Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Michael Pare, Scott Glenn, Danny DeVito, A.J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman, Chelse Swain
Written by: Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
MPAA Rating: R for strong thematic elements involving teens
Running Time: 97
Date: 05/19/1999

The Virgin Suicides (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Mystery of Girls

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Let's face it. Sofia Coppola has a lot of ground to make up as far as a directorial debut is concerned. She's not starting from ground zero like most filmmakers. Her performance in her father Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part III (1990) spawned an army of nay-sayers and bitter criticism. I, on the other hand, loved that film and thought her performance reflected the naivete of her character. So perhaps I'm starting from a better place than most people. But I think The Virgin Suicides, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is a wonderful film.

Adapted by Coppola, The Virgin Suicides is based on the book by Jeffrey Eugenides about five lovely and mysterious blonde girls in the suburbs in the 1970's. One by one, they commit suicide over the course of a year. The story is told from the point of view of the five boys who become obsessed with them and never get over it.

The five boys are given a single voice in the film by Giovanni Ribisi, who nails the proper melancholy and wistful tone that the text deserves. Kirsten Dunst stars as the central sister, Lux Lisbon. James Woods plays the slightly lost and emotionally wasted father, and Kathleen Turner the slightly wild-eyed, overzealous mother.

The story unfolds like any other high school story. There are nights of sneaking around, deceptions, and parties -- all of which are designed to try to get girls together with boys despite the objections of the parents. Sometimes things go wrong. Lux dates the school hunk, appropriately named Trip Fontaine (didn't every school have someone like that?), and played by newcomer Josh Hartnett. Trip, who can have any girl in school, is hopelessly devoted to Lux, and Lux couldn't care less. After getting caught on a particularly heinous violation, Mrs. Lisbon puts the girls under house arrest, never to see the light of day again.

This story could have evolved into a black comedy like Heathers (1989), but it cares too much about the five girls. They're not seen as sad or sorry cases. They're seen as lovely angels who waited for their chance to fly and realized it wasn't coming. It's a heartbreaking and mysterious movie, but not without its moments of humor. The humor is just not directed at the girls.

The details make The Virgin Suicides work. The tree in front of the Lisbon house contracts Dutch Elm disease, and the girls surround it with a death grip when construction workers come to take it down. By the end of the film, all the trees on the block have been flagged--the act of the one affects them all. Coppola directs these scenes and others with a dreamy observance, like a hazy memory -- not at all realistic. Moviegoers who sneered at Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) for its lack of "realism" had probably better stay way from this film as well.

Coppola also wrings brilliant performances from her cast, especially Woods, whose big scene comes after the death of his first daughter when a priest comes to visit. He's found drinking beer from a can and watching a football game, but the lifelessness in his eyes, hands, and face say that he's barely still with us at all. Turner is also excellent, as the mother who could have been over-the-top tyrannical, but instead carries it with a dignity and a personal weight that makes it seem real. Bonus points for the casting of Michael Pare as the older Trip Fontaine, telling his side of the story from a rehab center.

The true magic of this movie comes from the fact that its a high school story. At no other time were girls so mysterious and beautiful that we could pin all our hopes and desires on them. The movie gets at the core of the heightened emotions of high schoolers, who, like baby snakes, haven't yet learned to hold back some of their venom when they bite. Coppola gets the credit for the wonderful job she's done here, and it makes up for any negative thoughts that people may have had about her abilities. The Virgin Suicides marks the strongest directorial debut of the year.

In 2018, the Criterion Collection added this worthy movie to its library. As usual, the visual and aural work here is truly sublime. The disc includes a 26-minute featurette featuring brand-new interviews with Coppola, Dunst, and other members of the cast and crew. There's a separate interview with author Eugenides (15 minutes), and writer Tavi Gevinson provides her own take on the movie (13 minutes). The original making-of featurette by Eleanor Coppola (23 minutes) is, happily, here, as is Roman Coppola's music video for Air's "Playground Love" and Sofia Coppola's wonderful 1998 short film, Lick the Star. We also get a trailer, and a liner notes essay by novelist Megan Abbott. All in all, this strikes me as an essential item, worth treasuring.

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