The Virgin Suicides (review)

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That 70s Movie

This is probably terribly unfair to The Virgin Suicides, but I am extremely tired of seeing girls and women depicted onscreen not as human beings but as idealized, goddesslike visions. I’m tired of seeing male obsession and pursuit of unrealistically gorgeous and unattainable women as, once again, of supposedly universal interest and appeal. I am tired of seeing male adolescent sexual fantasies as deeply symbolic of life, the universe, and everything. But these are the themes The Virgin Suicides wants so desperately to present to us as fresh and new. Which is why I found the film so very disappointing.

In Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in the middle 1970s, live the five golden Lisbon girls, each of them blond and sweet and impossibly beautiful. Ranging in age from 13 to 17, the sisters have enchanted a group of neighborhood boys, led by Tim Weiner (Jonathan Tucker), who watch them through windowshades with binoculars, collect souvenirs of them, and fixate on them to such a degree that they never outgrow it, or so we learn from the film’s narrator, the adult Tim (Giovanni Ribisi: Boiler Room, Saving Private Ryan).
The sisters — Lux (Kirsten Dunst: All I Wanna Do, Wag the Dog), Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall: Forrest Gump), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), and Therese (Leslie Hayman) — are beyond the reach of the teenage boys because their strict Catholic parents (James Woods: The General’s Daughter, True Crime; and Kathleen Turner), seeking to protect them from the world, sheltering them from reality as much as possible. Dating is verboten, of course. And the girls will forever remain beyond the reach of any man — and here is the key to their goddesshood — because they all committed suicide as teenagers.

Whether this was the case in the Jeffrey Eugenides novel on which the film is based, or a matter of the screenplay by first-time director Sophia Coppola, this sisters’ deaths are no secret — the title gives it away, anyway. The narrator talks about the “legendary” suicides as the film opens, but The Virgin Suicides is never about discovering what drove these girls to kill themselves — in fact, we’re given precious little reason why they did. Suicides is about men in the thrall of women, and not just any women, but mysterious and perpetually unknowable women. There’s something very disturbing in the reasoning that to really capture a guy’s imagination, a gal’s best bet is never to let her true self be known.

Coppola pays a lot of attention to recreating the era, from the soundtrack — chock full of ELO, Styx, and the Bee-Gees — to the costumes and the decor. And with the film’s sharp focus on black comedy instead of probing drama, you could be forgiven for mistaking this for a movie-length version of That 70s Show. A neighbor serves refreshments at the dismantling of a fence outside the Lisbon house that figured in an early successful suicide, and cemetery workers strike during this Lisbon girl’s funeral. Turner and Woods seem to be trying to give their characters some depth — Turner as the dumpy, frumpy mom inadvertently suffocating her beloved daughters, and Woods as the dorky, awkward dad drowning in estrogen — but even their attempts keep getting shuffled into an uncomfortably comedic realm.

The Virgin Suicides shares the neighborhood boys’ grisly fascination with the self-destruction of the Lisbon girls without ever offering any more depth than their adolescent reverie. The narrator propounds that the girls were “really women in disguise,” and that at some point the boys began to understand that they “couldn’t fathom them at all” — Suicides is ultimately unsatisfying because it can’t fathom the girls either. Keeping the Lisbon girls a mystery was entirely Coppola’s intention, so in that her film succeeds.

But I can’t help but remember a scene in which the boys, reading a diary stolen from one of the girls, come across a passage in which she laments “the imprisonment of being a girl.” That’s a story I want to hear. Enough of seeing girls through the eyes of boys. Let’s let girls tell their own stories once in a while.

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