that seeks out the comedy in Eugenides’ book (the darkly humorous rat poison confession on daytime television). Sam Mendes’ American Beauty may have scooped much of the attention that year, but Coppola’s film is at least it’s equal in wryly tearing down the facade of suburban America. All those twitching curtains and hushed phonecalls. A community aware of a problem within it but shut down to actually helping.

And whilst undoubtedly an ensemble piece, there are still performances of note here. James Woods achieves so much with so little as Ronald Lisbon. Take for instance the ever-so-awkward scene with Father Moody when the man cannot bring himself to talk, falling back on a baseball game, chest too tight to ask for assistance. Elsewhere Kirsten Dunst also can’t help but shine as Lux Lisbon, the inappropriately young apex of the Lisbon sisters, old beyond her years, caught in a fate that seems inevitable to her. And then there’s Kathleen Turner’s bullish matron, controlling and fearful. She’s easily the film’s most outright negative presence, and yet her responsibility for what happens is not absolute. It isn’t that simple. Coppola’s film is, in that respect, even more elusive than the source material. The girls’ end, when it comes, is dumbfounding. Abrupt and perplexing.

In retrospect, Coppola’s film finishes by wrongfooting the audience on something they knew was coming all along. Like all tragic and unexpected deaths, those that survive are left with questions whose answers don’t quite satisfy. And if you’re watching it for the first time and feel a pang of disappointment, that lack of resolution, leave it a spell and revisit. The Virgin Suicides appreciates with repeat viewings.

If you don’t want to ponder the reasons and the missed signals, you can simply enjoy the moments that Coppola collects like scrapbook cuttings. From the never-better Josh Hartnett’s episodic entry as stoner Trip Fontaine to the simply effective compositions throughout that have become a staple of the director’s work.

My teenage self moved on. Found new obsessions. Traded music genres. But Air’s music, Eugenides’ book and Coppola’s film are key points on my journey from there to here. The Virgin Suicides taught me to appreciate a film, not just watch it.

If you came here looking for a plot summary, I’m sorry that’s not what I’ve offered. Do yourself a favour; watch the film, read the book. Maybe you’ll find a similar connection to the material yourself.

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