The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)

29Mar11

Kirsten Dunst (Lux), Josh Hartnett (Trip Fontaine), Kathleen Turner (Mrs. Lisbon), James Woods (Ronald Lisbon). Screenplay by Sofia Coppola. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Rating: 15. Running time: 97 minutes.

Sofia Coppola’s debut film is an odd little piece; a mixture of teenage sexuality and mysterious motives set within 70s American suburbia. We watch the five Lisbon sisters largely from the outside, informed early on of their eventual suicides by the besotted boys across the street who play the film’s reflective narrators. This move, apparently following the novel, is a wise one. There’s little point in trying to rationalise the inexplicable. Mrs. Lisbon may be a totalitarian, conservative mother, but a film making the suicide pact of teenage sisters its focal point should never go any further in trying to pinpoint causation, unless it’s desperate to disappoint. Their choices remain an enigma to us as much as their characters entrance and confuse their infatuated young neighbours.

The only exception is the seductive and slightly more knowable Lux, played by Kirsten Dunst. She’s the only one to shake off her familial shackles, making love to fellow schoolmates and smoking marijuana in the remaining days of her short life. If there’s anything near a plot line in The Virgin Suicides, it’s her rebellion, but it’s bewildering how this aspect both does and does not work. In one respect it feels merely of sitcom standard in its ultra-soft portrayal of adolescent romance, but simultaneously it somehow fits the film’s feel strangely well.

And that feel is remarkably coherent. The film’s themes, colour palette and soundtrack are weaved extremely well together. But The Virgin Suicides also sits with a synopsis that should compel almost-certain hatred of its apparent soppiness. Yet it somehow lingers along the borderline of cliché without ever crossing it. It’s a fine first effort from a director that, as you well know, went on to make one of the best films of the next decade.

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