I only review Criterion films nowadays when I simply cannot resist. The task has become too vexing for me.
As I mentioned in my review of Criterion’s presentation of Ghost World, writing about a Criterion release, which essentially specializes in the ‘favorite movie’, more often than not entails the challenge of reducing your love for a work bigger than words, into words. A review really shouldn’t dabble into first person and yet how do you discuss an object of affection without the why seeping in - why this film for that person? Are the objects of one’s affection not the very story of a person? In any case, I fail to see the fun in objectivity, as a rule, especially where passion is involved.
If ever a movie is deserving of such an indulgence, it is certainly The Virgin Suicides. Case in point: perhaps the best feature offered in Criterion’s long-awaited indoctrination of Sofia Coppola might just be a fan appreciation piece by Tavi Gevinson, longtime editor of the teenage blog, Rookie. While in high school (2012), Gevinson wrote a sort of love letter/poem/diary entry for The Virgin Suicides in the form of a fanzine, which she entitled Strange Magic.
Now in her early 20s, Gevinson revisits her piece which is an earnest teen reaction to a what I would agree wholeheartedly is a truly magical film. The aptly titled Strange Magic, named after a song that plays in one of the most dazzling prom scenes ever presented, speaks to the film’s spell and the vast array of feelings it inspires in its admirers. I like to think of the film as a sort of spell about a spell.
The night I went to see The Virgin Suicides was almost 18 years ago to the day. It was my 16th birthday - May 7th, 2000 - the Sunday of the film’s opening weekend. I had no idea what to expect from Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut, which she’d crafted at the ripe age of 27. Had I seen the trailer, I would’ve been well prepared for the experience.
It opens with the powerfully hypnotic notes of Air’s Playground Love, giving way to dreamy images interwoven with these words. “There are times when mystery... and beauty... find you... and touch you... haunt you... moments you never forget.... questions you never answer…”. These words perfectly describe and evoke a time in one’s life, marked by moments of profound incomprehensible impact, while also describing the film to a tee. Like a mysterious new love interest, the kind one spends their lives recalling time and again with fading intensity, I fell head over heels with The Virgin Suicides that long ago high school weeknight. I think about it to this day.
Watching The Virgin Suicides for the first time, for me, was like immersing myself entirely in a new and perfectly realized world - it was that feeling cinephiles are in it for, the one that keeps them chasing the dragon for the rest of their lives. In the case of Sofia Coppola’s melancholic opus, it was like falling into a cryptic, beautiful teen dream. I was beguiled, touched, and haunted by every detail of the film - the masterful direction, the hypnotizing score, the cinematography sun-kissing the gorgeous Lisbon sisters led by the bedazzling Kirsten Dunst... things I’d only ever experienced, but not necessarily comprehended in the most unique moments of my short life to date. Like a kid infatuated with a new crush, I went back five days later for another look. It was a film about being in love and I was utterly in love with it.
The Virgin Suicides not only understands the sensation of being in love, from a vast array of angles - Lux Lisbon’s love for Trip, Trip’s for Lux, the communal fetishizing of the sisters, and eventually the public consumption of their demises - but one that evokes it just as strongly as it does that aftermath of teen dreams turned bad; an education in emptiness, the reality of hope unfulfilled.
Never had I felt so connected to a film’s protagonist all the while knowing the degree to which it was also at my expense. But I didn’t care because it was painfully accurate, even if I was only beginning to learn to just what extent. Like the neighbourhood boys, I was desperate to bridge the mysterious gap between me and my own objects of affection. With little else to go on, a love-struck fool can only collect clues, draw conclusions, bet everything on them…
The added level of brilliance in The Virgin Suicides is how this take on obsession extends outwards to the community at large, as the true crime aspect of the story elevates the private sphere of personal drama into the public realm of collective entitlement. The boys’ unintentional objectification of their obsessions is just a closer in proximity version of how the sensationalism of crime plays out for a world audience.
Yet for all the sensationalism of the book/film’s title and the impending tragedy as laid out by the story at its outset, it isn’t the suicides that necessarily resonate as much as the film’s dreamy world shrouded in wistful nostalgia with an erie undertone of impending doom, ultimately repressed in favor of a misplaced hope. It is such a testament to this vibe that the film, which opens with the plain facts of how it all ends, still is able to deliver the impending events with a sense of out-of-the-blue ghastly shock. Despite all evidence pointing to the end, the audience and protagonists simply don’t see it coming.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ book, The Virgin Suicides, begins with the attempted suicide of the youngest Lisbon sister. Cecilia is only thirteen when she’s taken into the emergency ward, where the doctor asks her, “What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Her response: “Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl.”
Like the doctor, The Virgin Suicides, first published in 1993, is written by someone who has never been a 13 year old girl before about four boys who can’t say the same. It’s a visionary first novel from an author whose career would more than live up to the promise of his origins. Yet, in retrospect, what’s even more significant than the introduction of Eugenides’ voice into the literary world is the great success of the book’s cinematic adaptation, which similarly served as a vehicle for another artistic coming-out: that of one of today’s most renowned voices, Sofia Coppola, who unlike The Virgin Suicides up until that point, knew all too well what it was like to be a 13 year old girl.
In a new interview conducted for Criterion’s release of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides last week, Eugenides’ discusses how writing from the first-person perspective of the neighbourhood boys saved him from the burdensome pressures of third person omnipotence for his first crack at the novel. What’s so compelling about Coppola’s adaptation is that it stays very faithful to the book’s perspective while sprinkling in bits of knowing omniscience between the lines.
The Lisbon sisters are seen from afar - obsessed over and contaminated by the narrator’s gaze. But where in the book, these straw grasps are really all we’ll ever know about the girls across the street, which amounts to not much more than the act and feeling of longing itself, in the film, Coppola subtly brings the Lisbon sisters alive with countless little knowing details that may escape the boys, but aren’t necessarily lost on the film’s audience. Not unlike how much of the book’s female readership took to filling in the gaps with bits of themselves; with autobiographical details that would escape the author, further enunciating the entire endeavor.
For the most part, the film sees what it wants to see. What we don’t see is represented by an atmosphere and soundscape so chilling; a void so heartbreaking, it sends chills down the spine of any audience member prone to its spell. Like a work of David Lynch or Peter Weir, Coppola’s exploration into the helplessness of the fixated white knight - protagonists with a hope that lingers long past the point of no return - is an exercise in mystery and evasion of the highest caliber. In her first outing, Coppola joins the ranks of artists concerned, possibly even obsessed, with the veil - the insurmountable gap between our hearts and our objects of obsession; the holes in our comprehension big enough to let the big picture slip through our fingers; that essential everything forever lost in translation.
For the cover art of his first book, Eugenides chose to present a veil of blonde hair. His Lisbon sisters are interchangeable; a single four-headed entity of sorts, whose parts are never granted individuality. For all the observations made of them by an entire community, they are never seen, not really. It was up to the female reader alone to fill in the gaps of the material.
Partly out of the new medium’s necessity and partly due to the film’s visionary director, the Lisbons of Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides are five distinct characters, united by a familial grace and beauty. “No one could understand how Mrs. Lisbon and Mr. Lisbon, our math teacher, had produced such beautiful creatures.”. Rarely has an adaptation boasted such a faithful cast of players, from the achingly tragic performances from the parents, James Woods and Kathleen Turner, to the sisters Lisbon: Cecelia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese, the charge led by the strikingly impressive child actor Kirsten Dunst, who’s coming-of age was in progress while on set. Each young actress makes their Lisbon character pop in uniquely radiant ways, all the while balancing the added layer of portraying the hypnotic projections of our young narrators.
In short, The Virgin Suicides remains an intoxicating film for a seasoned filmmaker, let alone the debut of a master. That said, I’m certain her young age only strengthened the artist while translating the Lisbon story. And now it’s been twenty years since Coppola began production on her first feature and The Criterion Collection has finally justly invited the beloved work into the ‘favourite film club’, adorning it with all good things that come with the Criterion seal of approval.
The supplements are full of heady goodness, as is to be expected from The Collection. There are about 40 priceless minutes of new interviews with Coppola, Lachman, actors Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett, and author Jeffrey Eugenides, recalling the charmed production with a deep nostalgic fondness.
The disc also features the music video for Air’s Playground Love, the standout song from the film’s pivotal soundtrack, so entwined in the spirit of the entire endeavor. Without Air’s melancholic undercurrent, the viewer might forget entirely the film is anything but a wistful telling of fargone teenage dreams. With it, the nostalgia-soaked film feels modern, viewed in the retrospect of its obsessed-to-this-day narrators. The music video, co-directed by Sofia and her brother Roman, who also did second unit photography on the film, is maybe the best soundtrack/film tie-in ever produced.
The Making of “The Virgin Suicides” is a 1998 documentary directed by Eleanor Coppola and featuring Sofia Coppola, Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola, actors Dunst, Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Kathleen Turner, and James Woods, Eugenides, and more. This gem of a behind the scenes doc - more like a home movie - is a carry over form Paramount’s initial DVD release, but that’s okay. Given the familial aspect of a making-of doc directed by mom (monk-like director of Hearts of Darkness), featuring dad (Kurtz-like director of Apocalypse Now), is far more intimate thus staggeringly better than your average featurette.
Lick the Star is a 1998 short film by Coppola. I’d call it a far cooler, pre-Mean Girls look at social order in junior high and one can certainly see visual traces that would follow into The Virgin Suicides, not to mention themes that have popped up throughout her entire career. One could see Lick the Star as a proto-Bling Ring. Another could make a case for Coppola’s infatuation with poison, as “lick the star” backwards is “kill the rats”. Perhaps this interest in Flowers in the Attic carried over into The Beguiled. On that note, is The Beguiled about the Confederate Lisbon sisters?
As per custom, the package is capped off with a beautifully worded, thought provoking essay by novelist, Megan Abbott, called, They Didn’t Hear Us Calling. There are enough goodies in this single disc to keep you mulling over the film in all its sunkissed splendor, digging deeper and deeper into the mystery as it grows further away with time.
For all of my many revisitations into the film, I'd never actually read Jeffrey Eugenides’ book. I’m always reluctant to see a beloved book adaptation, but this marked the rare case that I’d avoided the book out of fear for tainting the film. What’s even funnier, is that lately, I’ve noticed a component of fans obsessed with Air’s soundtrack who spent their lives avoiding the film out of fear of destroying their personal conjurings of the album. All this to say, The Virgin Suicide in its three mediums, is an enchanting collaboration of voices and visions; they truly are three colors of the same collective dream.
I’ve now very much enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides debut novel. In terms of getting more detail, a wider sense of the Lisbon mystery, I can’t say the book added much to the picture. In fact, it’s amazing how comfortable the two works seem to exist together and compliment one another. I did learn one crucial tidbit pertaining to the origin of the works’ title and I may as well conclude with the hot lead:
“Ms. Perl befriended a local deejay and spent an entire night listening to the records that Lux's schoolmates listed among her favorites. From this "research," she came up with the find she was most proud of: a song by the band Cruel Crux, entitled "Virgin Suicide." The chorus follows, though neither Ms. Perl nor we have been able to determine if the album was among those Mrs. Lisbon forced Lux to burn:
“Virgin suicide, What was that she cried? No use in stayin' On this holocaust ride, She gave me her cherry, She's my virgin suicide…”
The song certainly ties in nicely with the notion that a dark force beset the girls, some monolithic evil we weren't responsible for. Their behavior, however, was anything but monolithic.”
From the film, we know that Lux is anything but a virgin. Earlier on the night that she gives herself to the unworthy Trip Fontaine, one of the fellow jocks lucky enough to accompany a Lisbon to the dance, pokes a ring of cigarette smoke and crudely remarks, “Don’t let it die a virgin.” This is noteworthy to be sure, but far more so is the fact that the Lisbons took to leaving Virgin Mary cards on the boys’ bicycles.
In the end, these leads are no more enlightening than the song by “Cruel Crux” and whether any one indication actually indicated anything at all is really of no relevance since no one will ever know anything anyway. “The Virgin Suicides” amounts to an empty clue, a question long ago piqued, that will forever go unanswered, yet never cease to persist in being asked.
An emblem of a golden period full of ethereal promise stained by the inexplicable horror of unfathomable sadness, and the communal loss of innocence it signalled. With her masterfully-toned directorial debut, Coppola artfully provides an underlying truth hidden under the veil, where amidst a universe seen through sun-tinted glasses, the truth lingers in the air.