Suffocated by Isolation: Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides
Every once in awhile, (and I mean, a great while) a movie will come along that I can just feel in my entire body as it goes along. You know what I’m talking about? As I’m watching the movie, my chest gets a sort of ache. It’s the kind of movie where, at some point, you catch yourself thinking, “I fucking love this so much.” As I said, it doesn’t happen often; as I type this I can only come up with Deep Red, Le Samourai, Apocalypse Now, Velvet Goldmine, Fight Club, Miller’s Crossing, LA Confidential, and PTA’s Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. I felt those movies. Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides can also be added to that list.
Based on the most excellent book by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is the story of the five Lisbon sisters, Therese (17), Mary (16), Bonnie (15), Lux (14), and Cecilia (13). Their parents, Ronald (James Woods) and Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), are very strict Catholics who keep their daughters on such a tight leash, it’s to the point of suffocation. The Lisbon girls are the talk of the Detroit suburban neighborhood they live in, especially by a group of teen boys who regularly get together to discuss them. At the beginning, one of the sister’s attempted suicide sets the course for the rest of the film where the girls end up escaping their parents grip the only way they know how.
Man, Coppola, along with her DP Edward Lachman, were certainly able to catch the feeling of summer/fall in this movie. Again, I felt it. The dappled sunlight through the trees transported me back to when I was a kid. That feeling of freedom when you have nothing to do but lay in the backyard in your bikini slathered in baby oil. The glorious look and feel of the outside is juxtaposed with the absolute icy look and feel of the Lisbon house. When we see the girls outside of their home, the ice melts away and they come alive.
The whole film perfectly depicts life in the 1970s; the clothes, the hair, the music, all of it just right. The score by Air flows through the movie as though it’s on that summer breeze, it’s never intrusive, it’s just right. Speaking of right, The Virgin Suicides soundtrack is one of my favorites of all time. The bands include Sloan, Hollies, Steely Dan, Boston, ELO, Styx, Carol King, Al Green, 10CC, and The Bee Gees. Music is essential to the movie. One of the best introductions ever of a character is for Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) who walks down the hall at school to Heart’s “Magic Man” owning the whole goddamn place. Another key moment with music is when the girls, desperate for contact with the outside world, get a phone call from the boys. Instead of talking, the boys put on Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It's Me” and the girls, in turn, call them back with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again.” It’s one of the best and most touching scenes in the film. I think we all felt the heartbreak of the scene where Mrs. Lisbon (we never know her first name) forces Lux (Kirsten Dunst) to destroy her record collection. Doing that is taking away a piece of a person’s soul. How could Lux not feel like a chunk of her was ripped from her?
All the acting in the film is fantastic. Turner, Woods, and Dunst are all standouts here. I’m not usually a fan of Josh Hartnett, but even he won me over as the asshole school heartthrob. Danny DeVito, Scott Glenn, and Michael Paré all show up in supporting roles. Giovanni Ribisi, as the narrator, does a great job guiding us through the film as one of the neighbor boys looking back and telling us the tragic story of the girls.
The film shows what happens when one restricts their children to the point of ultimate isolation. The girls, already extremely limited in what they could do outside the home, are eventually removed from school and society altogether after one of the girls breaks curfew at the only time they were ever allowed out on a group date to the Homecoming Dance, no less. The impact of this decision by Mrs. Lisbon (she ruled the roost and her husband just went along with her decision) reverbed through Detroit. Locking children up without any outside contact is nearly as bad as solitary confinement. Sure the girls had each other but when you’re only connection to the outside world is travel catalogs and the occasional flashlight Morse code interaction with the neighbor boys, something is going to snap.
The Virgin Suicides isn't available on Blu-ray in the U.S. and if want an import of the disc, it can be expensive. The film is also available for rent on several streaming services. If you’re doing any kind of Sofia Coppola rewatch before you see The Beguiled, please make sure you add this movie to your list.