Sisters at the mercy of male fantasies

Movie: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides
Length: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Studio: Paramount Classics
Release Date: 2000-05-05
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Kathleen Turner, James Wood
Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola
Music Score: Nicolas Godin, Jean Benoit Dunkel
WorkNameSort: The Virgin Suicides
Our Rating: 2.50

A muted, trancelike film, "The Virgin Suicides" aims for the baffled, difficult time of adolescence -- specifically female adolescence, circa 1970. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (she adapted Jeffrey Eugenides' novel), the movie studies the five teen-age Lisbon sisters, who are beautiful and enchanting, especially for the neighborhood boys who voyeuristically obsess over them.

The film's narrator -- one of the boys, now grown up -- initially guides us toward the youngest sister, 13-year-old Cecilia (Hanna Hall), who's artistic and sensitive. After she abruptly kills herself, the central figure becomes gorgeous 14-year-old Lux (Kirsten Dunst). Actually, the central figure becomes Lux's barely contained sexuality. She tirelessly flirts with boys, tugging at her spaghetti straps, and in turn the boys stammer and blink, like small, stunned animals.

Meanwhile, strict Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) show themselves to be -- as suburban parents are in these types of movies -- ineffectual in coping with Cecilia's death. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon eventually take their discipline too far. After Lux breaks the rules, the parents cloister the four girls inside the house. From this point on, the neighborhood boys -- and the movie's viewers -- see the girls only through windows and telescopes. They become completely mysterious, leaving the boys enigmatic notes that relate only their locked-up despair and loneliness.

Unlike the more satirical American Beauty, this film's treatment of suburban parenthood is fairly understated. Often when adults talk, their voices are muffled, as if what they have to say isn't important enough to listen to. In one scene we see Mrs. Lisbon silently drying dishes, but we hear a bit of conversation between two women talking about the Lisbons with the kind of concern that isn't really concern, just chatter.

But this film's main focus isn't suburbia; it's teen-age girls, and that's where, for all its intriguing moodiness, "The Virgin Suicides" becomes deeply problematic. The sisters are depicted as unknowable objects, wise but resigned, churning with unspoken desires. At one point they're shown sensuously lolling on the floor, half-entwined with each other, like the cover of the "young hot stars" issue of Vanity Fair. In other words, they're like no real teen-age girls. They're like some man's fantasy of teen-age girls. Or like some guy's vision of female sexuality in general -- supposedly mysterious, disdainful, holding the possibility of salvation but too amorphous to understand.

Coppola's rendition only heightens this idea. We don't know the girls' true hopes or motivations. The boys simply gather mementos, with the male voice-over admitting, "In the end we had pieces of the puzzle, but gaps remained."

The narrator goes as far as to say, "If we looked hard enough `at the sisters`, maybe we could begin to understand what they were feeling." Apparently, girls are something for someone else to interpret; as a result, the sisters are given little to do and say. From his observations, the narrator thinks he knows about "the imprisonment of being a girl." But these girls seem mostly imprisoned by knee-jerk parenting and Coppola's camera. When they get beyond these restrictions -- like during an extended scene at a school dance -- they're silly, talkative and unsure of themselves.

First-time director Coppola shows herself to have a good eye, but you've got to wonder what she thought she was saying with this material. The Virgin Suicides is, I think, attempting to decry the limitations society places on girls. But in the process, the sisters are left at the mercy of what's said about them. It's just another prison they're stuck in.

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