With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform. Stream “The Virgin Suicides” here.
Not every take on viewing experience in the time of quarantine has to touch on the theme of confinement, “The Virgin Suicides” certainly feels attuned to this moment, even though it was released 20 years ago this month. Sofia Coppola’s feature debut is both a film about confinement and a sterling rebuke of creative restrictions of all shapes. It’s the first — and so far only — film adaptation of one of the author’s books (though the Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston vehicle “The Switch,” of all things, is based on a Eugenides short story), which is only further proof of how hard it can be to translate his tricky, intimate tone to the big screen.
Yet Coppola fused the gap between Eugenides’ hermetically sealed suburban nightmare and her own burgeoning auteurist vision. The result: a lavishly faithful adaptation of Eugenides’ haunting 1993 novel (which marked his own debut) that also establishes Coppola’s obsessions and sensibilities as a filmmaker. Fittingly, it was Eugenides’ novel that inspired Coppola — who surely never wanted for proof that filmmaking could be a viable career path, given her family line — to be a filmmaker.
“I really didn’t know I wanted to be a director until I read ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and saw so clearly how it had to be done,” Coppola said in the film’s official production notes at the time. “I immediately saw the central story as being about what distance and time and memory do to you, and about the extraordinary power of the unfathomable. It’s about the big themes in life: about mortality and obsession and love.” It is, in short, about all the things that Coppola has spent the last two decades exploring with her work.
Set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the late-’70s, “The Virgin Suicides” — and its strange pack of narrators, a veritable Greek chorus made up of horny teenage boys and their heartbroken adult selves — is fixated on the Lisbon sisters, a fivesome of blonde siblings (led mostly by Kirsten Dunst as popular middle sister Lux) who would be enthralling no matter the circumstance, but who ascend to mythological status after tragedy destroys their family. Despite the cookie-cutter appearance of the Lisbons’ neighborhood and the strictly defined gender roles their parents (played by the moving and infuriating one-two punch of Kathleen Turner and James Woods) adhere to, the Lisbon girls have been born into a time of great change and their general teenage malaise is exacerbated by a world exploding into something brand new.
Coppola has long been compelled by characters who exist in a state of direct confrontation with their time and place — from Marie Antoinette to “Lost and Translation” leads Charlotte and Bob; hell, even Stephen Dorff’s spiraling “Somewhere” character is mostly defined as a has-been — but the Lisbon sisters bear the worst of it. The world might have space for them, but their home, their parents, even their own heads can afford no such concessions. At least they have their shared experience, their shared girlhood (another Coppola staple, warts and all) to temporarily soothe them, before they make the final leap into the next stage, together, as they always are.
Like Eugenides’ book, Coppola’s movie is unafraid to address unfathomable pain straight on: both the novel and the film really get moving after youngest Lisbon sister (Cecilia, played by Hanna R. Hall) attempts suicide for seemingly undefined reasons (at least, undefined to everyone around her but her sisters). Cecilia’s act spawns something deep and dark in every person around her — her parents attempt to stave it off with an ill-fated party, before tightening their already-strict rules and choking off her siblings in the process — as confinement is explored as the ultimate safety valve. But whatever lurks inside Cecilia, whatever lurks inside the rest of her sisters, cannot be contained, and is only made worse by even the most loving attempts to keep it tucked away.
After a Cannes premiere, the film launched Coppola’s career, despite a handful of reviews that worried over its dark material (as if teenagedom as ever been easy). She’s never balked at other adaptations, mixing up her original material with other sourced works like “The Beguiled” and “The Bling Ring,” and finding her own art in the process. Some things just can’t be held back.
“The Virgin Suicides” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Kanopy, and Crackle. Sign up here for a free Prime trial.