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There is a pivotal scene in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), where 14-year old protagonist Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) awakens from her post-coital slumber, having been abandoned by her lover on the high school’s football field. Caught between the sluggish state of somnambulance and the disorientation of gaining consciousness, she blinks into the blue light of the unwelcoming morning, and locates her corsage and shoes. She smoothens down her billowy homecoming dress and moves meekly off-screen, in a high-angle long shot that frames her as a miniscule blip amongst the chilly, empty expanse of grass. It is at this crucial moment in the narrative when the audience understands that the unfortunate lives of the Lisbon girls have already begun to unravel.
It is clear to see why. Sofia Coppola’s feature-length debut set in 1970s Detroit, Michigan, focuses on the conservative Catholic family of Mr. (James Woods) and Mrs. (Kathleen Turner) Lisbon and their five adolescent daughters. Amongst the neat, kempt rows of suburban gardens, where the sound of sprinklers and crickets hum through the sweltering heat, the elderly tend to their lawns, and Stepford wives idly walk their dogs, Coppola situates the Lisbon family in the full view of the public eye; visible to, and therefore entirely subject to societal scrutiny in the form of small-town gossip. The claustrophobically strict upbringing of the Lisbon daughters — Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Therese (17) — means that they are perpetually held at a distance from ‘normal’ social interactions. They are detached and shrouded in mystery. The local gang of neighbourhood boys can only watch from afar, transfixed in a dreamlike state as they catch fleeting snippets of the Lisbon girls exiting from their car into their elusive home. Coppola fosters an enigmatic, almost mythological air around the sisters, with their girlish blonde hair and coquettish charm, and this is certainly aided by the Greek chorus-esque narration of the neighbourhood boys — for the boys act as nameless points of contact between the Lisbon girls and the audience. In chronicling the tragedy of the Lisbons in this way, The Virgin Suicides enters into the phantasmagoric territory of wistful, adolescent longing.
From the opening sequence, the rosy-comfort of American suburbia is derailed by Cecilia’s first attempted suicide. The transition in cinematography is abrupt too — from the summery sepia tones of the street, the audience is thrust into the cool, ghostly blue tint of the Lisbon bathroom, where Cecilia (Hanna Hall) floats lifelessly in the tub. This use of sudden aesthetic change, oscillating between a sunny, golden-hued palette to a moody, blue-soaked filter, often punctuates the language of Coppola’s film, to signify a change in physical space and therefore, a transition in internal emotional state. The delicate balance between the exteriority and interiority of the lives of the Lisbon girls casts an omnipresent, unpredictable shadow over their encounters with the outside world. ‘What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets,’ a doctor questions Cecilia during her hospital recovery. She responds, ‘Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year-old girl’.
In the fortnight following Cecilia’s first attempt, the town is rife with speculations and fabrications concerning the youngest Lisbon daughter. Reacting to the news, neighbours peep from behind shutters, either whispering in hushed tones into their corded telephones, or they scandalously swap brazen statements; ‘That girl didn’t want to die, she just wanted out of that house’, or ‘She wanted out of that decorating scheme’. What becomes obvious to the audience is the degree of suffocation that is tethered to this particular way of life, ever present through the institution of the Catholic church — as the watchful eyes of Mrs. Lisbon, whose crucifix is perpetually displayed atop her ascetic clothing — and the fallacy of utopic suburbia. It is this same blanketing effect of quiet suffocation that drives Cecilia to re-attempt, and follow through with her suicide on the evening of her own party (which her parents had organised at the suggestion of the family psychiatrist). Cecilia Lisbon, who has only worn one frilly white dress in the film so far, is immortalised as a 13 year-old girl, a ghostly mirage forever perched on the branches of her favourite tree outside the family home. She is the first victim of psychological trauma in a line of many; the tragic manifestation of extreme struggle, self-violence, and finality. Conversation following her death becomes stifled, pained, and immobile, as the Lisbon family descends into a deeper layer of enclosure.
Much of how Coppola conjures her enchanting universe of teenage melancholy and angst, is informed by the film’s original score that was composed and performed by the French electronic band Air. With pulsing synths that spiral into hypnotic, and often eerie melodies, the music of The Virgin Suicides captures the mysteries and ennui of adolescence — from the dense, oneiric overture of ‘Playground Love’ that bleeds into a trance-inducing, rhythmic ‘Clouds Up’, each track delves through the sun-soaked filters of American suburbia into the familiar territory of daydreams and nightmares. In addition to Air’s contribution, the inclusion of popular 70’s hits, such as ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by The Hollies and Heart’s ‘Magic Man’ and ‘Crazy On You’ lends the period film an authenticity that feels simultaneously timeless, capable of resonating with adolescents of today. An example of the use of songs to convey emotional communication is in the scene where, towards the end of the film, the neighbourhood boys attempt to contact the Lisbon girls — who are chastised in lockdown, following Lux’s failure to make curfew from the night of their homecoming. The absence of dialogue, fused with a split-screen showing the emotions flicker across the faces of the boys and girls, means that the diegetic music fills the void of what is left unsaid — everything and nothing at the same time. As the tunes of ‘Hello It’s Me’ by Todd Rundgren, ‘Alone Again’ by Gilbert O’Sullivan, and ‘Run to Me’ by the Bee Gees fade into each other, the film’s cinematography crafts a pensive montage that reflects on the teenagers’ forlorn anxieties.
The depiction of navigating through girlhood is also demonstrated through Coppola’s attention to detail in her approach to mise-en-scène. Her dreamy, flower-child aesthetic, which has been recreated extensively since the film’s release, is solidified through the use of dainty costume and nostalgic set design. The Lisbon girls are almost always seen in soft pastel-hues or white; in delicate dresses or prairie-style blouses, which bestows an ethereal, Elysian quality to their enigma. When they are not donning their school uniform, the girls appear in the film as unattainable, celestial beings. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sequence where the boys read from Cecilia’s salvaged diary and they envision the girls frolicking in the sun-streaked fields; Lux dances with a flower wreath in her hair, Cecilia sits and writes in the grass, Mary waves a sparkler in the air, Bonnie wishes on a dandelion, and Therese grins from a tree swing. The summery montage is awash with super-imposed images of the mythological unicorn, handwritten pages from Cecilia’s diary, and the golden hour outdoors. The boys’ narration summarises the ineffable allure of the Lisbon sisters: ‘We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colours went together… We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.’
Many of the close-ups of the girls’ decorative trinkets and personal items serve to illustrate the mystery of the female sex. In an early portion of the film, Mr. Lisbon — who is a maths professor at the high school — invites one of his male students to have dinner with the family one evening. Nestled between the giggling girls, the boy is clearly uncomfortable and stammers his small talk as Lux sneaks furtive glances at him. He makes his way to the bathroom where he explores the girls’ intimate relics; he squeezes a vintage perfume bottle and feels through vials of nail polish. He opens a panty hose-draped cabinet, which is filled with tampons, mystifying him even further. Finally, he opens a lipstick tube, closes his eyes, and deeply inhales its used scent whilst a dazzling vision of Lux appears in his reverie. It is a discreet act akin to masturbation, which reflects on the film’s overarching theme of desire and sexual awareness. Lux’s intense tryst with the school’s heart-throb Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) calls to the dizzying headiness of first love usually experienced in adolescence, where lust and rationality often fail to coexist. Lux’s awareness of her sexual precocity and magnetism echoes the way in which teenage girls have been depicted as nymph-esque in culture, such as Dolores Haze who appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film adaptations of the same name. It is hard to fathom that there is only a year’s difference in the ages of Lux and Cecilia — the youngest whose languid apathy renders her nihilistic and emotionless. Following her abandonment by Trip on the school field, and the drastic punishment by her parents, Lux does what adolescents tend to do, and rebels; responding in a retaliatory slew of clandestine liaisons with random men on her roof. The neighbourhood boys watch her nightly dalliances through a telescope and binoculars from their rooms, as fascinated voyeurs to a mystery they cannot unlock.
Essentially, the audience collectively participates as voyeurs too. After the remaining Lisbon girls take their lives and their body bags are wheeled out of the house by coroners, neighbours fill the periphery of the screen as onlookers. The camera is positioned amongst the backs of anonymous heads, so that it becomes a bystander to the tragedy. The distance between the audience and the Lisbon girls materialises once more, and the dissociation is framed through a montage of news reports that bleed into one another. The Virgin Suicides becomes a portrait of the aftermath of memory and legacy, as the boys struggle to find solace from the deaths of the sisters: ‘So much has been said about the girls over the years. But we have never found an answer. 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 them from out of those rooms, where they went to be alone for all time, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.’
In the nearly 20 years since the film was released, while Sofia Coppola has released an abundance of distinct works that have cemented her directorial status as an auteur, none have really rivalled or captured the emotional resonance of The Virgin Suicides in quite the same way, with its curated aesthetic and deep-seated understanding of the adolescent condition. The Virgin Suicides remains a cryptic enigma.
You can view The Virgin Suicides on Criterion here.
By Liz Hew
Liz is an English Literature student at King’s College London, and currently resides with her boyfriend, and tabby named Luna. She has written for gal-dem, Ravishly, Into the Fold, and Her Campus. Her interests include feminist, queer, and critical race theories, medieval studies, pop-culture and the esoteric. She is also inextricably obsessed with Russian literature, cats, 90’s shoegaze, and collecting stuff she doesn’t need. Her favourite films include Ratatouille, My Neighbour Totoro, Call Me By Your Name, The Dreamers, Les Quatre Cents Coups, and Roman Holiday. You can find her on Twitter as @_lizhew, and on Instagram as @lizhew.