Cult Film: The Virgin Suicides

Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Kathleen Turner
Year: 1999


by Emer O’Toole

Central to the tragic yet compelling world of The Virgin Suicides are the five doe-eyed, angelic Lisbon sisters (Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese). Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ cult novel, Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film has gained the same cult status since it captures both the triviality and grandeur of youth.

Set in an American suburb in the 1970s, a maths teacher (James Woods) and his uptight Catholic wife (Kathleen Turner) are parents to these seemingly perfect girls. All illusions of normal suburban life are, however, shattered following the unsuccessful first suicide attempt of their youngest daughter, Cecilia (Hanna Hall). This acts as a catalyst for these already strict parents to become even more overbearing and insular. This results in a captivating story of the girls’ brief lives narrated by the teenage boys who live on their street.

It is obvious from the title that the girls will kill themselves but Coppola provides us with an unanswered mystery as we are given subtle clues but no hard facts. However, this lack of explanation is the point: the girls have altered the lives of the boys, now men, who preserve the Lisbon sisters as the kind of perfect ideal they present to the outside world. Through studying the sisters, the boys gain a rare insight into “the imprisonment of being a girl.” This gives an unexpected perspective on what should be regarded as a difficult subject matter.

tvsThe novel is famed for its third person plural narrative and Coppola gives this hauntingly complex story the smooth transition into film it deserves. The film is mostly constructed through flashbacks, focusing on the rebellious Lux (Kirsten Dunst), the most charismatic of the sisters. After Cecilia’s suicide attempt, the Lisbons’ seek the advice of a psychiatrist (Danny DeVito) who advises the girls to socialise with the opposite sex. As a result, the Lisbons allow their daughters to attend a dance despite Mrs Lisbon adding extra fabric to the girls’ prom dresses and imposing a strict curfew. Trouble ensues when the school heartthrob, Trip Fontiane (Josh Harnett) fails to bring Lux home on time, seducing and then abandoning her on an empty football pitch. The girls are consequentially locked up, like princesses in a tower, deprived of contact with the outside world. An ordinary life is tantalisingly out of reach to the sisters and Coppola’s exploration of adolescent loss of innocence is made more shocking by Mr Lisbon’s assertion that “there was always plenty of love in our house.”

“Cecilia was the first to go”, we are told right at the beginning. “You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets,” Dr. Hornicker tells her following her first suicide attempt. Cecilia’s matter-of-fact response is “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year-old girl.” The film’s cult status perhaps stems from the fact that it climaxes on the concept that youth does not necessarily equate to happiness.

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