Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides (1999, Sofia Coppola)

A few years prior to the much heralded Lost in Translation, the film director Sofia Coppola is most known for, she created and released her feature length debut, The Virgin Suicides. Transpiring in the often mocked setting of white suburban America, the film is the recollections of a group of young men who were fascinated by the 5 Lisbon girls, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kethleen Turner respectively) who were strict parents to say the least. Devoutly religious and quite protective of their daughters (Cecilia, Bonnie, Therese, Mary and Lux, the latter played by a young Kirsten Dunst), the Lisbons have fearful thoughts about the well being of their daughters once the youngest of them, Cecilia, attempts to commit suicide by slitting her wrists.

When little Cecilia’s second attempt proves far more effective (by jumping from her window and landing on a spiked iron fence), the protective nature of the Lisbons gets into maximum overdrive. The title of the film gives away, partly at least, the reason behind the fascination the four boys (one of which is acting as the narrator for the viewer) have for the Lisbon girls. They die by suicide. They were also eye candy for most of the young bucks at school. They seemed nice enough, despite the stuffy nature of their parents, even after the early demise of their youngest sibling. Why therefore did they choose to die? Our narrator mulls over the stories and anecdotes about the sisters and shares them with us.

There are some great moments in The Virgin Suicides. An evening of animal documentary watching at the Lisbons to which the hunky Trip Fontaine (Josh Harshnett) is invited (in an attempt to impress Lux, the apple of his eye) is quite well set up and funny, as is a scene in which Mrs. Lisbon, out of rage spurred by a recently disobedient Lux, orders her daughter to burn her rock records in the fire, with Dunst crying pitifully things like ‘Please, *sob. Sob* Not KISS!’ An ambiguous party scene near the end of the film featuring the theme of asphyxiation is equally gloomy as it is curious. The evening during which the Lisbon sisters and the four boys call each other and play music records on the phone. There are several more I could mention, but then I’d be spoiling too much of the picture, and so therefore shan’t. I recognized director Coppola’s strengths as a filmmaker, or at least those qualities that I deem to be strengths. Many individual scenes were very well executed, either due to their tone and mood (which consists of an amalgamation of factors), the edits, the camera angles, or even the music. The music is not something I often pay close attention to in a film, and when I do it’s usually the score, but I felt that the musicality of the film worked nicely. It never bordered on sentimentality, which could have easily been the case with such a story involving the downfall of 5 beautiful young sisters. Essentially, there were a lot of individual scenes that I liked quite a bit, plenty of moments that seemed perfectly constructed. Many included tiny bits of dialogue that I felt were quite sharp, either because they helped add some layers to the story and characters or just because they were darn funny (‘I thought you knew morse code…’) Coppola even manages to extract fine performances from actors who, for all intents and purposes, have gone on to be ridiculed for the most part by many audiences later in their careers. I’m speaking here of course of Kirsten Dunst and Josh Harshnett. Harshnett is the high school hunky boy that all the young damsels would love to get their hands on. Even though we don’t get to know him that much, I thought he was fine. Kirsten Dunst as Lux plays the sister the viewer gets to see perhaps the most of. It’s not as if we really understand her completely by the end of the film, but she is more than passable as the cute girl next door wanting to explore things behind her parents’ backs. The shy girl with a darker side to her if you will.

What’s all this about ‘not knowing the characters’ however? That’s the strange thing about Coppola’s debut effort. There is a detachment, for the lack of a better term, that permeates throughout. The film never makes a genuine attempt at exploring who the boys are even though they are the ones sharing this information with us, nor does the movie provide a clear picture of who the girls are and what may be troubling them. This was made all the more peculiar by the fact that several scenes actually take place within the Lisbon household. We do get to spend ‘time’ with these girls and yet by the end, I couldn’t really say that I was all that familiar with them, with the slight exception of Lux, whom we see the most of, although we never really dive into her psyche. By the end, I kept asking myself why was such a decision was made by the director. For such a dramatic occurrence, why keep the audience on the outside looking in? I wondered if the film would have been superior, or more engaging at least, had the focal point been the exploration of these 5 suicidal girls. I soon admitted that that was perhaps a bit pointless exercise since that wasn’t how the film was made anyways.

What struck me eventually was the actual fascination the young boys have with the Lisbons. They are young and impressionable and they have a certain accessibility to the girls since one of the boys is a front door neighbour and invites the others regularly to check up on them via a telescope (funny but a bit creepy). Much like all the other boys at school, they do take a certain liking to these sheltered beauties. They are seemingly unattainable, protected by the conservative iron will of their parents (especially their mother). However, by living close by, they do in fact have a limited access to them and do eventually, through some odd ways, come in contact with them. I’m sure they had their own ideas about the girls, just as we all do about people who we know a little bit but not enough. They eventually fell in love (puppy love) with them and want to know them more. The fact that the girls are heavily guarded makes the chase all the more important to them, it becomes the mean to a hopeful end. With that in mind, I thought about the ultimate and tragic fate of the Lisbon girls, that is, their apparent collective suicide, as well as the setting in which it occurs. Their sheltered teenage lives are restricted by not only by curfews but by the seemingly rigid structure of suburbia. The story is set in the 1970s, new things are emerging, America is changing, long gone are the days of innocence which evaporated with the death of President Kennedy and the fiasco of the Vietnam war (oh wait, I’m sorry, I almost forgot. The U.S. ‘didn’t lose’ that war, zoink!). What I concluded was that The Virgin Suicides was almost a different version of the story found in Revolutionary Road (the novel obviously since the film was released 9 years later). Revolutionary Road invited the reader to witness the deterioration of a couple’s life in suburbia from the inside. What the characters want in their minds and hearts and what their immediate surroundings and social setting expect of them cannot co-exist. They are two pieces of the puzzle that will not fir together. Their neighbours and friends see them as different, as the odd couple out, but we the readers and viewers know what’s happening within those walls. That doesn’t change the fact that the neighbourhood wonders about their behaviour. What the Virgin Suicides does in a sense is twist that a little bit. The Lisbon girls are younger and most likely more immature than the protagonists found in RR, but many of the similarities in their situations remain. A stifling suburban setting that does not encourage, and in fact shuns, specific behaviours that are considered by those who have happily adopted the suburban way of life as at odds with proper living. The twist is that the viewer does not have the privilege of witnessing much of in-house drama. Rather, our information is restrained to what those closest to the girls, outside of their parents, know. In this case, it is the boys who live in front and who have given into an innocent infatuation with them.

So why did they kill themselves? I think that’s the point of the film, or one of the themes of the film. The outsiders looking in and wondering what the heck happened. Suburbia, its concept, its nature and the eventual stereotypes that have derived from it have provided it with an almost mythic quality. There is a structure and certain norms that guide suburban life, or so say the stereotypes (I say stereotypes because I have never lived in a truly suburban setting I therefore can’t comment with absolute certainty). When something against the norm occurs, people take notice. When they happen to as fascinating people as the Lisbons, then people definitely notice. There is also the reality that this story is being retold by one of the boys. Had the story been told during the moment, that is to say, had it unfolded for the first time as the viewer witnesses it, I think it would have led to a different film. What we are left with are the recollections of a young man once obsessed by the Lisbons as a boy. His fascination is only intensified by the girls following their suicide. He’s of the few who, along with his 3 friends, knew the girls to a certain degree and yet he still can’t quite fit all the pieces together to understand what went wrong.

It’s a rather dark film when one thinks about it, and I don’t only mean that regarding the demise of the Lisbon girls. These young lads are probably scarred for life in one way or another. They were much closer to the girls than most (possession of one of their diaries helped needless to say) and therefore probably feel a certain connection to them, a connection that went beyond their puppy love. The success of the premise therefore rests, I presume, on whether or not an audience member is willing to embark on this journey with the boys. Does the audience member mind being on onlooker, an investigator and on the outside looking in as opposed to experiencing the heart of the matter? I suspect some may find themselves left out in the cold by director Coppola. To a certain degree, I did as well until I came up with the nature of the thematic and narrative twist I describe above. I could be completely off target from what Coppola had in fact intended, but I felt it was the best way for me to appreciate the chosen structure of the story because it is true that by the end, the mystery is still very much in the open. We simply haven’t learned enough to make a concrete judgement supported by absolute certainty, even though, yes I do concede it, the film does hint at a possible reason. In fact, one could even argue that it is strongly hinted at, but the juxtaposition of that hint and how the story is told (from an outsider’s point of view) didn’t encourage me to yell some kind of obvious explanation by the end. We never get anything from the horse’s mouth.

All this makes for a peculiar film. The narrative twist is to be admired, but I also felt that that same twist doesn’t invite me to feel very passionately about all of it. A fascinating story is told based on what some kids saw and read years ago. Is no reason not to suppose that their memories of the facts are suspect. I did get a certain vibe of detachment from it all. I think The Virgin Suicides is a film that, stylistically at least, succeeds on several levels. But for such a dramatic story with the potential to be quite gripping, I never felt fully engaged. Although a fine film, I think that I admired how it was made more than what it made me feel, which wasn’t too much. I certainly like it, but, like many of you reading this (if you are still reading this), I think that her sophomore effort, Lost in Translation, is a superior film, even though I won’t jump on the ‘this is a perfect film, how can you even think of criticising it?’ bandwagon. Overall, a pretty good film.

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