Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
In the spring of 1999, Sofia Coppola’s feature directorial debut, a big screen version of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Virgin Suicides,” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. A delicate, deeply feeling and achingly human portrait of suburban ennui and teenage depression, the film was anchored by a performance by a then-17-year-old Kirsten Dunst. As Lux Lisbon, the prettiest and wildest and most broken of the five Lisbon sisters that the film so intimately chronicles, Dunst was tasked with straddling the gap between deep pain and flickering hope.
The film follows the Lisbons after their youngest sister, Cecilia, twice attempts suicide, completing the act on her second try, all during party thrown by her terrified parents in hopes of cheering her up enough to keep her alive. The Lisbons, by and large, are suffocated by their parents — played in Coppola’s film by James Woods and Kathleen Turner — who are wholly unable to deal with their brood’s desires to strike out and be their own people. When Cecilia goes, it sets off a chain reaction that threatens every single Lisbon sister, and with good reason.
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Although Eugenides’ book is mostly told from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys who are fixated on the Lisbsons — in part because they are very pretty and very distant, and later because the boys are so distraught by their inability to make the girls “feel better” — Coppola’s film shifts the narrative power to the Lisbons, and mostly to Lux, who acts out in the most compelling of ways after her little sister passes away. The girls are cherished and desired, and they are also entirely, heartbreakingly misunderstood.
What’s most striking about both the book and the film is that it never offers up an easy answer for the depression and pain that haunts the girls. Yes, they’re sheltered and coddled and yes, they’re eager to break out into a wider world that may not know how to entirely accept them, but neither Coppola or Eugenides rest on these easy answers.
The Lisbons are depressed, and in that dark, murky manner that has no simple answers or explanations or, in cheap parlance, actionable “cures.” It’s the kind of story that fits neatly alongside Sylvia Plath’s classic “The Bell Jar,” and that Dunst is now set to make her feature directorial debut with an adaptation of Plath’s seminal novel is, in many ways, the perfect kind of bookending to her stirring turn in Coppola’s first film.
Dunst’s ability to dive deeply into depression was not just confined to her work in “The Virgin Suicides,” she also captured rich, worldly ennui in Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and terrifying, world-ending fear in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” for which she won Cannes’ Best Actress award (and some of the biggest raves of her career).
Even in her younger years, Dunst was uncannily able to translate bone-deep sadness to the big screen in fascinating ways, like she did as a child in “Interview With the Vampire.” And while most fans of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” remain hung up on Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s work in the film (and rightly so), Dunst’s own subplot about lost love (and lost memories) is one of the film’s most heartbreaking elements.
Even Dunst’s more light-hearted roles — like in the perennial teen favorite “Bring It On” or the mostly flaccid “Mona Lisa Smile” — take on issues of female competition and comparison that no doubt feel a little familiar to fans of “The Bell Jar,” albeit told through a very modern (and, damn, sometimes just so cheery) lens.
Plath’s novel is concerned with many of the same themes and tones that Dunst has already brought her actorly talents to — depression, striving for greatness, female competition, reacting to the world around you — and that Dunst would decide to translate those interests and apparent skill set to her first feature isn’t just a strong progression, it’s an entirely natural one. And although Dunst’s “The Bell Jar” will be her feature directorial debut, it won’t mark her first turn behind the camera — she’s already got two shorts, “Welcome” and “Bastard,” under her belt, both of which feature big ideas wrapped in small packages.
“Welcome,” which Dunst made in 2007, stars no less than Winona Ryder and John Hawkes and is a creepy little slice of freakiness, one that hinges on Ryder going a little mental when a so-called “friendly ghost” makes his presence known. It’s snappy and smart, and darkly funny. “Bastard” premiered at Tribeca in 2010, complete with an enviable indie cast that included Brian Geraghty, Juno Temple and Lukas Haas. Like “Welcome,” it blends the fantastic and the everyday, topped off with some serious dread and the sense that its inhabitants — or its audience? — might be going a little crazy.