The Virgin Suicides
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
From the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides

Starring Kirsten Dunst, James Woods, Kathleen Turner


The Virgin Suicides

Sofia Coppola, bearer of the most famous name in films and now married to the deliciously witty director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich"), has written and directed "The Virgin Suicides," her first feature, from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. She had previously made one short film, "Lick the Star," which to me was a needlessly shallow look at hurtful snobs and outsider victims at a boarding school, replete with lots of shots into the sun and long, slow pans that tried to give weight to a film that had no story.

It is the mid-70s in Grosse Point, Michigan (strangely misspelled in the film on the town notices posted on dying elm trees scheduled for cutting down to slow the spread of blight). The five daughters of the Lisbon family -- the father (James Woods) a math teacher at the high school and the mother (Kathleen Turner, who's a bit zaftig these days) an overly strict, repressive Catholic housewife -- have only each other for love and comfort.

The story is told in voiceover by a boy who, with his friends, fell in love that year with the idea of loving any of the beautiful blonde sisters, and recounts the events to us twenty years later. Kirsten Dunst, remembered from her brilliant work in "My So-called Life," is Lux, the sister who is willing to try the outside world and see what it holds. In the course of the film she is betrayed by her first lover, Trip (Josh Hartnett), in a manner so contrived it destroys any hope of emotional truth in the film.

The film begins with the discovery that the youngest sister, barely into her teens, has committed suicide, but no one -- not the family, not the audience -- has any idea why. Structurally -- that is, as a mechanical writing device -- the film uses her death as a weight that hangs over everything to come, but because we've been given no reason for the death it has no resonance for us, and the foreshadowing power is lost. Evidently the sight of her body, beautiful in repose in her billowing, almost Victorian dress, is to be enough for us to mourn her and fear what is to come.

The problem with the film is that we are privy to so little conversation among the girls that we get no sense of who they are, what they feel or think, and why they would do what they do. It's as though they are all in that magical world of adolescent fantasy where nothing need be said out loud, and certainly not to either the boys who pursue them or to us in the audience. Coppola hasn't given us any reason to identify with them, or even to help us separate one from another.

Woods and Turner do their best with parts so sadly underwritten that we know them more through their wardrobes than their lines. When the film ends, you get the feeling that Coppola has yet to shake off her own high-school fantasies and grow up into an adult artist who's willing to face the hard job of giving her characters real lives and believable experiences.    

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