***/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C+
starring James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett
screenplay by Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
directed by Sofia Coppola
by Bill Chambers The Virgin Suicides is perverse, but I don't mean dirty. Everything about it is a little bit lopsided--James Woods, of all people, is cast as a henpecked husband, for instance. But its director, Sofia Coppola, doesn't play it as pop kink; instead, she strives for the reverie quality of David Lynch at his most suburban, which makes everything that's in principle out of the ordinary seem in tune, even unexotic. Watching The Virgin Suicides, a fractured nostalgia piece, is like trying to deduce the story of someone's life from a box of snapshots. It's wispy yet substantial (let's call it ethereal), and it stumbles upon a few great images and many more lasting ones.
Narrator Giovanni Ribisi is almost the disembodied equivalent of Citizen Kane's investigative reporter, determined to unravel not the circumstances surrounding but the significance of five fair-haired teenage sisters all killing themselves. Unlike Kane's Thompson, the (unnamed, as with most of The Virgin Suicides' male characters) Ribisi character knew them--not well, no one did--and grew up in their neighbourhood, thus he has spent a lifetime, as opposed to a couple of weeks, reflecting on their collective demise. (Ultimately, why the overprotected Lisbon siblings killed themselves is not some Agatha Christie mystery; the narrator is soothing his survivor's guilt by feigning inquest.) An indelible opening sequence introduces Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna R. Hall), the youngest sister and the earliest to die. She has just slit her wrists but survived this first suicide attempt, and when a doctor lectures her in earnest, she looks him deadeye. "Obviously," she says, "you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl."
From there, we meet the others, played by Chelse Swain, A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman, and Kirsten Dunst. Too vulnerably packaged to be able to wriggle out from under their pious mother's thumb, their names are almost inconsequential, as they essentially comprise a single vision of angelic grace, cursed with a kind of perfection not only that they can't live up to, but that is fundamentally dehumanizing. They're boxed into a Breck shampoo commercial while everyone around them experiences the other 1970s. Coppola stresses the designation of Dunst's alter ego, Lux, and that's appropriate: It is Lux who glows brightest. It is Lux the boys across the street spy on in the wee hours, as though she were the light in the Lisbons' window at night, a beacon sending out lonely S.O.S. signals. When Lux is shamed, as when her heart is broken by callous junior gigolo Trip Fontaine (a well-cast Josh Hartnett), or when her devout mother (Kathleen Turner) forces her to set her collection of rock 'n' roll records ablaze, the neighbourhood literally goes dark.
Coppola is a romanticist like her father, Francis Ford Coppola, though he traffics in a kind of heavyhanded, bodice-ripping lushness where her approach is more lyrical. All the same, The Virgin Suicides feels like it's satisfying a curiosity rather than a need, and hardly seems like the herald of a new cinematic lifeforce. As for the film's dreaminess, it ultimately undermines a penetrating analysis. (Fitting that Coppola chose the French band Air to score the picture.) Its beauty, like that of the Lisbon sisters, is incontrovertible, but one wants to say merely. Obviously, though, I've never been a thirteen-year-old girl.
Paramount's DVD release of The Virgin Suicides preserves the filtered autumn delicacy of Ed Lachman's cinematography. He and Coppola forge a convincing period atmosphere that matches, at times, those gauzy coming-of-age flicks of the Seventies. The transfer is letterboxed at 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, although it rarely identifies itself as such, except during a homecoming sequence. Air's selections, too, are noteworthy for their delocalization--the instruments sound as if they're emanating from the centre of the room. Extras include: a halting 23-minute video diary of the production shot by Coppola's mother Eleanor (acclaimed author of Notes) that Sofia recently admitted in an interview probably won't appeal to many people outside her family; the bizarre clip for Air's "Playground Love" (chewing gum stands in for the lead singer!); The Virgin Suicides' theatrical trailer; and a nice photo gallery that gives the impression of a yearbook.
95 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; English subtitles; DVD-5; Region One; Paramount