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True-to-Life 'Suicides'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2000


    'The Virgin Suicides' Leslie Hayman, Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook and Chelse Swain in Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides." (Paramount Classics)
Five sisters, five suicides.

Like its deceptively bean-spilling title, "The Virgin Suicides" leaves nothing – and everything – to the imagination. Sad, beautiful, banal and arrhythmic in the way that real life (and death) is, the auspicious and off-kilter feature debut from writer-director Sofia Coppola mines tragedy from the tedium of 1970s suburbia and finds romance in our futile search for reasons.

Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, "Virgin" attempts neither to glorify nor satirize suicide, or virginity for that matter. The difficult-to-categorize film (funny without being flip, heartbreaking without much happening) tells the story – to the extent that it has one – of the teenage Lisbon sisters: Cecilia (Hanna Hall), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Mary (A.J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain) and Therese (Leslie Hayman), all of whom killed themselves, as the unseen narrator and the on-screen title tell us, 25 years ago. Rather than inviting us into their heads in order to help us better understand her subjects' actions, Coppola uses the camera as a distancing tool, forcing us to hang back and watch with the neighborhood boys who moon over the blond beauties from across the street. Like these lovesick puppies, we feel like outsiders looking in and, like them, we sense but never fully taste the airless claustrophobia of the sisters' lives.

From first graceful frame to last, Coppola paints with a fine brush: the beaded necklace, hiphuggers and feathered '70s hairdo sported by Lux's too-cool-for-school heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett); the Lisbonses neatly shelved World Book encyclopedia; the scratchy hits of Heart and Todd Rundgren. No costume, song or piece of set dressing feels forced or out of place. But what Coppola gets, seemingly effortlessly, is that feel of adolescent drift, when life's currents seem to stall between the shores of childhood and adulthood.

As Mr. and Mrs Lisbon, James Woods and Kathleen Turner are low-key but excellent. Their strict without being strident parenting and middle-class Catholic values are offered up in a matter-of-fact way without caricature. They are who they are, neither the villains of the piece nor its martyrs. Knowing her limitations, Coppola wisely avoids attempting to explain away – or even ask – the unanswerable questions. While not exactly a cop-out, "Virgin" may leave some viewers who crave traditional closure with the same hollow ache described by the narrator as follows: "What lingered after them was not life but the most trivial list of mundane facts."

That may seem unfair, but isn't that, after all, what the aftermath of a suicide feels like?

THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (R, 97 minutes) – Contains scenes of non-explicit sex and multiple suicide.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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