Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.
With all the accolades bestowed upon writer/director Sofia Coppola these past two decades, only an idiot would question her worth by saying she’s little more than her Hollywood royalty name. Those who said it back in 1999 as her debut feature The Virgin Suicides made the festival rounds were idiots too. If you’ve ever seen this film you should know the sum of its parts goes well beyond pedigree or accessibility. Whether her name allowed her the ability to collect the wonderful cast, crew, and indie budget (How much of that six million went to the stellar soundtrack?) she accrued means nothing if those assets were ultimately squandered—and so many do squander their gifts. Coppola corralled that talent and proved her own while delivering a contemporary masterpiece.
Her sophomore effort Lost in Translation often receives the majority of praise due to her Oscar victory for original screenplay, but for my money it’s her adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides‘ novel that shines brightest. The way she handles adolescent angst and nihilism; gossipy and out-of-touch affluent communities disconnected from their want-for-nothing youth; and teenage sexuality’s psychological drive and impact are second to none. And she tells her story with all of those complex machinations through an unreliable narrator. We don’t hear from the Lisbon sisters, whom the title explains will be dead before movie’s end. We only hear from the boys who watched, lusted over, and loved them. Our gaze upon their tragically short lives is filtered by the nostalgia-tinted memories of men without concrete answers.
So how much of what we see is real? How much is shrouded behind hearsay and embellishment from friends trying to impress each other? We don’t know and that’s a large part of the appeal. But Coppola isn’t afraid to include details that say more regardless of whether the boys noticed at the time. While they recall the sparkle the girls’ eyes or the constant flirtations that freeze them in their place, she reveals the sadness behind any alluring façades. Coppola puts a tear on their cheeks to highlight the truth about the troubled lives they were desperate to break free from. She shows us the darkness we believe can’t exist in a suburban utopia, exposing the prison we erect in the name of religion, safety, and control.
It’s therefore no surprise that the youngest daughter of Mr. (James Woods) and Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) would be the first to go. If anyone in that house of strict rules was to feel the weight of her futility, it was Cecilia (Hanna Hall). The other girls may have still believed things could change, each subsequent sister believing it a little less as time proved different. To see that Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A.J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), and Lux (Kirsten Dunst) endured this oppression without a hope of taking a breath before graduation forces Cecilia to acknowledge her chains. Just like the elm trees unable to move succumb to their disease, so too do the Lisbon girls to loneliness. And sometimes a cry for help turns real.
There can be speculation as to whether Cecilia meant to die when jumping out her window. She wasn’t the first to jump, but he merely landed in some bushes before brushing himself off and walking away. Maybe she forgot about the wrought iron fence beneath her own window or maybe she aimed for it. No one knows except her and she can no longer explain. So speculation is born in that ignorance. People begin to tell themselves whatever they can to make it better whether Father Moody (Scott Glenn) not listing the death as a suicide or Mrs. Lisbon doubling-down on her actions being beyond reproach. Everyone pretends it was an isolated case of depression or that it didn’t happen at all. They go about their lives unscathed.
But that’s of course a lie of avoidance. It’s a manufactured mask detracting from what they really feel. The only people able to see past this wall are the children not yet jaded or self-absorbed enough to believe themselves better for not having experienced that same tragedy. So the boys start collecting what they can to delve into these girls’ psyches. They search the Lisbon house when invited and scour the minutiae surrounding it for answers they’ll never be able to find. And they start believing the girls will be okay after studying their public faces. Those smiles and glances embolden them to pay attention and hatch fantasies wherein they rescue the sisters from their jailors of mind and body as knights in shining armor. We know different.
Coppola uses color to depict rising pressures and danger. She moves past narration (by Giovanni Ribisi) towards faux documentary tactics like an interview with the older Trip Fontaine (Michael Paré) reminiscing about his younger self’s (Josh Hartnett) adoration of Lux. We hear the gossip of neighbors and the catty assumptions projected upon things they know nothing about. It’s all whispers these boys overheard back when it was happening, their recollections altered by the passing of twenty-five years and the desire to think they did all they could. But the more we watch (and The Virgin Suicides demands repeat viewings), the more we understand the truth. These girls were suffocating because no one saw them as more than objects—the boys as conquests, their parents as property.
So when a failed experiment to give them wings implodes (the shift from absolute joy at Homecoming to abject despair locked in their room afterwards is undeniably extreme and yet completely believable in the context of the Lisbon household), it can be warped from one girl’s mistake to the wholesale justification of an upbringing devoid of independence. Every step forward brings two steps back and every new rule conjures a desire to break it as completely as possible. We watch as each devolves in order to survive. Mr. Lisbon commences a nervous breakdown steeped in guilt and inadequacy (Woods is terrific here), Mrs. Lisbon insulates herself from critique, and Lux dives headfirst into rebellion. And all the while the boys naively dream of an impossible happily ever after.
Every single needle drop delivers a mix of excitement and melancholy whether Heart‘s rousing diptych of “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” or Styx‘s “Come Sail Away” and Coppola shoots the action beneath with an ethereal quality she’s never afraid to jolt awake with an abrupt shake back to reality. And the single constant throughout proves to be fourteen-year old Lux—her desirability to Trip and the others, her refusal to be stopped from doing everything she’s already been preemptively punished for, and her obvious sadness. It’s a naked performance you must give Coppola equal credit for coaxing out of Dunst as the actor herself. This central role becomes layered between truth and fiction, the convergence as much a desperate plea for salvation as survivalist camouflage hiding defeat.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.