The end of the 20th century was a fascinating time for American cinema. The directors, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Bryan Singer, Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan, Spike Jonze and Alexander Payne all emerged and began to make a serious impact as filmmakers in this period, alongside talented Britons such as Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry. Quentin Tarantino and the Australian Baz Luhrmann had only made their feature debuts a few years’ earlier. Into this heady mix came Sofia Coppola with her adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides in 1998. Viewed from the perspective of a quarter of a century on, the film, a moderate indie hit at the time, now looks like one of the most assured directorial debuts ever made.
The Virgin Suicides is the story of the Lisbon girls, the five blonde, beautiful daughters of a strict Catholic family (their parents are played by Kathleen Turner and James Woods) living in the leafy, sunny suburbs of Grosse Point, Michigan. It is set in the 1970s, the decade of Sofia Coppola’s own childhood, a period roughly as distant from the year this was released, 1998, as the year 1998 is now from the present day. It is also the story of the local boys who watch the Lisbons’ unfolding tragedy from afar. We never get to know these boys well in the film. One of them, voiced by the actor, Giovanni Ribisi serves as the film’s narrator.
Of the Lisbon girls, we mostly get to know, Lux: a girl with an oddly bohemian Christian name for someone from such an apparently conservative family. Lux is played by Kirsten Dunst, then still a few years’ away from her success opposite Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy although even then was, as she remains today, the most well-known of the actresses to play any of the Lisbon daughters. Lux embarks on a brief affair with local teenage stud, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). This proves to be a mistake. We later meet the adult Trip (now played by Michael Paré) who, twenty years on, never seems to have got over the experience.
As we live in an age of trigger warnings, it seems only fair to point out that the title, The Virgin Suicides is almost entirely accurate in reflecting the film’s subject matter. Despite this, I have personally never found it to be especially gloomy or harrowing. It is beautifully filmed and has a nostalgic dream-like quality fuelled by its soundtrack provided by the then-fashionable French electronic music duo, Air.
Before 1998, Sofia Coppola was best-known not only for being the daughter of filmmaking legend, Francis Ford Coppola but also for her awkward acting as Mary Corleone in 1990’s The Godfather Part III, replacing Winona Ryder at the last minute in her father’s movie. Although her performance was uneven, critical anger over this apparent nepotism saw her unfairly pilloried with many using her as a scapegoat for a belated sequel that was disappointing anyway. Happily, since 1998, she has become the acclaimed director of a total of seven films. By far her biggest hit was her second movie, Lost in Translation (2002). The film transformed Bill Murray’s career and made Scarlett Johansson a star.
The Virgin Suicides
Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and for the first time in the UK on 4K UHD & digital on 13 March 2023.