Death And The Maidens

Film still for Death And The Maidens

Teenage loss and longing in the heart of American suburbia is a familiar movie subject, but what is it about Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides that makes it so uniquely potent an elegy, asks Graham Fuller

"All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream." Edgar Allen Poe's famous lines were quoted in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), but they're a fitting epigram, too, for The Virgin Suicides, the first feature written and directed by Sofia Coppola. As cryptic, unresolved and incandescently dreamy as Weir's metaphysical mystery, Coppola's fable similarly delights in the layers of mystique and accretions of physical detail with which it surrounds the loss of beautiful schoolgirls sucked before their time into the crevices of oblivion.

The fate of The Virgin Suicides' heroines - unlike that of Picnic's trio of lambently photographed Victorian maidens, who disappear on a school outing in the Australian outback - might, on the face of it, have seemed harder to poeticise: the five teenage Lisbon sisters, pretty but otherwise unremarkable schoolgirls who live with their parents in a wealthy Michigan suburb in the 70s, matter-of-factly kill themselves, the self-slayings of the supposedly well-adjusted eldest four precipitated by the death plunge of the disaffected youngest. Yet Coppola had one of the most breathlessly lyrical, if frequently mordant, of 90s novels to work with. Her meticulously faithful transposition of Jeffrey Eugenides' incantatory prose to the screen has resulted in nothing less than a timelessly romantic suburban myth that could become a cult classic.

The Virgin Suicides is, at first glance, part of that unofficial school of recent American movies that have detected a fatal cardiac arrest - brought on by familial dysfunction and unreasonable societal expectations - in the suburban heart of the nation. Such films as Todd Haynes' Safe, Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, Sam Mendes' American Beauty and Marc Forster's upcoming Everything Put Together portray middle-class America as a locus of alienation, abuse, betrayal and existential despair. David Schisgall's documentary The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs, meanwhile, depicts it as a place of rampant swinging among the over-fifties. There is, as Quentin Tarantino might say, something rotten in Denmark.

Although The Virgin Suicides contributes to this ongoing critique, it has more on its mind than suburban neuroses - even if the film's breathtaking opening montage quickly ushers in environmental disturbance and psychological breakdown. Coppola begins with the golden vision of Lux, the Lisbon family's sexually precocious 14-year-old, polishing off a strawberry ice against the backdrop of a sunlit avenue before she drifts out of frame. As a distant ambulance siren starts to slice through Air's insinuatingly ominous music theme, shots of a man watering his garden (shades of Blue Velvet) and women walking a dog are followed by the less reassuring - and blatantly symbolic - sight of workmen designating a diseased elm for removal.

This last shot tells us the rot has set in. Though Coppola segues to a son playing basketball while his dad barbecues lunch and a glimpse of the sun piercing the trees, she then cuts abruptly to a miniature metropolis of bathroom scent bottles, from which a crucifix ostentatiously dangles. A dripping sound has now replaced the xylophone on the soundtrack, and a young male voice intones, "Cecilia was the first to go," as Coppola cuts to the blueing face of Lux's 13-year-old sister lying face upwards in a bath like Millais' Ophelia. The ambulance is coming because she has slit her wrists.

The shock of this event, Cecilia's unsuccessful first suicide attempt, has barely abated when, 50 seconds later via another imagery-laden montage, the film jauntily carries us back to the sunny neighbourhood. Ed Lachman's camera roams the peaceful streets and then rolls on its back to look at the trees, the sky, the title - etched in myriad schoolgirl graffitis - and a ravishing close-up of Lux who, removed to some Elysium in the clouds, gives us the sauciest of come-hither winks before the story of the neighbourhood's decline is resumed. Kirsten Dunst plays Lux (Latin for 'light') as a luminous teen sex fantasy rather than a flesh-and-blood co-ed - but Lex (covenant) would have been as good a name for her, for there's a world of complicity in that wink. It offers the audience a pact - a promise that, if we watch carefully, The Virgin Suicides has a secret to share, that it is only ostensibly a film about teenage wasteland. What, then, is its real meaning?

In its present-tense storyline (contrapuntally narrated 25 years after the fact), The Virgin Suicides is framed as a mystery in which the protagonists - not the Lisbon girls but the four neighbourhood boys who worship them from afar, go to their school, and to the only party they will ever host, at which Cecilia duly impales herself on a garden fence - attempt to penetrate the inner sanctum of the girls' ultimately elusive existence. As they do so, they romantically (if not sexually) fetishise the sisters during their incarceration at home, which is Mrs Lisbon's cataclysmically neurotic response to Lux having stayed out all night with her boyfriend Trip Fontaine after the homecoming dance. But these callow, doting boys cannot grow up quickly enough to rescue Therese, Mary, Bonnie and Lux from deaths that are as preordained as Cecilia's. The movie culminates with them attending a coming-out party, where they squire girls who leave them unmoved as all other women will in the future, and fetching up outside the Lisbons' lifeless house in the blue light of dawn. In the end, we learn that the boys' unceasing investigation has led them merely to rue "the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself."

Still, as spectators empathising with the boys, we feel bound to look within the film's fabric for clues to why the girls killed themselves. Structurally, The Virgin Suicides is a fairytale that fails. After the death of their youngest sister, four golden-haired princesses go to a ball. Three of them safely return. But the flirty Cinderella who smokes and drinks is seduced and abandoned by her Prince Charming, whereupon the wicked queen, their mother, imprisons them in a tower (Mrs Lisbon grounds the girls for all time). Other princes come to rescue them, but their destiny as sleeping beauties is sealed.

The fairytale approach invites a psychoanalytic reading. James Woods' Mr Lisbon, the kindly high-school maths teacher and the girls' weak-minded father, has, naturally, been emasculated by his domineering, maternalising wife and the tide of oestrogen that sweeps through his house each day. Mrs Lisbon is the Freudian evil mother, vengefully jealous of her girls' sexuality now her own beauty has waned. (The casting of Kathleen Turner is weirdly iconic here; Turner played both the eternal schoolgirl of Peggy Sue Got Married, directed by Sofia's father Francis Ford Coppola, and the gleeful killer of John Waters' Serial Mom.)

Neither Eugenides in his book nor Coppola in her film, however, shows much interest in psychologically explicating the girls' suicides: there's no return of the repressed because, in the world of the Lisbon girls, there's apparently none to return. They are slates as blank as Cecilia's diary (one of the "exhibits" lovingly collated by the boys), whose banal entries reveal nothing about her state of mind at the time she offed herself. The pronouncements made by the psychologist in the novel are platitudinous; in the film he's played by Danny DeVito as a caricature. Mrs Lisbon's decision to withdraw the girls from school and keep them permanently at home is an unsatisfactory rationale for their determination to take their own lives. Trip's desertion of Lux on the school football field after he's devirginised her triggers her desperate bout of promiscuity on the family roof, but we do not get the sense she's going to kill herself over him.

As for a sociological explanation, Eugenides trots out statistics about teenage suicides purely to emphasise their pointlessness and renders trite those neighbours who take it upon themselves to pontificate about the Lisbons ("Capitalism has resulted in material well-being but spiritual bankruptcy"). The novel can, of course, be interpreted as a cosmically weary 'whynotdoit?' along the lines of Martin Amis' novella Night Train. But Coppola's movie, which doesn't engage with such nihilism, makes any 'whys' redundant.

If the boys' unwitting implication in the suicides constitutes their moral failure, their desire to enshrine the girls even as they are losing the will to live in their pastel bedrooms is wildly successful and the core of the Lisbon legend. (Twice Coppola sends the camera tracking over their puddles of girlish memorabilia - sunglasses, a lipstick, a prayer book, a Kiss LP, a brooch, a bloodstreaked laminated picture of the Madonna and Child - as if she were Tarkovsky tracking over the submerged detritus in Stalker.) It is in this aspect of the story that Coppola seems most passionately to have invested, for the tone of her film, far from tragic, is downright celebratory in its depiction of female adolescence.

The neophyte writer-director, born in Manhattan on 12 May 1971 amid the hectic production of The Godfather, had hitherto had a rocky ride through the movies. As her father's co-writer (and costume designer) on 'Life without Zoe', his segment of New York Stories (1989), she shared the blame for its critical mauling. Then, called on by her father to act in The Godfather Part III (1990) when Winona Ryder fell sick, she was crucified for her limpid portrayal of Mary Corleone. Coppola subsequently worked as a photographer, designed her own clothing line and directed Lick the Star (1998), a pleasingly impressionistic short with a schoolyard theme. She wrote her Virgin Suicides script knowing that another director had optioned the book and against the advice of her father, who suggested she should work on another project to avoid disappointment. Fortuitously picking up the option herself, she then directed the movie in a style that hovers between the deliciously faux naive and the hauntingly elegiac.

The film's mythic quality is achieved through Coppola's playful mise en scène, which gives corporeal shape to the memorialisation of the Lisbon girls by the boys, who gaze from an eyrie across the street at the sisters' protracted demise - as we in turn watch them watching. They are the dreamers in this dream, but tragically for their post-Oedipal development the girls they dream of are in the process of becoming suspended eternally at their most beautiful and sexually unavailable. The retrospective voiceover narration is delivered from the vantage point of the disillusioned men the boys have become in their thirties, men who will never lay the ghosts of morose (and religiose) Cecilia, libidinous Lux, pious Bonnie, sphinx-like Mary and serious Therese - although, a quarter of a century on, it's made clear they continue to 'lay' them as masturbatory succubi, unbeknown to the wives who have failed to supplant the Lisbons in their husbands' collective memory.

Coppola, though, refuses morbidity. Incorporating a serene succession of montages and tableaux and funny, romantic bits of business (a momentary heart-shaped inset in Lux's homecoming dress reveals she has inked Trip's name on her panties), the movie is a vibrant scrapbook that captures the doomed nymphs in their post-pubescent prime. One boy who gets to visit with the girls and pauses to sniff an illicit scarlet lipstick in the bathroom is confronted there by Lux, who throws him out so she can insert a tampon: it's as if Coppola seized on the material with the intent of enfranchising teenage girlhood in all its hormonal glory, a subject glossed over in most Hollywood high-school flicks.

Nor does the movie shrink from teen anguish. "Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl," Cecilia wryly remarks in hospital after her suicide attempt. Yet it luxuriates in its adolescent idylls, in which the Lisbon sisters' self-dramatising imaginations infest those of their awestruck admirers. The information, for instance, that Lux had a crush on the garbage man is seen by the boys - reading of it in Cecilia's diary - as a languorous pastoral reverie replete with a unicorn, the girls at their most goldenly glowing, and piped music that could have come from a 60s Flake commercial. And the sequence introducing Trip as a lean, smouldering, sweetly attentive high-school jock and pothead (teen heartthrob Josh Hartnett's bewigged performance suggests a long-haired Gary Cooper at 16) is a paean to female sexual rapture. Later, when the girls are prisoners and pore over travel magazines as a means of escape, the boys do likewise and imagine themselves on vacations in exotic locales with the girls, including the resurrected Cecilia - Coppola shows us their holiday snaps. When the boys come finally to save the girls, they visualise speeding down a highway with their liberated loves, no matter that, by then, most of them are dead.

Trip and Lux, inevitably crowned homecoming king and queen at the dance, are mythic figures in their own right: idealised versions of the archetypal high-school stud and his blonde, angel-faced sexpot girlfriend, the boy and girl every other kid wants to be, or be with. Their epiphanic moments together are brutally terminated by Trip's revulsive post-coital abandonment, after which he is never seen again in the film as a youth - a disappearance as significant as that of the girls. He gets his comeuppance: Michael Paré subsequently plays him as a fortyish guy in rehab, where he is interviewed about Lux as part of the boys' posthumous inquiry.

That Trip's flight from Lux is the single most troubling incident in the film indicates where Coppola's heart lies. The mythic level on which her movie operates suggests it is not about teen suicide at all, but about the monumental loss incurred by everyone with the passing of the teen years - she has stated as much. The suicides are a full-blown metaphor for the death of the teen experience - the non-stop emotional rollercoaster and the agonies and ecstasies of first love, the heinous parents, the unrepeatable aliveness, the sense of living inside a melodrama. We have, most of us, had a Lux or a Trip, that idealised projection of our own desires and inadequacies, that departed beauty who could never have maintained his or her inflated status in adulthood but whose unassailable perfections multiply with the passing years. The knowledge that this is what the film is about is the secret in Lux's wink.

Where Coppola diverges most radically from Eugenides is in her decision not to tarnish the Lisbon myth as it rolls towards its understated Götterdämmerung. Eugenides based the neighbourhood of the novel on his home town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but he superimposed over it the urban decay of Detroit, where he was born. In his book Cecilia's first suicide attempt coincides with a biblical plague of short-lived fish flies that rise from the algae in a polluted lake. Soon the dystopia becomes general, at its centre the rotting Lisbon household. The girls become malnourished and the pollution proceeds all the way to Lux's vagina where a gynaecologist finds the beginnings of genital warts. This sardonic detail, redolent of masculine disgust, is unsurprisingly omitted from the film, but so too is that sense of pervasive entropy. A time-lapse sequence of the Lisbons' house reveals little change through the seasons, but as the girls recede from the foreground of the movie so Coppola endows them with an otherworldly aura. They are as lovely as living ghosts as they were as radiant schoolgirls.

There are flies in this ointment, though (and not just those that Trip Fontaine unzips). It's when a boy with Down's syndrome becomes the centre of attention at the Lisbons' basement party that Cecilia decides to jump out of her bedroom window. Reading from her diary, the boys note that she recorded how Lux, on a sea excursion shown as a home movie by Coppola, was surprised by how much whales stink. "It's the kelp in their baleens rotting," Therese told her. Coppola also preserves the "swamp smell" that makes the befrocked and betuxed guests at the coming-out party wear gas masks. Casually enfolded into the parade of nostalgifying scenes, these titbits selected from the novel strike notes of dissonance that hint gently at universal malaise.

That same malaise is present in Happiness, American Beauty and The Ice Storm, which also examine the special plight of suburban adolescents - the proverbial children on whom the sins of the fathers (and mothers) are visited. But if there is a true analogue to The Virgin Suicides, it is Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), a film equally aglow with the mythicising of a fated clan (tantalisingly, Eugenides threw a "Mrs Amberson" into the Lisbons' neighbourhood). In any case, there's nothing very zeitgeisty about Coppola's film, which is at least partially informed by a tragedy of her own. In May 1986 Gian-Carlo Coppola, the elder of Sofia's two brothers, was killed in a speedboat accident at the age of 22. She told me recently that although she wasn't thinking of him when she chose to make The Virgin Suicides, she had been forcibly reminded during filming of how she too had gone over her memories time and time again to try to understand what had happened. In the end, she said, she had stopped trying, but was left with "an essence" that persuaded her his short life had had a purpose. Although fictional, Coppola's American beauties also have a purpose: to remind us all that our teenage triumphs and traumas, and the phantoms who provoked them, are as alive as they ever were.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012