The American Experience – In All its Enigmatic Misery

#99 – The Virgin Suicides – Sofia Coppola – 1999 (festival) 2000 (theatrical)



A Foreward: Between my last Top 100 review and now, I have seen a number of films theatrically, as well as having watched The Virgin Suicides twice. At the end of each viewing I wrote a review (all of which have been posted) and the only ones that didn’t satisfactorily get my message across were the first two about this film. They both adequately described the technical aspects that make this film a modern classic, but they didn’t capture the spirit of how affecting this film can be. So while this review will be slightly different than my other reviews, it is because this is a special film, and deserves a special interpretive analysis.

Sofia Coppola was known for few things in 1999 aside from being the daughter of, legend Francis Ford Coppola. She had appeared in a few films (mostly associated with her family) including one critically derided performance in The Godfather Part 3. She had also appeared in a few music videos, but nothing of real notice. In ’98 she directed a short film called Lick the Star, which like most short films wasn’t noticed.  Then a little film started around the Festival Circuit in 1999 called The Virgin Suicides.With a name like Coppola attached to it, I’m sure many people thought it was her father who hadn’t had a truly great film since the 70s. But within the first few minutes, it was readily apparent that the hand who crafted The Godfather and Apocalypse Now was not behind this. This was under the hand of an artist all their own, with a brilliant understanding and application of the visual presentation of meaning.

Opening with an image of Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) out on the street in front of her house, she is seen eating a lolly-pop before the scene switching to show the rest of her neighborhood. All of the images shown are outdoors until we see a few bottles of perfume sitting on a night table, and the words of the unseen narrator saying, “Cecelia was the first to go,” hovering over an image of a young girl lying in a bathtub with red tinted water.  All within these first 90 seconds is the message of the film. A community wildly ignorant and infatuated with a group of sisters, doomed to end their lives in tragedy with an unspeakable footprint left on the lives of everyone they have encountered.

*Spoiler Warning After the Jump*

Everything about this film speaks to the impact that teenage fantasy can have on the larger lives of individuals and communities. The music over most of the film sets the setting, but also brings the themes of passionate mysterious romance and self-agency to the forefront (with songs like Crazy About You and Magic Man by Heart and scenes where music is the only expression of control the girls have over their lives).  Our narrator, who represents the group of boys infatuated with the five Lisbon sister’s, talks of the souvenirs they were able to gather after the girls had died and how they are still haunted to the present day. When we’re told of a boy’s (Trip Fontaine portrayed by Josh Harnett) infatuation with Lux specifically, he asks her father about taking her to the Homecoming dance. When her father (played magnificently by James Woods) tells his daughters the good news, the other girls note that they will be “raffled off,” to the other boys. All the attention of the boys is centered on Lux and any perks the other sisters get are completely disingenuous. We then meet Trip years later who still talks of the night he spent with Lux Lisbon and how she drove him crazy (reinforced by his setting being a mental hospital). The other members of the community often give their impression of the Lisbon house, speaking as though it was a hell on earth for the daughters due to the strict control of their parents. This is juxtaposed by Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon who feel it was their forced leniency which led to their daughter’s suicides. Then there are the scenes where reporters come to interview the family about the situation. News reports of an epidemic of teenage suicide, sensationalized by stories of attempts from across the nation. All of these lives, held under the footprint of the lives of the Lisbon Sisters.  

While I am not an American, I would be foolish to not acknowledge the impact of their culture on ours in Canada. The American experience is sensationalism. It is gossip and judgment. It is masculine obsession. It is the fetishization of perfection. And it is wrapped up in its own futility, forcing millions of people to confront its hold over them, all the time. This is what makes The Virgin Suicides a brilliant film. Aside from the beautiful editing, the perfectly placed music, and the brilliant performances; the film captures something universal. It is sad, it is isolation, it is the dream of the West in all its glory and failure, and it is a stunning film.


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