Now back in cinemas in 4K, the director's first film, based on Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, remains brilliantly elusive and challenging
Though I’d not seen The Virgin Suicides before, I knew of it as a formative text for a generation – a Lana Del Rey-esque sadcore waif girl aesthetic of Millennial pink, pictures of Kirsten Dunst taking blasé drags on cigarettes as Lux Lisbon re-blogged on Tumblr ad nauseum – and perhaps thought snottily about the film as a result. Seeing it for the first time thanks to this new 4K re-release, though, has rectified this lazy misconception: it’s a far smarter work than that, and just because Sofia Coppola likes to make films about the travails of rich, pretty girls in their perfumed boudoirs, doesn’t mean the work itself can be easily dismissed as shallow. The Virgin Suicides is not romantic of this vibe, but deeply strange and sad – a distanced record of five ghost-girls with no one to hear them.
Just like in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Coppola presents the flush of youth – five unbruised peaches, untarnished and ethereal – and has them experience a bizarre tragedy, their quasi-celestial unknowability being interesting not because they are beautiful, but because it exposes the failing of us, not them. These are films about not being seen, but gazed upon; the mythology of beauty and the monotony of suburbia.
The suburbia in question here is Grosse Point, Michigan, where five sisters aged 13 to 17 find themselves even more secluded and micro-managed by their strict parents after the suicide attempt of the youngest sibling, Cecelia. As a consequence, a group of similarly-aged boys in the town begin to obsess over these enigmatic girls locked in their cotton-candy castle; the second-youngest sister, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), is particularly perturbed by her lack of freedom, determined to strike out in the form of varied sexual encounters.
The Virgin Suicides has the perfect marriage of image and song; French band Air (which stands for amour, imagination, and rêve, i.e. love, imagination, dream: perfect) warble over the opening credits, imparting an insouciant, woozy vibe over Coppola’s dreamy crossfades of sun-flared yearning. We can’t bear witness to the sisters’ love for one another, but we see it in snatches: entwined limbs, heads on shoulders, distress at dispensing with one’s beloved record collection, all transposed through a pharmaceutical calm that says: this could only be America. As a calling card for Coppola – redolent of her singular fascination with feminine aesthetics, and predilection for pensive isolation – it’s quite a remarkable debut, even considering her famous forebears.
Maybe Coppola could have kept this all even more hypnagogic, dispensing with the need for a jarring Josh Hartnett as love interest Trip Fontaine and an overused James Woods as the Lisbon patriarch. Like a lot of interesting art about confusing people, many who watched the film romanticized the protagonists (the new re-release has a trigger warning for “suicide ideation,” and you only needed to be on the internet a decade ago to see the film’s popularity in tandem with this theme); Lux, too, may be responsible for a series of awful manic pixie dream girl protagonists from male-directed noughties films (you know the ones). But that’s not Coppola’s fault. What an interesting and elusive film for a 28-year-old to make after years of being attacked for her acting and nepotism: unknowable and challenging, its meaning disappearing into the air like pink smoke.
The Virgin Suicides is re-released in UK cinemas on 28 July.Where to watch