THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
No one could blame you for eyeing Sofia Coppola's feature film debut as a writer/ director with some degree of suspicion. Her dad produced it for her, which, given that her dad is the director of three or four of the most memorable films of the last thirty years (The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now!), and a very shrewd businessman to boot, definitely gave her a big advantage. What makes her film, The Virgin Suicides, so interesting is that she has quietly crept out from behind her father's shadow and created something all her own.
The Virgin Suicides, closely adapted from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, concerns the Lisbon family. The parents, played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner, run their household with tight control and their five daughters, lead by Kirsten Dunst as the luminous Luxe, seem to exist untouched by the distractions of teenage life. That is, until the youngest, Cecelia, takes a razor to her wrists. This failed suicide attempt is followed shortly by a successful one as well as total destruction of the family. The fact is those in Ceclia's life did not understand her cry for help, and neither do we. The Virgin Suicides never pretends to overanalyze the strange interior world that the sisters inhabit. They are mournful and solemn but also flirty and clever. They seem to have a telepathic language amongst themselves that no one else can share. The story is mostly narrated by the collected reminiscences of some smitten neighborhood boys. They're fascinated with the sisters and obsess over any information they can find.
The world created in The Virgin Suicides, that of a mid-70's Michigan suburbia, is not one that you'll recognize from other films set in that era. Coppola has imbued everyday moments with a dreamy, slightly surreal quality. This works to the advantage of the film and even though some images, like a tree marked for removal or a debutante ball where guests wear jewel encrusted gas masks, may be overly symbolic and precious, there are some sequences that cut to the heart of what the characters are going through, like condescendingly gossipy neighbors overheard while the Lisbon family goes about its lonely business. One particularly memorable scene shows the narrator boys communicating with the housebound girls over the phone entirely through their record players. This type of coded contact perfectly illustrates the inarticulateness of a generation that understood itself solely through pop.
There seems to be a particularly feminine sensibility to the film, something just beyond explanation. I thought I might just be imagining this, since I knew that the director was a woman, but there is a way that the material is approached in a dreamy, ethereal mist, like how even when the scenes are serious and important the film feels lighter than air. The sisters are integral to the film but they aren't always on screen and yet their presence is always felt. The Virgin Suicidesis the film that Picnic at Hanging Rock wanted to be but was too arty and vague to achieve. Even though nothing is ever carved in stone, Suicides feels far more realized.
A film this subtle and introspective can only work with game actors and many of them live up to the challenge. Woods reins in his usual Method showiness and that was the right approach. The Lisbon father comes off as eccentric and at first, but by the end we see that his mental health has declined without our even noticing. Turner is a little more melodramatic in a pretty thankless role. Dunst mostly strikes poses but there is a mischievous gleam in her eye (literally in one scene) that makes her Luxe the most enigmatic of the sisters. Dunst has chosen films that mix the teen experience with greater issues (like the great Dick and the not-great-but-trying Bring it On) so that her often wordless performance here fits right in. Josh Hartnett is also great as the young smoothy whose seduction of Luxe helps restart the family's downward spiral.
Coppola has stacked the deck, obviously, with big names, thanks no doubt to her family, and it mostly works. Scott Glenn is effective in a tiny role as a priest, but Danny DeVito is totally distracting in a cameo as the school shrink. The trailer bills him as a costar, which is ridiculous.
Special note needs to be made of the score, which was created by ambient pop producers Air. It is much more modern than the setting of the film, but the use of synthesizers and slow drum beats doesn't work against the atmosphere. If anything the music is a major source of the slightly magical tone of the film.
The anamorphic transfer is very good. The elegant cinematography took a lot of care and has been rendered faithfully here.
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds great. A lot of work has gone into the sound design and and the mix of music with subtle atmospheric effects works well. A 2.0 French track is also available as are English subtitles.
The film is accompanied by a nearly half-hour behind the scenes piece that is much more personal than a standard electronic press kit. The featurette was shot mostly by Coppola's mother Eleonor, whose footage of Sophia's dad's film Apocalypse Now! formed the basis of the outstanding documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. The Virgin Suicides doesn't seem to have been as difficult a shoot as that but Eleonor is especially sensitive to her daughter's exhaustion as well as to the familial elements of the crew. Proud papa Francis Ford served as a producer, brother Roman as second unit director, etc... If one of the neighborhood boys in the film is the spitting image of Max Fischer it's because the actor playing him is the brother of Rushmore star and Coppola cousin Jason Schwartzman.
The disc also includes a creative music video for Air's "Playground Love", which features much of the film's cast and crew, as well as a trailer and a photo gallery set to music from the film.
A commentary track from Coppola and Eugenides with Dunst and Francis Coppola might have been interesting, as would a music only track. Still, this edition is nicely put together.
The Virgin Suicides seems to capture some of the essence and mystery that is being a young girl in America. It is at its most effective when it tries to just paint in a few details and then allows the viewer to fill in the rest. Not a mystery with a motive or a resolution, it is a film that rewards patience and thought. And it's also, hopefully, the birth of an interesting and unique filmmaker.
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org