movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


(© 1999 Paramount Classics. All rights reserved.)

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The Virgin Suicides

Cecilia was the youngest. Like all the Lisbon sisters, she had long, vanilla-colored California-girl hair. She wore a tattered, lace wedding dress when she shimmied up the crooked tree in the front yard (the "diseased" elm that the city had condemned to death). The pages of her sticker-ridden diary described her daily events: what she ate for dinner (creamed corn), the "noise" of the boys next door, designed to keep her curious.

The eldest Lisbon was Lux. She also had hair worthy of a Breck ad. Her dimples made parentheses around her pearly whites. Trip Fontaine called her a stone fox. She was the only girl he ever loved (and the only girl who ignored his slick attentions). When Cecilia slit her wrists for reasons no one could comprehend, Lux sat with the other sisters in her room for days, listening to dreamy records and doodling on her underwear.

After Cecilia's death, the rules tighten. Nobody enters or leaves the mourning household. Nobody except Trip, who plants himself in the living room to watch nature shows on television. He decides that he simply must take Lux to the homecoming dance. Her parents say, the only way she may go is if her sisters attend too.

It sounds like a modern day fairy tale, as told through the rose-tinted eyes of an older Trip (still decked out in custom-fitted cowboy shirts). Sophia Coppola (daughter of Francis and wife to MTV wunderkind, Spike Jonze) has fought off charges of nepotism to make her favorite book hit the big screen. Even the author, Jeffrey Eugenides, declared it impossible to adapt The Virgin Suicides. Coppola remains true to the story, set in suburban mid-'70s America (as lensed in luscious, Kodachrome amber by cinematographer Edward Lachman, with a wispy, cocktail lounge score by France's nostalgia-obsessed band, Air). The era is evoked in all the right details: split-level homes bordered by manicured lawns, clutter-stuffed rec rooms swarming with cheerful knick-knacks. It's the candy-floss stuff that adolescent dreams revolve around--the ethereal essence of Lisbon lasses, as idealized by the neighborhood boys.

"I'm having the best time," sighs Therese Lisbon at the star-dusted Homecoming dance. (Who ever had a good time at a school dance?) Her sister sneaks behind the bleachers to swig peach schnapps and tongue-twist with her date. The soundtrack moves from ELO's "Strange Magic" to 10CC's "I'm Not in Love." Everything sways in 4/4 time. Mirror balls and dime-store crowns, confetti and white corsages. There's a tragic sense that something important is about to happen. Only we can't imagine it. That's the futile optimism that underscores every languid scene, so hinted in the details.

So we wait. But the girls, like most fairy tale princesses, will never grow up. They simply fade into a dreamless sleep, undone by their own idealism. The elm in the front yard and the pointy fence surrounding it serve as metaphorical signposts. Not only have the hopeful boys lifted the Lisbons onto untouchable pedestals, the grown-ups (particularly their own parents) have made them the embodiment of all things beautiful. Are the overprotective parents guarding their daughters, or just the idea of happiness, buttoned up in a Butterick dress? When the house-bound girls fail to find joy in their sequestered lives, is it any surprise they create it in their sugary fantasies, populated by unicorns and other impossible creatures (not unlike themselves). When a doctor expresses shock at Cecilia's attempted suicide, she mutters the proverbial adolescent battle cry, "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl." A male director might've made a different film. Sophia Coppola knows how men are doomed by dreams, but her sympathy lies with the girls. It's not a voyeur's notion of femalehood. Forget those references to the camera's "male" gaze. This is not the way we were, but the way we wished to be.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]