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Dustin Putman



Dustin's Review
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
4 Stars

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Josh Hartnett, Hanna Hall, Chelsea Swain, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, Michael Pare, Scott Glenn, Danny DeVito; Narrated by Giovanni Ribisi.
1999 – 97 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for mature themes, mild profanity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 15, 1999.

What causes someone to grow so tired of the world--so unhappy and weary of going through the paces on a day-to-day basis--that they are driven to take their own life? Any one person can speculate such a question all they want, but inevitably will fail to draw a satisfying conclusion. There are occurrences in life that can't be explained, and the tragic mystery that is suicide is something that remains unresolved for everyone except the victim, who seems to hold all the answers, yet, at the same time, none at all.

Based on the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" is an elucidating masterpiece, a film of both penetrating beauty and baffling perplexity. It is startling and maybe even a little frightening, not because it is a typical horror film, but because the unforgettable themes and images it presents are distinct, irrefutable, and unshakably puzzling. More questions than answers are posed throughout the story, and that is how it should be--its level of not knowing puts a stirring air of uneasiness over the proceedings and its sorrowful characters.

Set in the mid-'70s in the upper-middle-class Michigan suburbs, the film is told largely from the points-of-view of four neighborhood boys who live right down the street from the home of the much-talked-about Lisbon family, headed by a passive father (James Woods) and a restricting, Catholic mother (Kathleen Turner). The fascination for the four boys is based largely on the five Lisbon sisters--13-year-old Cecilia (Hanna Hall), 14-year-old Lux (Kirsten Dunst), 15-year-old Bonnie (Chelsea Swain), 16-year-old Mary (A.J. Cook), and 17-year-old Therese (Leslie Hayman)--each of which signify unattainable beauty and innocence unchanged.

Narrated by one of the boys as an adult (Giovanni Ribisi), who occasionally still holds reunions with his childhood friends, where they theorize on the notable gaps missing in the lives of the late Lisbon sisters, the first words uttered at the film's start are, "Cecilia was the first to go," as we see her face-up in a bathtub of water, her wrists slit open. It is her first suicide attempt, and although she survives, questions of the parents' upbringing and what goes on behind their closed doors become headline news for television stations, ready to exploit the grim subject of teenage suicide.

Following her physical recovery, Cecilia is forced to see a psychiatrist (Danny DeVito), who doesn't have a clue how to help a 13-year-old girl fatally hurting internally. Weeks later, Cecilia attempts suicide again, and succeeds, impaling herself on the iron fence that surrounds their home. Heartbroken and confused, the father drifts into psychological seclusion, while the mother is bewildered to why her youngest daughter would do such a thing.

The Lisbon girls, who are only allowed to leave the house's property long enough to attend school, are severely sheltered, with the exception of the flirtatious, somewhat rebellious Lux. Soon, things return to normal in the Lisbon household, until Lux catches the eye of the popular, smooth, pot-smoking Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). For both Trip and Lux, it is their first experience with teenage love, and for the first and last time, Trip convinces the Lisbon father, who is a math teacher at the high school, to allow himself and three other classmates to accompany the sisters to the upcoming Homecoming Dance. All does not remain happy for long, as something occurs between Trip and Lux that forever changes the lives of the entire Lisbon family, and questionably plays a part in the inexorable, heartbreakingly lyrical final act.

In her directing debut, 29-year-old Sofia Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford Coppola) has conceived of a motion picture filled with overwhelming intensity and remarkable conviction. In 1990, playing the ill-fated Mary Corleone in "The Godfather III," Coppola gave an embarrassing performance that, for some critics, nearly ruined the entire production. After seeing "The Virgin Suicides," it is clear that Coppola's destiny lies in her adeptness of, not acting, but filmmaking and screenwriting. Reportedly, Jeffrey Eugenides' novel is Coppola's favorite novel, and so in adapting it for the screen, she felt it was her responsibility to not only be faithful to the source material, but to do it complete justice. While the book remains unread by myself, the film can easily stand alone as a showcase for a rightfully burgeoning career for Sofia Coppola.

The actors--every one of them--perfectly embody their characters, and it is their subtle performances that give the film an added level of realism and unforced poignancy. Kirsten Dunst (1999's "Drop Dead Gorgeous") just keeps getting better with every role, and she brings the sexually charged Lux, who, despite her closeness with her siblings, seems to have been meant to be born into an entirely different family, to pulsating life. Her desperation to break out from the strict confines of her household are palpably felt without having to use dialogue to explain her longings, and it is a tribute to Dunst's talent that she could possibly pull off such a tricky provocation.

Of the rest of the Lisbon sisters, Hanna Hall (who played the young Jenny in 1994's "Forrest Gump") makes the most lasting impression as Cecilia, the first to commit suicide. Although mostly absent following her suicide in the first half-hour, visions of her tragic soul are glimpsed throughout, and her sullen presence consistently hangs over all that follows.

As the sisters' parents, James Woods underplays to spectacular effect as the father, while Kathleen Turner, nabbing her first noteworthy role in years, is exceptional as the mother, who finally decides to take her four daughters out of school and keep them locked inside the house, cut off from all outside influences that she fears they are being brainwashed by. In one scene that rings mightily true, the mother forces Lux to burn all of her music records, all the while Lux tearfully begs her not to make her do such a thing.

Never even seeming like he is playing a character, Josh Hartnett (2000's "Here on Earth") is Trip Fontaine, the "oh-so-cool" Jim Morrison-lookalike who doesn't quite know how to react when, for once, he isn't the one being pined for, but rather becomes swept away himself by his crush on Lux. In only a few sequences, teenage first love is more accurately portrayed than in all of the previous teen movies of the last year combined. One particular scene, in which Lux and Trip sit next to each other in the darkened school auditorium and shyly flirt with the possibility of holding hands, is something that most anyone can relate to, yet is an almost always clumsily overlooked nuance about human nature that is bypassed in other similar films.

Aiding in capturing the '70s era is a soundtrack that is precisely on-target, including Heart's "Magic Man," Styx's "Come Sail Away," and Carole King's "Far Away," and the luminous music score by the French group Air, serves to strengthen the picture's already highly evocative tone.

The final ten minutes of "The Virgin Suicides" appear to be a collection of fragmented memories, told again by the neighborhood boys who still manage to keep in touch with the Lisbon sisters, even after they are closed in their home. The details are shady and purposefully disjointed, and the nightmarishly real action reaches a head when the boys finally are given a chance to come into face-to-face contact with their idealistic obsessions once again.

There are no easy answers presented in Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides." Twenty-five years later, following the deaths of all five of the Lisbon sisters, their impact in the lives of those admiring boys lives on, and the mystery surrounding what the driving force was in their pact to simultaneously end their lives is what gives the film added weight, as well as a lingering impression on the viewer. "The Virgin Suicides" is a devastating, haunting motion picture of inconceivable power.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman