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The Virgin Suicides

July 30, 2017

The Virgin Suicides (1999)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Actors: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst

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Synopsis: A group of men reflect back on their teenage association with the alluring Lisbon sisters who all committed suicide over a short period of time.

Review: 1999 was a truly great year for American cinema. It spawned enduring classics such as Magnolia, Being John MalkovichFight Club and Rushmore to name but a few, and Sofia Coppola’s astoundingly assured debut, The Virgin Suicides, deserves inclusion right at the top of that illustrious list.

In fact, it must be ranked as one of the finest directorial debuts period, and perhaps a high point that Coppola has never quite matched again in her career. Coppola, quite rightly, is known as a master of ambience and depicting interior states, but The Virgin Suicides is such a dexterous dramatic and sociopolitical piece too. What she’s crafted is really rather difficult: a film that is both an external commentary on all things to do with patriarchy, affluence and homogeneity, as well as being an experiential ode to the intangibles and inherent mysteries of the human condition.

The opening sequence of the film is a great exemplar of Coppola’s mastery over form and content. We open on a lovely, low-key portrait of the Detroit suburb of Grosse Point in dreamy dusk light, until a sharp cut frames ornate, adolescent female toiletries in a bathroom window, before an elegiac voiceover informs us abruptly “Cecilia was the first to go”, by which point another cut shows Cecilia, lying seemingly dead, in the bath water. This sequence imprints the subtle, but all-important, link between environment and protagonist, while also introducing a refracted, ironic narration (it’s one of the boys – in thrall to the mystique of the Lisbon girls – recalling their story in later-life).

It’s Coppola’s competency in handling the import of the story that impresses most. Postmodern distanciation is a desperately difficult trick to carry off sincerely, but Coppola does it superbly. One example being the almost Wes Anderson-esque comic interlude of a boy who jumps out of a window for love (he only winds up with a few scratches after falling in a thick bush), but this darkly prefigures the gothic suicide of Cecilia who embarks on a similarly dramatic act after becoming alienated by the banality of a party her parents are hosting for her.

If Coppola hasn’t always nailed this tricky cocktail of style to narrative quite so successfully in her subsequent films, it probably says more about the excellence of The Virgin Suicides than the relative inadequacies of those works. (July 2017)

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