Film of the Day: The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Review by Harvey O’Brien PhD.

Like Boys Don’t CryThe Virgin Suicides is a film about an enclosed, ritualistic world which fascinates outsiders. In this case it is a feminine world, specifically the life of a Catholic family in the 1970s. They have five beautiful daughters who prove an endless source of wonder and dumbfoundment to a group of high school boys who observe them from afar. The boys never understand them, and years later they continue to speculate on why all of them committed suicide (not a spoiler: the voice over tells us this at the beginning). As a cinematic essay about enigmas and the impenetrable, almost arcane firmament of Catholicism and femininity, director Sofia Coppola’s film works pretty well. She demonstrates some understanding of composition and narrative rhythm which keeps the audience at arm’s length from the action, inviting them to share the male narrator’s sense of curiosity and frustration. Like a suburban American Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film adds up to less than the sum of its parts, refusing resolution, investigation, and analysis in favour of a sort of transcendent mystery. This will appeal to those who find the only shred of explanation offered (“you’ve obviously never been a thirteen year old girl”) reason enough to do this, but may frustrate those who, like the hapless males who watch and fail to learn throughout the movie, would like to know more and understand the consequences of what we see.

To be fair, Coppola gives us plenty of incidental detail which contextualises the events. We are presented with enough visual evidence to understand the psychological enclosure and sense of familial bonds which has created this largely hidden world. Kathleen Turner and James Woods  give quiet but excellent performances as the well-meaning parents whose own mental entrenchment is at least partly responsible for the tragedy. Neither are completely irredeemable, and the script provides moments of insight into their personalities which show them not as repressive ogres or caricatures, but people attempting to raise their daughters well (according to their standards, of course). But, through the use of costumes and decor, Coppola presents physical space in the family home in terms of claustrophobia, and the relatively simple visual style of the movie adds to this. The girls are rarely separate from one another as personalities, with only Kirsten Dunst emerging as a rebellious spirit who expresses herself through sexual energy (adding to the boys’ fascination with her, of course, and providing the film with the opportunity to make some references to voyeurism). Keeping the action and characters this tightly drawn together, Coppola gives herself less room to make mistakes, and this pays off at least insofar as it does give a sense of the hows and whys of the girls’ psychological and physical incarceration. It also further contribute to the frustrating sense of borderline mysticism, of course, but this is, after all, precisely the point. The same flaw (or feature) mars (or reinforces) the sub-text of exploring the role of teenagers in society, with a hissable news reporter popping in at the fringes of the story every now and then to remind us that such things have wider importance. […]

From Harvey´s Movie Reviews.

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