Early in Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, Cecilia Lisbon (Hanna Hall), the youngest of five teenage sisters, is undergoing counseling with a psychologist, Dr. Horniker (Danny DeVito), in the wake of a suicide attempt. Attempting to understand the 13-year-old’s mental state, the doctor gives her a Rorschach test. In the first inkblot she sees a banana, a swamp in the second, and an afro in the third. The doctor and patient humorously exchange deadpan expressions, indicating that this method of discernment is a dead end. This little scene is like a key to the film’s disparities between subjects and objects, or to the mystery of what goes on in someone else’s head. Why did young Cecilia attempt suicide? And later, after Cecilia has succeeded in taking her life, why do her sisters—Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), and Therese (Leslie Hayman)—follow her lead?
Coppola presents her characters nebulously, but in the end she shows how there’s a pointed distinction between every pair of eyes, a cosmos of nuanced poses, reflections, and projections, as conveyed in the film’s title card, The Virgin Suicides doodled across the screen in myriad idiosyncratic fonts. The filmmaker reminds us that we’re all subjects and all objects. It’s like that memorable observation expressed in Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this, everyone has their reasons.” Only it’s been rewritten with colors exploding onto a young master sensualist’s limitless canvas.
Living in a middle-class suburb bear the outskirts of Detroit during the 1970s, the Lisbon sisters are raised by loving and protective Catholic parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner), and seem to be popular, if peculiarly inseparable, at their private school, where they capture the erotic fascination of several boys, none of whom can make any headway with them. After Cecilia’s suicide attempt, her family and peers smother her with concern, but she evades the celebrations thrown for her and tries to take her life again—this time succeeding. To those grieving her, she becomes an inscrutable ghost, gazing back at those trying to solve the mystery of her death.
The Virgin Suicides is an exploration of desire and experience, with Coppola ensnaring us in gorgeous surfaces that don’t provide answers but stare back hauntingly after the pictures have moved on. The emissary of desire and experience becomes golden boy Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), strutting the halls as Heart’s “Magic Man” portends how his charm and looks will weave a spell to change the world of the Lisbon sisters. Trip goes so far as to ask the permission of Mr. Lisbon—the school math teacher—to take the flirty Lux to a school dance, adding that he has only “honorable intentions.” Dad is initially hesitant, but after some discussion with Mrs. Lisbon, the more stringent of the two, the request is granted—provided that Trip has three other boys accompany the remaining sisters, everyone traveling in a group.
The film here reaches a rhapsodic zenith as the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic” envelops the soundtrack and Trip and his friends escort the girls into the dance hall. The sequence, as shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman, exudes a dreamlike air removed from the prosaic. Suspended in their own world, Lux and Trip split off from the group and consummate their attraction on an empty football field. The next morning, Lux wakes up on the field alone, Coppola saturating the image in blue, as if Lux has drowned in the ocean of experience. Having been crowned the dance queen the night before, she nibbles on her crown as she she takes a lonely taxi home. Coppola’s heretofore amorphous treatment of character is reborn as a visceral representation of isolation, Lux a subject unto herself.
The fallout is an imprisonment from the outside world, as Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon burn Lux’s vinyl records and take their daughters out of school. At this point, our proxies become the indistinct neighborhood boys, who almost amount to a unitary ball of precocious hormones. They’re able to make contact with the girls with flashing lights that approximate a kind of Morse code, and then the textures of pop culture—such as playing music over the phone. Along with the boys, we’re lulled into expecting that this discourse will lead to some kind of revelatory and possibly erotic collision, where both sides of the conversation can finally express themselves freely, without the buffers of any code.
Coppola’s breakthrough established her as a coy and acute master of gazing at gazers, the intense power of our apperceptions intersecting with the fundamental unknowability of what we’re looking at. For the filmmaker, seeing feels sacramental. But what we see, like in her trademark shot of worlds reflected onto passenger-car windows, passes on. Loss itself is an aesthetic event, such as the unconscious Cecilia submerged in bathtub water, the delicate close-up of her face in red-tinted water suggesting a watercolor portrait as much as a domestic catastrophe—and then Coppola evoking a pietà after Cecilia accomplishes her death, her corpse impaled on the Lisbons’ fence as her father struggles to lift her above the spikes.
At the climax, the boys discover the girls one by one, each having selected a distinct means of suicide. The last corpse they find is Lux, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage. But the lifeless arm hanging out of the car window, cigarette still smoldering, doesn’t belong to Dunst, but to Coppola herself. Interviewed for this Blu-ray’s special features, Dunst says she wasn’t available for that day’s shoot, so Coppola became her stand-in. It’s an arbitrary fact transmogrified into a significant artistic gesture: the privileged daughter, muted in infamy by the categories imposed by family and culture (before 1999, Coppola was principally—and unfairly—known as the thing that ruined her father’s Godfather III), announcing herself as a major talent as she arranges the oddly shaped emptiness around her to a staggering effect.
The transfer practically allows the colors to talk in a stunning multivaried palette, the spectrum of plentiful hues popping with gorgeous distinction, the fleshier warm colors in a kind of showdown with the smothering suffocation of blue and mossy green. The Blu-ray treatment also preserves, as best as can be expected, the 35mm heaviness of the film’s aesthetic. The audio is reliably porcelain, forcibly conveying through the non-diegetic music choices how Sofia Coppola wants the viewer to feel what her characters are feeling. The disc imprudently amps up "Strange Magic" to an extent that you may want to lower the volume, but the aural aggressiveness at this, the film’s central sequence, perfectly captures the sense of a school dance, where young eardrums go through their own metamorphosis from innocence to experience.
A salty and sweet appetizer for Coppola’s delicious feature is her humorous 1998 student short, Lick the Star, where we similarly see her interest in school cliques and gossip, along with a talent for images marrying the cosmic to the cosmetic scored ecstatically to pop music—and also featuring Peter Bogdanovich in an amusing cameo as a school administrator. There are new and insightful interviews with Coppola, Lachman, Eugenides, Dunst, and Hartnett sharing their memories of the shoot; the film put then 21-year-old Hartnett on the map, and while audiences were familiar with Dunst for years, we’re reminded that Virgin Suicides didn’t only usher her into mature roles, but was her first "small" film. There’s an older making-of documentary by Eleanor Coppola (the director’s mother), where we see something Coppola likely inherited from her pop (Francis Ford Coppola, producer of the film, is among those interviewed on set): a masterful ease with actors (it’s also nice to see James Woods back in happier days when he actually seemed like an amiable and affable guy). Also included is the wry music video—co-directed by Sofia and Roman Coppola—for Air’s catchy soundtrack song "Playground Love," wherein two wads of singing bubblegum are spliced into clips from the film. Megan Abbott’s booklet essay is a probing feminist reading of the film, examining Coppola’s sophisticated use of perspective. But the most interesting extra may be the extended interview with Rookie magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, whose adolescent encounter with The Virgin Suicides led to her creation of an online outlet for young women caught in stifling domestic environments and starving for expression.
The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s luscious and formidable debut feature, gets a deserved star treatment from the Criterion Collection.