Of Sex and Death
The words suicide and virgin in a movie title summon 1950s images of puritanical maidens jumping headlong into searing volcanoes to calm the rumblings of the gods. The five vestal virgins in Sofia Coppola's writer-directorial debut mysteriously take their own lives. Coppola's adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides, certainly absolves her from her anemic performance in The Godfather III. Coppola's talents clearly lie behind the camera lens rather than in front of it.
Her movie tells the story of the mystifying and lovely Lisbon girls, their overbearing killjoy mother (played by Kathleen Turner), and their poorly groomed math teacher father (James Woods).
As the movie opens Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst), one of the five daughters inescapably heading toward extinction, is finishing up a cherry Popsicle. Lux, a breed unto herself, is a fusion of purity and eroticism. She would give shivers to any man with a Lolita fetish, or break the heart of any teenage boy who sets his sights on her.
In the next scene, Cecilia, who is 13 and the youngest of the Lisbon girls, is being lifted out of the bathtub and onto a stretcher. It seems she has failed at a suicide attempt. A neighbor boy had wandered into the house in search of a naked girl in the shower. Instead, he finds Cecilia suspended in a bath of blood. When the EMS attendants revive her, a picture of the Virgin Mary is found clasped in her hands. Catholicism prevails as an imposing undercurrent throughout the film, though religion only reveals itself through clips of wayward crucifixes and the occasional picture of the Virgin Mother lying on the floor.
In a cameo by Danny DeVito, the all-knowing shrink suggests to the perplexed Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon that their daughter may need more social engagement with the opposite sex.
Nonetheless, Cecilia opts out (leaving behind a cryptic handprint on a tree), and the four remaining girls are cloistered into a world that is stopped at the front door by their smothering parents. They band together in their pajamas like prisoners at an eternal slumber party.
They send little purple and pink notes to the boys who habitually watch their every move through a telescope from across the street. Now entirely out of reach, the four girls are more of an enigma than before. Despite the calls for help, the clueless teenage boys are befuddled and more occupied by the very communication from them. In a tender moment, the boys telephone the girls and play songs by the long forgotten Gilbert O'Sullivan, Electric Light Orchestra, and other tormented teen fare from the 70s pop catalog. In the boys' fantasies, they travel the world with the Lisbon girls. Snapshots of cloud-filled moments and seashore photos imprint on their minds, like memories to keep safe for old age.
The movie is most compelling when Coppola reaches beyond the emotional detachment, takes risks and makes the story distinctly her own. The camera sees apparitions of Cecilia who, without explanation, appears in the neighbor boy's bedroom and tells him he snores really loudly. She materializes again, hanging out in a tree like a puckish sylph. Inventive cinematographic imaginings like these and Lux's suddenly transparent party dress or the conjuring of the magical unicorn spawn both mood and humor. The horns of unicorns are considered lucky. Instead of being a prophetic signal, the unicorn in The Virgin Suicides is only a Maguffin.
Coppola utilizes the compassionate visual subtleties of the narrative, which truly give the story its validity. The often-cloudy plot simmers just beneath the Michigan suburban surface. The cinematography is that of a hazy daydream far from reality and full of youthful aspirations and longings.
This sense of nostalgia is further heightened by a retrospective voiceover by Vincent D'Onofrio. The ending is given away in the title, and yet the audience cheers for the Lisbon girls nonetheless, as they clamor for freedom. If only the wind could blow through their hair in a car traveling away from the endless desperation and predestined tragedy.
Alas, the title is the blatant foreshadowing. The condemned elm that holds the imprint of Cecilia's hand is the only remaining prospect for a sense of life. The elm represents the false image of home. Once it's gone, all that remains is a stump. Unlike Shel Silverstein's tree that ages with its owner, the elm's life is cut short, never to share the rich deep claret and auburn, palm-shaped leaves that flourish in autumn before they wither and float to the ground.