The Virgin Suicides

“I made ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ my first feature-length film, a little later. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was personal: when I was 15, my eldest brother Gio died suddenly in a boating accident. This gave me a connection to ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ which is also about loss. Often, movies about teenagers are dumbed down with cheap photography. There aren’t a lot of quality art films made for young audiences. But I wanted to treat them with respect, to look properly at that deep, emotional time. Because I was still in my 20s, the idea of school wasn’t far away.” – Sofia Coppola

 

There’s nothing left to be desired

Peace came upon me, and it leaves me weak

So, sleep, silent angel, go to sleep

Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe

And to love you

All I need is the air that I breathe

Yes, to love you

All I need is the air that I breathe

Peace came upon me, and it leaves me weak

So, sleep, silent angel, go to sleep

 

Memories are not always linear. They don’t follow typical patterns. They are not generally recalled like a standard by-the-book biopic. In real life (whatever that actually means), recollections are not played out in fully developed narrative timeframes, perfectly balanced, with structured strands of thought, or tangible, easily understood events. Memories can be visited but not wholly embraced. They can be intense and unforgettable, something that still leaves you shaken, and things that can come to your mind, clear as day. Traumatizing.

But some memories, bit by bit, can lose their edges, making them blurry, for many, even more melancholic. Out of reach. And the more they elude us, often, the more complex they become.  They fade, dissolve – like staring at an old photograph and attempting to discern the time and the place, and what happened that day.

Such memories are rarely just happy or sad – they are frequently mystifying and bittersweet, replete with or oddly bereft of emotion – for reasons beyond comprehension.  But they are real to us. They are our own personal mythology.

Sofia Coppola’s brilliant first feature, the poetic, tragic and enigmatic The Virgin Suicides, captures the ambiguity of such hazy recollections with tender, albeit, at times, horrifying wistfulness and pain. And through the lens of adolescence – a time when the depth of feelings is often written off as merely teenage, overly-dramatic (especially female teenage overly-dramatic ) but are indeed very serious and complex. Coppola doesn’t just understand adolescent girls – and she showcases them as artistic – by the arrangement of their rooms, their dreams, their diaries.

Adapted (by Coppola) from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, Coppola’s picture doesn’t tell a story; it, instead, leaves a swoony, foggy impression, a darkly beautiful intangibility filled with almost torturously elusive feeling. It’s powerfully visual, with some images the viewer never forgets (the unicorn, the smoke as the records burn in the fireplace, the football field…). It moves along much like looking at old photographs (and the impeccably-eyed Coppola was inspired by photography, a lot of photography – one source was Bill Owens’ photography book “Suburbia” which shows both the normalcy and undercurrent of oddity within the suburbs…. a book where you wonder about its subject and how nothing can be what it seems on the surface).

The film’s cinematography (by the great Edward Lachman) – it conjures your feelings of snapshots and memories – you, yourself, wonder when looking at an old picture – do I really remember that day, that event? Or do I remember it because it was photographed? Is a part of my young memories merely based on old photographic records? And questioning or, indeed, feeling the memory, can be incredibly emotional – what was I thinking here? Sometimes we know and are flooded with an intense remembrance even from the most seemingly banal picture, and sometimes we can’t figure out where our mind was that day – where we were, really- truly. With The Virgin Suicides, Coppola achieves that kind of sensation, audiovisually. It’s poetic and powerful and a movie that stuns when you revisit – twenty years later – it’s even more moving – even more urgent.

Set in Michigan in the early ’70s, the film is marked immediately with the pall of death and the dangling unknown of why tragedy happened. The five teenage Lisbon sisters – all blonde and all beautiful but not all alike – kill themselves, and a group of smitten, curious teenage boys struggle to understand. Not just why they committed suicide but, before they did … who are they?  Or, who do they want to be? Who would they want them to be? The deaths are a tragic and defining period in these boys’ lives, but even as they narrate the film, they have never gotten their heads around the loss. Nor should they. It’s hard for anyone to understand such things.

And … they didn’t really know these young women. In an unusual narrative and cinematic point of view, the boys who have some interaction with the Lisbon girls, mostly gaze at them from across the street. They re-create the girls’ lives through a swiped diary, bits of bric-a-brac memorabilia, idealism, and voyeurism. There are “help” messages sent to the boys via the girls, light signals, music shared through the phone (which is so lovely and sweet and sad, especially when Carole King’s “So Far Away…”  begins to play – the movie’s soundtrack is superb, perfectly conveying all the drama and emotions and dreaminess). Though admiring, do they see the Lisbon sisters as living, breathing flesh? I think they are trying in their own way, and their curiosity is understandable. And even they admit that they couldn’t “fathom them at all.” As Jeffrey Eugenides wrote in his novel via these boys:

“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.”

Interestingly,  their communication acts, in some ways  like modern ways of “connecting” – as we do now, through the computer, through online social networking, through pictures, through texts – staring and wondering and even reading about those who are depressed or suicidal, building people, or rather, avatars into these figures of … something … something we think we need to know. And the excitement of contact – that is quite something.

And even if they come in contact with the girls in moments, just as now, interacting with the real person as opposed to an idealized representation is usually, well, almost always, much messier, much more real, maybe banal, and, sometimes, much scarier.

The scariness and deep sadness in The Virgin Suicides connect to the shocking death of 13-year-old sister Cecilia (Hanna Hall – and of course the later tragedies). The suicide places sisters (all wonderfully depicted), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook) and Therese (Leslie Hayman), into a mourning period, marked not by obvious wailing drama, but by a mysterious inwardness that only these sisters can understand. (And also, those who are numbed by depression and sadness – how the hell should one react to such a thing? It’s never what or how one thinks.) When one feels alienated by their parents, the bonding of siblings is frequently strong – so intense that coded words and looks and diaries and many mysterious communiqués are created to invent a their own world. It’s powerful and sometimes freeing, to have such a bond with your sisters. Even inspiring and artistic. But it also can be imprisoning living in that world – one, here, set with rules by strict parents who are too frightened when shaken by grief.

The transmissions among the sisters – you see that they are the people who probably best understand one another, or they are the people who are, at least, connected to one another, even if they may argue, envy, sometimes hate each other (though you don’t really see this in the movie). But blood bonds can be frightfully concentrated, and in the worst cases (and in the case of this movie) they can veer into a kind of madness.

So, after careful consideration, when the grieving parents (Kathleen Turner and James Woods) allow the naturally, sexually curious Lux (with sisters and their assigned dates in tow) to attend a homecoming dance with heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), things get even madder. After an innocent, though heartbreaking “transgression” occurs, with Lux breaking curfew, the strict Catholic parents cloister the girls in the house, removing them from school and depriving them of all social contact. This does not appear to be a good idea. Not at all. And, of course, this can’t come without consequences.

The girls will grow ever closer, ever more secretive, and, in the end, ever destructive. They appear to be having some fun with each other at times, or they rebel (particularly Lux – making out with boys on the roof – the boys across the way spy on her with their telescope – you see Lux smoking a cigarette after one encounter, not looking especially happy). But that can’t last, holed up in the house for lord knows how long. They, really, only have each other. They are locked in a suburban fairy tale castle – but this isn’t romantic to them, (it never is for those in such stories), only in their dream life. They are talented and creative enough to make something from it – Coppola always shows that these girls have things to do, things to think about – knit, write and read magazines and catalogs “with pictures of high-end fashions and brochures for exotic vacations. Unable to go anywhere.”

They need to express and feel in any way they can. Not just from boys. Because, there is, like in real life, no Prince Charming, even if those boys across the street, so intrigued by the Lisbon girls, wish they, in some form, were. (Though, even in their reveries – they seem a little less simplistic than that) And the boy who looks the most like “the one” (not a kid across the way) in the stereotypical dream-boy sense, Trip Fontane, he courts Lux – he believes he loves her. This is the one girl he’s going to ask her father’s permission to take to the homecoming dance. He’s going to be honorable. In the end, he’s not. They make love on the football field and then lie there together, sweetly it seems, the beginning of a first real high school relationship? No. He leaves her while she’s asleep, to wake up alone. Shown interviewed in the present (a great Michael Paré as the older Trip) he never really understands why he did this to Lux other than – things were “different” to him once she was out on that field. Different. He appears to be haunted, but he’s still idealizing this girl as a great love. Was she? He says:

“I walked home alone that night. I didn’t care how she got home. It was weird. I mean, I liked her, I liked her a lot, but out there on the field… It was just different then. That was the last time I saw her. You know, most people will never taste that kind of love. But at least I tasted it once, right?”

Coppola conveys these complexities – how, after all of this time, even Trip Fontaine can’t quite figure himself out, even as he’s admitting something changed for him when, presumably, he satiated his teen lust. But we don’t hate him for this. It’s just … extra poignant. Coppola doesn’t place what happens to these girls within a moral straitjacket – no one is demonized – of course, not the sisters, and not the boys, not Trip, not the parents, even with their misguided way of dealing with tragedy – no one is easily drawn. Why people do the things they do – we don’t always know, and Coppola intelligently understands the power of this. Because this is like life – beautiful and bittersweet and sad, a teenage dance and a kiss in the car, and then… something else entirely. Boredom. Sadness. Madness. Death.

Though at the time, the film received mostly positive reviews, or some positive-mixed (I feel like the movie is loved even more today), some could have criticized it (and I recall a few did) for a lack of fully developed characters, or for its abundance of style. This critique would be a bit absurd because again that is the point. The picture asks, and we ask, how do we read or see these girls? Or remember them? (Some of us knew girls like this, and to some extent, some of us have been a version of these girls – but we never really know anyone entirely, even if we can relate to them).

Nevertheless, the way Coppola films these young women, even in the present (with voice-over narration by Giovanni Ribisi), the Lisbons girls’ already feel a bit like memories or, at least young women on the edge of becoming memories. The Lisbon girls are tragic beauties to these boys, figures of myth even while alive, but human beings; human beings put on pedestals. In life and death.

And those pedestals can be prisons – you sit upon one, way up high in the sky, so that when those who placed you there, the way they want to see you, when they see and experience your flaws, when they are sick of you, when they see you are actually human, you can go tumbling down, down, down … and that is a long hard fall. You get the sense that is what happened to Trip and Lux – something was “different.” Was she too real at that point?

The Lisbon sisters, though very real, are characters one writes songs or poems about, but, again, one never truly knows. And these girls are characters – people project what they want to see in them – they become vessels of worship, whether perfected goddesses or fractured maidens yearning to be saved (even after death). Marilyn Monroe (an artist herself) – she knew of such things. Men and women placed her on a pedestal as a goddess, as an ideal movie image, something unreal, but also a woman that needed saving. But what can happen in these situations – these muses or goddesses are ditched when their worshipers or saviors can’t handle their complexities. So, in death, Marilyn is now, mythology (which is really powerful, and often in a wonderful way, it only proves her the strength). A woman we are still continually trying to understand or know.  I’m one of them, but I am awed by the power of her mystery, even in ubiquity.

The not knowing of these young women is part of the wistfulness of The Virgin Suicides – does anyone really want to know them? The boys across the way seem to, I think, or they’d like to connect them to something more forceful. The ruminations, to makes some kind of connection to their community, the trees, the auto industry, is potent, giving the girls the power of prophetesses:

“Everyone dates the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls. People saw their clairvoyance in the wiped-out elms, the harsh sunlight, and the continuing decline of our auto industry. Even then, as teenagers, we tried to put the pieces together. We still can’t. Now whenever we run into each other at lunches or parties, we find ourselves going over the evidence one more time. All to understand those five girls, who, after all these years, we can’t get out of our minds. Cecilia, the youngest, was 13. And Lux was 14. Bonnie was 15. Mary was 16. And Therese was 17. No one could understand how Mrs. Lisbon and Mr. Lisbon, our math teacher, had produced such beautiful creatures.”

Such beautiful creatures…

When beautiful creature Lux is left waking up all alone on that oddly lovely but doleful and green and cold and endless football field – what a lonely moment. The thoughts she may be thinking as she gazes upon that open space … what are those thoughts? She should not be ashamed, but so many girls feel that. Heartbreak? I feel there’s even more going on here beyond Trip Fontaine. And Lux should not be merely tragic. I mean, of course (or, rather, hopefully) someone would come to know and love Lux, and, all of the sisters (whether a true friend or loved one), eventually, but, as of now, these young women in their flowy 70s dresses and smiles and private faces and worried parents … they are presented as fairy tale figures, even as they’re indeed just human beings. But they will remain, like Marilyn, mythic in death. Not entirely knowable, no matter how many biographies are written (about Monroe). Again mythic, And, also, mystics. And forever young.

I thought of the fairy tale motif in The Virgin Suicides when I wrote about Coppola’s last picture, The Beguiled. I wrote that in all of her stunning pictures, distinctly her own, lives the “fracture and heart of the fairy tale.” I thought of The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette especially (and much of the societal pressures placed upon women) and even considered the castle of the Chateau Marmont in Somewhere – it is indeed a strange, glitzy kingdom full of romance and dysfunction. And loneliness. And then there’s the kids breaking into a fantasy life they covet, that of a Paris Hilton in The Bling Ring. I wrote:

“Like many girls (and boys), when I read fairy tales, particularly about princesses, I didn’t really think too long about the happy endings (unless they were odd and complicated, like when you read the real Brothers Grimm) or the morals of the stories – I was instead intrigued by their ideas and images, often of isolation and imprisonment: a woman put to sleep in a glass casket for being too fair, or Rapunzel shuttered away in a tower. These locked-up women who terrify, yes … but more than that, they terrify because they possess a kind of dominance that [often unfairly] must be stopped.”

The Brothers Grimm story of “Maid Maleen” is one such example – she was locked away for disobeying her father, he didn’t approve of the prince she fell in love with, and so shuttered his daughter in a tower with her waiting maid for seven years. After those years – no one comes for them. Of course, this made me think of Maid Maleen as a Lisbon sister – alone with her only friend, the waiting maid (who would be like a sister after all that time), freeing herself out of that tower with a domestic tool – a bread knife:

“She took the bread-knife, and picked and bored at the mortar of a stone, and when she was tired, the waiting-maid took her turn. With great labour they succeeded in getting out one stone, and then a second, and a third, and when three days were over the first ray of light fell on their darkness, and at last the opening was so large that they could look out. The sky was blue, and a fresh breeze played on their faces; but how melancholy everything looked all around! Her father’s castle lay in ruins, the town and the villages were, so far as could be seen, destroyed by fire, the fields far and wide laid to waste, and no human being was visible. When the opening in the wall was large enough for them to slip through, the waiting-maid sprang down first, and then Maid Maleen followed. But where were they to go?

The Lisbon sisters never escape the house  –  and their “escape” is an end, a final, tragic end, within the domesticity of the family home – they die in the basement, in a room on sleeping pills, the kitchen oven and the station wagon in the garage.

The Virgin Suicides makes us think about the idea of both glamorizing and fading out such tragedies – cloistered lives, young deaths. And it makes us think about how we punish adolescence. Especially female youth. It’s understandable the family loses all center once the first sister kills herself, but this locking away…  it’s a protective punishment that happens to girls far more than boys. I thought… what would have happened to the Lisbon girls had they lived? Would they have stayed tied too closely to their parents?

I thought of the photographer Dare Wright (who created the stunning, haunting “Lonely Doll” book series beginning in 1957), and who was unhealthily, tied to her mother. The enigmatic Wright was fascinating and full of questions. And lonely. Artist Wright (who was not really considered an artist in life) worked through her loneliness and obsessions via evocative, ingenious pictures of dolls and bears (and herself as well, with “Lona”). From The New York Sun piece on Jean Nathan’s extraordinary biography on Wright:

“Together, mother and daughter became old maids, perfecting a practiced childishness. When Edie [Wright’s mother] died, Dare ‘had lost the armature of her identity; without the scaffolding her mother provided, it was all collapsing,’ according to Ms. Nathan. As a friend observed, ‘I realized they had lived a fairy tale, and now it was over.’ But it seems less a fairy tale than nightmare.”

Sofia Coppola’s niece, director Gia Coppola (Palo Alto), is attached to direct Wright’s life story, adapted from Nathan’s book: “The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll.”

Lonely Dolls… And secrets. The Virgin Suicides is full of secrets we will never know, even as the boys’ read Cecilia’s diary. And that’s tragic, but part of the film’s beauty. Melancholic, but terrifyingly so, heartbreakingly beautiful, the picture is not viewed through rose-colored glasses, but a haze that is besotted, cryptic, lingering and full of omens (and the haunting music by Air, poignant and otherworldly). Coppola is capturing adolescence and an adolescence lost, both to the sisters and to the boys themselves.

And Coppola’s intelligence, sensitivity, and ethereal style avoids obvious irony and lazy interpretation. No easy interpretations can be maddening for those wanting to so understand – but then suicide is maddening, both for those who achieve the act and for those who suffer the aftermath. Coppola’s vision of this constrained environment is made simultaneously hypnotic and quotidian by these suburban Rapunzels – troubled, creative and intriguing girls trapped in the unfathomable and misty glaze of worship and memories. Yes, we write songs about girls like these – we just don’t ever get to know them further.

So, sleep, silent angel, go to sleep.

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