The Virgin Suicides

Five perfectly normal-seeming blonde teenage girls — all sisters from the same perfectly normal-seeming suburban house — killed themselves in 1975. This much we’re told at the beginning of The Virgin Suicides, a glum coming-of-age/suburban fairy tale structured like a murder mystery — a self-murder mystery — to which there is no answer. The point being, I suppose, that suicide is a void that swallows up rational questions; the very existence of suicide cancels out logic.

I wish I’d enjoyed The Virgin Suicides more — in outline, it’s exactly my kind of depressive anti-Hollywood fare — but I can really only half-heartedly recommend it. Partly it’s the timing: the source material, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, may have seemed fresh upon its 1994 publication, but since then we’ve had a raft of films probing the suburban malaise — The Ice Storm, Happiness, and American Beauty were the better ones. By now, the idea that misery lurks underneath the plasticized surface of outwardly happy homes is a bit stale; these days, a truly original movie would show us a suburban family that seems happy and then actually turns out to be happy.

The five Lisbon girls, ranging in age from 13 to 17, have grown up in a Repressive Environment (ah, the usual suspect in movies like this). Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), a grim and smothering woman, keeps the girls safe at home every night, while Mr. Lisbon (James Woods), a milquetoast math teacher, pretty much leaves the decisions to his wife. The “first to go,” we’re told by the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi), is the youngest, Cecilia (Hannah Hall), whose botched wrist-slitting attempt is soon followed by a more surefire method that seems imported from a horror movie. After that, Mrs. Lisbon cracks down harder than ever, and the fence outside the house is disposed of, for reasons you’ll discover if you see the film.

That fence, along with so much else in The Virgin Suicides, feels literary in a way that doesn’t present itself until later — you intellectualize the meaning, but you don’t feel it. And you don’t really feel it when the second eldest, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), falls for a young stud who calls himself Trip (Josh Hartnett). The teens in this movie cling to each other in a fog of suburban self-contempt bordering on hysteria, and all I could think was how indelibly Ang Lee already accomplished this in The Ice Storm.

The Virgin Suicides has won some glowing notices — let’s face it, it’s been overpraised — and I can only conclude that many critics, remorseful about the skewering they gave Sofia Coppola for The Godfather Part III when she was only trying to help out her dad, are now building up her writing-directing debut to be more than it is. To be sure, the younger Coppola is gentle with her cast, and she does some interesting things, but she also tries a little too hard to be lyrical yet gloomy — the movie is like a Francesca Lia Block young-adult novel left out in the rain. She also can’t do much with the parents as written, and neither can their (elsewhere excellent) portrayers: Turner’s performance is like a joyless remix of her Serial Mom, and poor James Woods seems raring to play a man sinking under the weight of unacknowledged grief, if only the script would let him. And didn’t Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland play these same characters 20 years ago?

The movie, perhaps daringly, arrives at its conclusion without really having arrived at a point. The point may be that there is no point, which seems a fashionable trend in indie films these days. Trip and the other three boys who fall in love with the Lisbon girls — or so the movie tells us; we don’t really feel that either — are left with nothing except their memories of the blonde suburban perfection that concealed such hungry demons inside. Even when the boys become men, the girls are never far from their thoughts. They don’t know why the girls were so miserable, but we in the audience can read the situation pretty well: It’s yet another case of blame-the-parents, and, more precisely, blame-the-overprotective-mother. For all its sympathy for teenage girls’ pain, The Virgin Suicides is an ode to girls as helpless waifs and women as martinets, and inadvertently it’s also an ode to suicide: What better way for a girl to gain eternal life in the minds of her boy admirers?

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