Sunday, 1 March 2015

Movie Review: The Virgin Suicides (1999)


A tender story of how girlhood can go terribly wrong, The Virgin Suicides is a wispy tragedy, softly unfolding with a sentient style.

It's 1975, in the suburbs of Detroit. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) have five daughters ranging in age from 13 to 17. Mr. Lisbon is a schoolteacher, his wife a homemaker, and they are deeply religious, keeping their daughters sheltered and away from social activities. Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A. J. Cook), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), and Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall) become the subject of fascination bordering on obsession for the boys in their neighbourhood. The level of curiosity is amplified when the youngest girl Cecilia attempts suicide by slashing her wrists, but she is saved.

Dr. Horniker (Danny DeVito) advises the Lisbons that they need to allow their daughters to mingle more with their classmates. The first party hosted by the girls ends tragically when Cecilia does indeed succeed in killing herself. The surviving sisters tentatively start to socialize more, but when the free-spirited Lux falls under the spell of Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the coolest boy in the school, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon clamp down harder, triggering grim consequences.

Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, adapting the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, is a hypnotizing journey into the perilous world of growing up. The Virgin Suicides is a bleak story delivered with a delicate touch, capturing the suburban melancholia that emerges with the loss of innocence. Coppola bathes the film in happy colours, soft light, and an airy, remarkably open atmosphere, contrasting the image of flourishing suburbia with the suffocation within families behind closed doors. Death is hovering nearby, the disease-infested neighbourhood elm trees the subject of much agony: should they be left to die naturally or chopped to avoid infecting others.

Seen through the eyes of teenaged boys, The Virgin Suicides treats girls in adolescence as a fragile mystery fraught with peril. They are easily knocked off course by good intentions tarnished with religious dogma, misguided parental rules metastasizing into a horror show of desperation fuelled by confinement. And the film stands outside the girls and observes them as objects of fascination, young women emerging as enigmas to their parents, and most acutely to the boys who would, under normal circumstances, become the men in their lives.

Despite the raging drama of girls fighting to breathe the oxygen of adulthood, Coppola constructs The Virgin Suicides with remarkable calm, and the film avoids guilt trips, finger pointing and recriminations. Below the seemingly staid surface, the tension may boil, but in the day to day lives of the girls, their school and their neighbourhood, the emotions are in check. Smatterings of gossip and interludes of uneasy silences hint at the turmoil; most of what is wrong is left unsaid. The soundtrack by French duo Air perfectly captures the dolefulness of the film, Playground Love a devastatingly evocative theme song.

In addition to Woods, Turner and DeVito, the supporting cast is sprinkled with interesting faces. As Trip Fontaine, Josh Hartnett delivers a refreshingly assured and animated performance. Michael ParĂ© plays the adult Trip, Scott Glenn has a small role as a priest, and Giovanni Ribisi provides low-key narration. A young Hayden Christensen appears as one of the neighbourhood boys.

But this is a story of five sisters, and as the most adventurous of the Lisbon daughters, Kirsten Dunst shines in a role that lives in the twilight zone between individualism and calamity. Never outwardly rebellious, Dunst allows Lux to smile through life's limits as her young mind assesses ever dwindling options, from breaking a strict curfew to exploring what the roof has to offer when the outdoors are off limits. And when the conditions of growing up become even more stifling, she invites the curious boys indoors, to discover for themselves the images of truncated hope.






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