By Andrea Thompson
Sofia Coppola's first full length film, “The Virgin Suicides” has everything that would become her trademarks: music, the ennui and isolation of the wealthy (albeit at a lower level than her later films), and a sea of white faces. It also perfectly taps into the strain, struggles, and deep turmoil of adolescence. It knows the pain of the five beautiful, seemingly unearthly sisters the movie revolves around so well, it doesn't even try to fully explain it to the outsiders observing, a group of teenage boys in the Detroit suburbs of 1970s.
Those boys are entranced by them, and they remain so for the rest of their lives. And watching this movie, it makes perfect sense, even if nothing terribly profound is conveyed. There is no revelation, no moment where the sisters come to a great truth that will set them free. They're too busy suffocating. A diary doesn't reveal violence or twisted power dynamics, merely a kind of quiet stupor that is the result of parents so determined to protect their children they have built a kind of gilded cage for their daughters, one whose bars only close in around them more as the film progresses. Small wonder, then, that the youngest, Cecilia (Hanna Hall), is the first to become suicidal.
“What are you doing here sweetie?” A doctor asks her after her failed suicide attempt. “You're not even old enough to know how bad life can get.”
“Clearly, doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl,” Cecilia responds.
She's exactly right, of course. Kirsten Dunst remarked in a very different, also very dark movie, that twelve is when girls first start to hate themselves. But thirteen is when it really hits. And by “it” I mean exactly what the world will expect from you for the rest of your life. You know you can't measure up, and it generally takes quite a few years before you realize that the fact you can't meet these expectations has nothing to do with you, and everything with the fact that they're impossible to meet.
And at 13, the years you have until you're legally free to pursue your own life can seem like an eternity. The movie doesn't try to explain why Cecilia is so determined and eventually succeeds in ending her life. The girls' parents - played by Kathleen Turner and a not yet insane James Woods - were already protective, but after this they tighten their grip even further. Subsequent events, where the sisters desperately attempt to reach for freedom, go horribly, tragically awry.
Kirsten Dunst (in the first of what would be many collaborations between her and Coppola) was always going to be the sister who stood out for name recognition alone, and she is the one who is the most at risk of becoming another male fantasy. Her character Lux is the most outwardly rebellious, and she is the one who suffers a devastating emotional blow that sets the tragedy's final arc in motion. Like most of the pain that proves absolutely devastating to girls (and let's face it, to women), it's because of a boy, in this case the school heartthrob Trip Fontaine, who's played by a young Josh Hartnett. He swaggers around the school like he owns the place, and it's easy to see why, since his good looks and charisma bring him constant attention from girls, and even a lot of leeway from the female teachers.
His interest in Lux at first is due to the fact that she's initially disinterested in him. This prompts him to do the chasing for probably the first time in his life, and even to develop feelings for her. What happens next isn't just painful because everyone else believes the womanizing, cavalier Trip is sincere, it's because he believes it too, even after his cruelty to the girl he supposedly loves. Trip manages to convince the Lisbon parents to allow him to take Lux to a school dance, where they win king and queen. The two of then sneak out to have sex on the football field. Afterwards, Trip abandons her. Even the adult Trip, who speaks lovingly of their brief relationship, is unsure of why he did this. Where he's ended up poses a clue, as the facility where he narrates his idealized version of their time together is apparently some sort of rehab clinic. Trip is an addict, and his pursuit of Lux is in essence nothing more than a new way to get high. Not only does he get to win over probably the only girl who was ever reluctant to return his ardor, it also allows him to idealize Lux and their time together. It's amusing to hear him speak of his great love for her when his actions are so opposed to his words. But then, that's what's so seductive about combining objectification and idealization. The object and the relationship remain beautiful forever, unsullied by the cares and complications that accompany true intimacy.
Things quickly spiral after that. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon remove the sisters from school and completely isolate them from the outside world, even destroying much of their music. After a long period of confinement, the neighborhood boys manage to come over to the Lisbon house late one night to find the sisters dead in an apparent suicide pact. Their parents leave the neighborhood soon after, and many of the other adults prove very capable of forgetting the Lisbons. It is the boys who never do, even after they become adults. Unlike most movies about men viewing beautiful, masochistic women from afar, the movie knows they will never be able to completely understand them. It acknowledges that the male observers are not only seeing them from afar, the little they are able to witness is merely a tiny glimpse of a deeply insular world they could never understand from the outside.
“The Virgin Suicides” ensured that Sofia Coppola's impressive pedigree wasn't the only reason she would go on to have a long and successful career. Not to diminish her talent, but the fact that she's the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola probably went a long way in her staying power. Many other female directors made successful films that displayed their filmmaking prowess, only to vanish. However, Coppola has managed the difficult task of not only establishing her own distinct style, but allowing her heritage to work for her, in part by embracing a very feminine vision that has often been dismissed as shallow. It is this confidence that allowed her to portray the Lisbon sisters as they were seen by the boys who observe them without descending into caricature. They almost seem to be angelic beings who flit through their suburban environment without truly being a part of it, but Coppola knows they are very human, and their isolation means they will never be understood. Their aura of mystery is never penetrated, and Coppola allows them remain unknown, which makes the girls more human rather than less. Small wonder that this film not only became a modern classic, but marked the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Sofia Coppola.