The Virgin Suicides (1999) Sofia Coppola
In The Virgin Suicides, the brief lives of five sisters are examined from the perspective of a group of worshipful neighborhood boys. The story itself is more about the frustration the men feel reflecting back on their childhood that they were unable to unlock the mystery of why these young women would end their own lives. Visually, the film is hazy, muted colors create a seamless connection between the girls themselves and their subdued home environment where they spend much of their time. The audience is left to wonder about the actual substance of the girls, for the boys, the lack of which seems only to add to their allure.
On its surface, the story seems to be about the lives of the girls, rather than an unreliable telling of their experiences through the lens of neighborhood boys, who have romanticized them to an extreme. The narrative voice over tells the story with wonder and amazement, “No one could understand how Mr. Lisbon and Mrs. Lisbon…could produce such beautiful creatures.” Immediately, the girls are set up as slightly unreal, coming into sight one after the other, sunlight glistening on their blonde hair. Each of the girls successfully embodies a particular beauty ideal of the 1970s.
Visual elements serve as reminders that this story is not intended to reveal the inner lives of the Lisbon girls, but to support the male narrator’s recollection of their adolescent fascination with them. As the boys pour over Celia’s diary, looking for clues to explain her tragic suicide, a montage reminiscent of a shampoo advertisement of the day displays the girls lounging in a field of flowers, light again, glimmering off of their hair. They smile and jump and play as if they have not a care in the world. Later, the boys place the girls in a vacation sequence in which they appear, content and perfectly beautiful. The narrator remarks, “We knew that they knew everything about us, and that we couldn’t fathom them at all.” The Lisbon girls are again set up as wholly different beings, impossible for mere boys to understand. The underlying confusion seems to be that due to their utter desirability, surely they must be happy? For whatever else might a young woman want?
What little is revealed about their inner selves suggests that they suffer exceedingly sheltered lives, and that their perceived options are limited. Lux, who is the most fully developed character, expresses herself primarily through her sexuality. She seems to find little joy in it, however, and is harshly punished for stepping out of line. Her character seems the most alive upon first attracting the attentions of Trip, “you are a stone fox,” and leading up to and attending the big dance. While the family unit suffocates them in a number of ways, the outside world suffocates them as well, imposing a myriad of expectations upon them as “beautiful creatures.”
The audience is left to wonder, with these flatly depicted and tragic characters, if the reality of their lives was in fact more complicated than these boys are able to grasp. In this way, Coppola says something subtle and interesting about gender. The young boys’ fascination with the girls and utter inability to comprehend them changes not a bit between the adolescence which is depicted onscreen and the representation of adulthood which is conveyed through the narration.