Cream corn and pizza, a record, a journal, a letter: fragments of a life lived. These are the pieces with which a set of young boys are left to put the Lisbon girls, five young women who inexplicably take their own lives, together again. Only they can’t. No one can. The Lisbon girls are dead and there’s no coming back from that.
Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) — a relatively faithful film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s original book — tackles the subject of idealisation and desire, and more importantly what happens to that desire if it remains in the imagination for all time, just like the girls who went to be alone. For the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) his own desire for the Lisbon girls, who left so abruptly, leaving only questions for which no answers can ever be found, has remained potent for over 25 years. Within Coppola’s filmic vision, a dreamy sun-soaked bubble, part fact, part fantasy, fleshed out like an old memory come to life, the most mundane trivial pieces in the puzzle take on a magical quality because of that desire. But whose desire is it? Does it belong to the Lisbon girls? Five young women coming of age (who span age ranges from 13-17), flooded with their own romantic notions surrounding the subject of love and death, but locked down in an oppressive environment by overprotective religious parents. Is this their desire we experience? Or how about the group of young boys, who are hardly given names, but play such an important part in the story, because they are the ones allowed to present the narrative. Is it theirs? The answer: neither and both. The Virgin Suicides is a sublime exercise in the art of storytelling. The boys may get to tell the story, but the details and facts are controlled by the girls who leave the clues in the first place.
To the boys, the girls are a mystery, wise, mature, and unreachable. “We learned that they knew everything about us, and yet we couldn’t fathom them at all”. So it is that desire is summoned from the most mundane details, like the mysteries of a girl’s bathroom, filled with nail varnish and tampons, because these are the only things that are left behind. It is found in the pages of a dead girl’s journal packed with glib observations on people in the neighbourhood and facts about trees. And it flows from the subtext hidden in pop songs and awkward conversations, whilst the eagle eyes of a parental chaperone look on. It is idealistic and will always remain so, because the Lisbon girls are dead, which is exactly the way they want it. The fact they make sure the boys will be there when it happens, only cements the idea that they are in some way in control of how, and by whom, their story is told.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film when it comes to the idea of desire is the sexualisation of 14 year old Lux (Kirsten Dunst). Lux, even at this tender age, is clearly aware, on some level at least, of the power her burgeoning sexuality has on the young men who surround her. She is able to control her own narrative, and the way in which she is perceived, by the mixed signals she sends out to boys. For instance, she initially drives Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) crazy by ignoring him and making him feel insignificant. It’s a tricky subject that many filmmakers and artists steer well clear of. To admit that a 14 year old girl is even capable of sexual feelings, and can own a sense of agency in this department, is a delicate area. Yet, Lux is never portrayed as a victim. Part of the reason for this is the way in which she is experienced by the boys, confident, in charge, forward when it comes to making sexual advances. However, even through the scrutiny of the male gaze, where she takes on the life of a siren or goddess figure, one must never forget, that gaze is subverted, through the lens of a female filmmaker.
It is the first Lisbon sister to kill herself, Celia (Hanna R. Hall), who says at the beginning of the story, “you’ve obviously never been a 13 year old girl”. But filmmaker Coppola has, and is well aware of the romantic fantasies that exist within their minds, making good use of them. That she is able to convey this, most strongly through the character is Lux, is part of what makes The Virgin Suicides so unique. Lux is allowed to make her own choices, and her own mistakes. And in this, the story makes a strong case for not victimising young women. In trying to protect Lux, hide her from the world where she may be tempted into sin and vice, or have her heart broken by young men like Trip, who leave her on the football field, alone, no longer a virgin, her parents only make her more determined to find freedom. Just like a trapped animal may chew off its own foot to escape from a trap, Lux, and her sisters, choose death when the travel brochure they live through no longer provides the freedom they clearly crave so much.
The Virgin Suicides further unravels the complexity of desire in exploring the conflict between idealisation and reality. For the narrator and his friends idealisation occurs through the mystery of the Lisbon girls because they are unreachable. The boys are shown to fill in the gaps with fantasies, such as imagining they are the ones to save them, envisioning an escape as they drive away with the girls, full of joy, their hair blowing in the wind, finally free. Memory is mixed with dreams, reality is blurred, as fact and fiction are constantly rewritten through subjective experience. Within this context, Coppola carefully navigates both sides of the reality/dream divide, showing, on one hand, idealisation in the form of a pure innocent love, which has never been ruined by the drab details of reality, and on the other, the grim consequences of getting too carried away with that dream and the damage it causes. It is a stark contrast, and part of what makes the film so compelling and tragic.
As Edgar Allan Poe proposed, in his essay The Philosophy of Composition, “The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”.The Virgin Suicides takes this idea and magnifies it times five. As a result it reaches sublime levels of poetry, in conveying an innocent understanding of love and death, both through the narrator’s inner musings and the clues the Lisbon girls leave behind. And while the film fully explores fantasised pure elements of these themes, it also subtly, and cruelly, stabs through the dreamy facade by allowing ugly reality to punch through at key moments. For example, after Celia’s suicide where she is impaled on railings, a garden sprinkler erupts, thus showing that life goes on without her, while her mother and sisters scream at the horror from the sanctuary of their porch. These subtle, and not so subtle, touches ruin the romantic notions of death at play, even when the narrator continues his attempt at building an illusion that says otherwise. During the final act, when dream and reality become mixed, Coppola effectively blends the boy’s fantasy about escaping with the Lisbon sisters, with images of a hanged girl’s feet in a dark basement, and another suffocated in the oven. And even Lux’s own romantic ideal of a perfect love with Trip Fontaine is ripped apart when the reality of waking up on cold playing field, alone, having been abandoned, shatters her fantasy version.
The film ends on a monologue adapted almost word for word from the book:
“It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling. They still do not hear us, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
As death stops time, what is left is a sense of desire that can never be satiated, no matter how many clues are raked over, re-evaluated, examined. The Lisbon girls and the boys who loved them will forever be locked in an idealised snapshot of what could have been. Through this exists a perpetual cycle of innocence lost, and innocence regained, as the narrative continues to reinvent itself, and the mists of time further blur the lines between fact and fiction. It is here where the aspect of desire can be found in both its purest most sublime, and painfully tragic, forms, for an eternity. And it is here that The Virgin Suicides becomes one of the most poetic odes to suicide and unrequited desire ever committed to celluloid.
The Virgin Suicides is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in a director-approved gorgeous new transfer. The specifications are as follows:
- New 4K digital restoration, supervised by cinematographer Ed Lachman and approved by director Sofia Coppola, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
- New interviews with Coppola, Lachman, actors Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett, author Jeffrey Eugenides, and writer Tavi Gevinson.
- Making of “The Virgin Suicides,” a 1998 documentary directed by Eleanor Coppola and featuring Sofia Coppola; Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola; actors Dunst, Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Kathleen Turner, and James Woods; Eugenides; and more.
- Lick the Star, a 1998 short film by Coppola.
- Music video for Air’s soundtrack song “Playground Love,” directed by Coppola and her brother Roman Coppola.
- Trailers, plus an essay by novelist Megan Abbott.