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Virgin Suicides, The

The Criterion Collection // R // April 24, 2018
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted April 20, 2018 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
A gorgeous, haunting story of unknowable heartbreak

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: The Criterion Collection, The Virgin Suicides, the score and soundtrack
Likes: Kirsten Dunst,
Dislikes: Feeling helpless
Hates: Religious hypocrisy

The Movie
One of the things that has changed as time has passed in the 18 years since Sofia Coppola made her feature debut as a director on The Virgin Suicides is the sheer dominance of the male perspective of film. Of course, it's nowhere near equal, but it's certainly improved as more women have been given--or have had to take--the opportunity to direct films and put a female voice on the big screen. In that light, Coppola's film is intriguing, because it adapts a book--Jeffrey Eugenides' debut novel--that has been accused of being the epitome of the male gaze, as the core subjects--the five Lisbon sisters--are only presented and crafted from the perspective of its male group narrator. As a result, in the book these young ladies are distant, underdeveloped, romanticized and lusted over, existing only in their role as objects of fascination for the men telling their story.

And what a story it is, one that pulls no punches from the start. We are told--and shown--early on that the young Lisbon sisters, aged 13-17, are not long for this world, as the youngest daughter attempts suicide in the first scene. From there, we learn how the girls were kept tight under the control of their parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods), and how the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) and his friends have obsessed over the Lisbons for decades after their deaths. As a result there's a constant looming sense of dread hanging over each scene, as their story unfolds in a hazy, partially-linear manner that prevents you from fully getting your bearings. You know where you're going to end up, but not how you get there or why.

In this film, Coppola has maintained the narrator and the perspective of the boys who wonder why, but we are allowed into the Lisbon house and get to see the girls on their own and with their parents, and see what their short lives were like in some small way. It doesn't get us any closer to the answers the boys seek. If anything, it just makes the questions linger longer, as it removes more of the possibilities and makes the answers seem harder to find, while also making us care more for them, making the loss hurt a bit more. Thinking out loud as these words come together, what is the point of this film or book? Is it simply a slice of life (or death) and a vehicle for the artistry? It's difficult to pinpoint the traditional elements of narrative. What is the resolution? Is it less a narrative and more a reminder to feel?

Whatever the motivation, The Virgin Suicides presents plenty of options to see some great talent on display, starting with Coppola, who guides a gorgeous, affecting exploration of these characters. Much of it is not exactly straightforward, but there's not an abundance of gimmick filmmaking or style without substance. When she fills the frame with a translucent, winking Lux (Kirsten Dunst) over a ‘70s-van-art worthy sky, it feels like a perfect encapsulation of the character in the eyes of her adoring observers. When she uses time-lapse, it feels right, not jarring. Every decision--and this is a film filled with tons of small, important calls--feels to have been made correctly by Coppola, resulting in a film that comes across as nothing like the work of a first-time feature director. (Of course, working with a veteran DP like Ed Lachman and having frequent Todd Haynes-collaborator James Lyons on board as an editor doesn't hurt either.)

That the cast is outstanding also gave Coppola a leg up on her first time out, starting with the relatively small but important roles of the Lisbon parents. Turner and Woods give their characters an unusual energy that's understandable for their awful situation, while opening them up to criticism and possible blame for their children's fates. Turner in particular is given a tough part to work with, but turns in a tremendous performance as the strict mother looking to do what she can to protect her brood from themselves. Though attempts are made to make the girls all stand out in their own way (namely their iconic intros) it's hard to deny that the quintet is dominated by Hanna Hall's tragic Cecilia and Dunst's magnetic Lux, who just takes over the film whenever she's on-screen, with stunning presence and confidence, thanks to an understanding of the world around her that's well beyond her chronological age and dangerous in comparison to her ability to cope. She's matched in appeal by Josh Hartnett's too-cool-for-anywhere Trip Fontaine, the detonator to the film's powderkeg of emotion. It's a treat to watch great actors get great material to work with and have a gorgeous film coalesce around those ingredients.

The Disc
The Virgin Suicides (spine number 920) arrives on one Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase with a two-sided cover (featuring a moody still from the film on the cover and the memorable title art on the inside) and a fold-out pamphlet. The traditionally minimalist Criterion menu provides the choice to watch the film, select scenes and check out the special features. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English SDH.

The Quality
The 1.66:1, 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer on this release comes from a fresh 4k master off the original 35mm negative and is approved by Coppola. The results are undeniably gorgeous, wonderfully handling all of the distinct looks the film throws at you, from the ethereal fantasy sequences to the cold of the lonely football field. The difference from the now 18-year-old Paramount DVD release is remarkable, not only from a perspective of fine detail and clarity (which makes a massive difference when it comes to the hair and costume work, not to mention the production design) but also in terms of the color. The experience is quite different, and considering color already played such a huge part in establishing the feel of the film, this new version (which--considering Coppola's approval--must be considered the definitive one) is almost a different movie. The saturation and vibrancy of the color is fantastic, and you can gain a new appreciation for the artistry on display, particularly Coppola's blending of techniques and manipulation of aesthetics, That the film has gone through an extensive clean-up, giving us a crisp, clean image, and no digital distractions have been introduced, this release is fantastic.

Though The Virgin Suicides is something of a quiet film (with any number of wordless scenes), the remastered 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track from Criterion delivers in spades, reproducing the film's sound design with success in both the subtle (like the mixing on the whispers of neighbors) to the bold (including the film's outstanding soundtrack of ‘70s hits and Air's mood-drenched score), which makes effective use of the surrounds to gather strength. This is not a punch-in-the-face type of presentation, but an enveloping one that is a vital component of the film experience.

The Extras
The previous DVD offered up a behind-the-scenes featurette courtesy of Sofia Coppola's mother Eleanor (who served a similar documentarian role on her husband's Apocalypse Now.) That piece "Making of The Virgin Suicides" (29:04) makes a return here, giving a peek behind the scenes of the film, with interviews with many of the cast and crew, including Francis Ford himself, who was on hand to mentor his daughter. It's got an interesting perspective, as it chronicles the usual film production bits, like issues with budget and film stock, and discussion over second-unit shooting with Coppola's brother Roman, but it also includes a mother's concern over the exhaustion setting in for the first-time feature filmmaker.

Also carried over is the music video for Air's "Playground Love", directed by Sofia and Roman Coppola. Using footage from the film as a bridge between meta behind-the-scenes moments from the making of the movie, the video follows the journey of Lux's piece of gum, which is apparently alive and singing the beautiful tune. Weird and wonderful.

The rest of the extras--with the exception of a 3:38 two-trailer reel--are new however, starting with the 26:12 "Revisiting The Virgin Suicides", built with interviews with Sofia Coppola, Dunst, Hartnett and DP Ed Lachman. From the reasons why Coppola made the film to the casting of the film and the music, the featurette covers plenty of ground through the participants' reminiscing, and reveals a good amount of trivia, including Roman Coppola's small but important contribution to a key scene and a disagreement over Hartnett's character between the actor and his director.

The author gets his say as well in a 15:31 interview of his own, in which Eugenides talks about how the adaptation came to be, what it was like to work with Coppola, the odd reality that a book with a male perspective has a large teen girl fanbase and what it was like to be on the set.

As they did with their release of Election, which included Alexander Payne's college thesis film, here Criterion has provided Lick the Star (13:58), Coppola's first solo short film from 1998. The story of a clique of middle-school girls with a plot to hurt their male schoolmates, this striking black-and-white short--featuring Zoe Cassavetes and Peter Bogdanovich in small roles-- lays a lot og track that Coppola would later travel on, including the dark tone, the use of music and narration and the focus on a group of young ladies. It falls apart a bit narratively, but the talent is evident.

Also included on this disc is "Strange Magic" (13:13) a piece by Tavi Gevinson, the former kid blogger and founder of the online publication Rookie, in which she reads from the fanzine she created about The Virgin Suicides in 2012, at the age of 15. She talks of adolescence and suicide, and the topics you'd think an introspective 15-year-old would gleam from a film like this, but she does so with upspeak, so approach with caution if that kind of thing makes your brain hurt.

The extras wrap up with the 12-panel fold-out pamphlet, which, along with the disc and movie details, includes an engaging essay by author Megan Abbott, who analyzes the perspective of the film versus the perspective of the book and Coppola's use of imagery..

The Bottom Line
Criterion throws it back to the magical cinematic year of 1999 again, and comes up with another highlight release with Sofia Coppola's debut feature, the heart-wrenching and beautiful The Virgin Suicides. Upending the male gaze before it was mainstream to do so, Coppola adapted Jeffrey Eugenides' wonderful tale of tragic youth into her own complementary vision, proved herself worthy of attention separate from her famous family name and kick-started Kirsten Dunst's emergence from child stardom. Criterion has delivered the film in a shape that befits the importance of the aesthetics to the experience, and supported it with a collection of informative and interesting extras, carrying over the key elements from the previous release. It would be a lie to call The Virgin Suicides a fun watch, but it is certainly entertaining and will stick with you long after you watch it.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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