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The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Viewed: 10/07/00 by Qubert

“Kubrick-esque.” That’s the best word that comes to mind after viewing this moody meditation on sexuality and repression. It leaves the viewer feeling numb, not from an intellectual assault on the emotions in the manner of Mel Gibson’s Hamlet , but from a lack of raw feeling. Virgin Suicides approaches its subjects with a cold detachment. When the credits roll, you will ask yourself, “Is it sad? No. Is it funny? Not really. Is it thrilling or sexual? Not so much. But is it nearly brilliant? Oh, yes!” And finally, you will wonder how Sophia Coppola -- frighteningly inept in Godfather III -- can so redeem herself. It has happened, gentle viewer. Read on. . .

The Virgin Suicides recounts the tale of the five Lisbon sisters growing up in a wealthy Michigan suburb in the Seventies. Their parents, beautifully played by an unattractive Kathleen Turner and a mousy James Woods, control every aspect of the girls’ lives. When the youngest, 13-year old Cecilia, attempts to take her own life, her parents decide to throw their daughters party at the urging of a psychologist (played by Danny Devito). The girls have a few boys over in the basement under the watchful eyes of Mom. Cecila sneaks away and succeeds in dying rather grotesquely, setting off a rash of TV reports on the danger of suicide for teens. The remaining four girls struggle to come together amidst the tragedy, sinking deeper and deeper into isolation and eventual nothingness. Even their priest, played by a scraggly-haired Scott Glen, cannot reach them. In one bleak scene, he tries to speak first to Dad, then the girls, and finally to Mom, none of whom will say a word to him.

The film almost defies plot summary, told in a disjointed manner by a present-day narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) who grew up with the girls. He remembers them as wispy, beautiful “shadows” who never seemed real. And he should know: he and his friends spend the whole film trying to get near the sisters, peeking through telescopes and even taking them to the Homecoming Dance. But the boys can’t make them out. Herein lies the film’s chief brilliance: by telling the story through a limited narrator, we viewers lose the omniscient power to determine why events happen as they do. We’re as puzzled as Ribisi’s boyhood alter ego and his friends. We do know that the girls strive for all types of freedom, particularly sexual freedom.

This yearning manifests itself in 14-year old Lux (what kind of a name is Lux, anyway?), played by the luminous Kirsten Dunst. She flirts with the boys with twinkling eyes, defies her parents with a wicked smirk, and yet cries when her over-zealous mother makes her burn her records. (I chuckled to myself, by the way, to see that the first record relegated to the fires is KISS’s “Hotter Than Hell;” nice touch, Sophia.) Dunst’s Lux is the only sister to develop anything resembling three-dimensionality, perhaps because she’s the only one with the courage to reach into the world outside their bubble.

Regardless of Lux’s daring, Mom destroys all. She seems to have a paranoid need to control everything. Dad cannot stand up to her, and the girls are powerless to resist, ultimately being pulled out of school and locked in the house for a curfew violation by Lux. This situation leads to a touching scene in which the four boys call the girls, and they communicate through the phone by playing records to each other. By this time, we realize that they cannot communicate in any real, personal manner. As Ribisi describes, the girls have begun slipping away.

I could continue writing for hours, but I won’t subject you to the horrors! I want to close with two points. First, the film makes the best use of music I’ve seen in years. And second, you’re going to have to watch this film several times. Like all of Kubrick’s masterworks, especially Eyes Wide Shut, one can’t begin to absorb the nuances and implications of the story. I’ve left out so much that begs discussion, and I am certain I have missed even more after only one viewing. But I am awed by the exquisite painful beauty of The Virgin Suicides, and you will be, too, if you have the courage to approach it.

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