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Friday, April 28, 2000

'THE VIRGIN SUICIDES'

Sleeping beauties of suburbia


"The Virgin Suicides," first-time director Sofia Coppola's flawless adaptation of author Jeffrey Eugenides' suburban Gothic, is a curious little film. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, but as I sit here at my keyboard, swimming through insomnia, searching for its gleaming inner truth, I find it dissolving like the sugar granules in my swirl of hot coffee. The taste remains, but the substance?

Rather like memory, that. Or the collection of moments that make up a short life. Or all that potential in life that always seems just on the cusp of becoming, without ever quite blossoming into reality. All of which, I suspect, is what this film is "about."

I like my films as bittersweet as my coffee, and this one delivers. "The Virgin Suicides" engages that fickle companion of memory: regret, in particular, adolescent regrets, those damned moments that, decades later, still loom as large as a 14-year-old's stuffed bra. Coppola's film takes that short distance between your homeroom desk and that of the classmate whose every move you furtively watched for months on end, and widens it into a chasm that spans this world and the next, a missed moment in time that will hover over a lifetime.

Set in Grosse Pointe, Mich., an upper-class suburb of Detroit, in the mid-'70s, the film revolves around five radiant blond sisters -- Therese, Bonnie, Lux, Mary and Cecilia Lisbon -- ranging from ages 13 to 17. They seem like ordinary teen girls of the time, obsessed with unicorns and rainbows and Kiss, and with that long lank hair that girls died for in the '70s. Thing is, the Lisbon girls do indeed die, at their own hands, for reasons unknown.

Cecilia (Hanna Hall) is the first to go. An ethereal girl, prone to wearing a frayed antique wedding dress at all times, her death seems "explicable." But when the other "normal" sisters eventually follow suit, we're left with a mystery. Did Cecilia start a chain reaction? Or was it brought about by their parents, timid math teacher Mr. Lisbon (James Woods) and his religiously repressive wife (Kathleen Turner)?

Was it when their mom pulled them out of school and locked them up inside the house after budding nymphomaniac Lux (Kirsten Dunst, five years after "Interview With the Vampire") broke curfew on a date with high-school stud Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett)? Or was it less tangible, maybe something in the air, the same rot that was killing the trees and polluting the ponds?

We never really find out, and if that breaks the cardinal rule of screenwriting these days, good for Coppola -- she stayed true to Eugenides' novel, which is many things, but ultimately about the impossibility of knowing. As one line in the novel has it, "All wisdom ends in paradox."

While the girls are at the film's center, we see them only through the eyes of others, a group of neighborhood boys who were secretly in love with them. And even this perspective is tainted with time, told through an anonymous middle-aged voice-over (read with dry wit and melancholy by Giovanni Ribisi). We glance at the girls at neighboring school lockers, spy on them tanning themselves on their lawn, or sneaking a drink at a homecoming dance. We meet their former lovers and admirers, hear the neighborhood gossip and pore through Cecilia's diary, covered with girlish doodles. But in the end, we still don't understand why.

The strangest thing about this film, though, is that for such potentially dark material, it often has a breezy, giddy feel. It's not Lux's death, but her barely contained lust for life, her coquettish wink at the viewer, her desire to jump Trip's bones, that survives long after the film ends. Which leaves us like the narrator -- perplexed, wondering why she had to fade out so young.

Eugenides was pretty accurate in reflecting the way in which men can romantically idealize women, to the extent that they don't see what's really there. What Coppola brings to the material is the ability to ground it in the flesh -- the juicy promise of a rushed kiss in a car, the pink and powdery sprawl of a young girl's bathroom, and the tangible nostalgia evoked by the specifics of the recent past.

Particularly impressive is how Coppola employs these '70s trappings; at one moment she'll go for a cheap laugh, such as when Trip -- a dead ringer for '70s teen idol David Cassidy -- cruises the high school corridors to the strains of Heart's "Magic Man," or seduces Lux by telling her, "You're a stone fox." Other times, she'll find something touching, like when the boys call the cloistered Lisbon girls on the phone and play records for each other through the receiver, sad pop tunes like Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me," or Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally."

So what was it about "The Virgin Suicides" that continues to haunt me as dawn breaks? If I had to put my finger on it, it would be this: This film, like few others, achingly captures the pent-up, yearning agony and joy of being a young teen, on the cusp of experiencing so much of love and life, convinced that once we were free of school, parents and puberty, all the world's glories would be there for our taking. But, as the film's older, not-any-wiser narrator makes clear, the yearning never stops.

An afterthought: Sofia Coppola has taken a critical beating for being her father's daughter, and for her rather premature outing as an actress in "The Godfather Part III." Now with this film, people are claiming to spot the influence of her husband, "Being John Malkovich" director Spike Jonze. Now if that isn't a patronizing assumption, I don't know what is, especially since she was filming this at the same time Jonze was busy making his film.

Coppola has been a fine photographer for several years, and her work with cameraman Edward Lachman here is impressive, giving the entire film a sun-flared, '70s album cover look. She also had the sense to commission an original soundtrack from the French group Air, and her screenplay is about as close in spirit and letter to the original novel as one could ever hope for.

This film was a labor of love for Sofia (she wrote the screenplay even though the novel had already been optioned to another director), and it shows. Rather than slamming her for receiving her father's guidance and production backing, let's praise her for putting it to good use.

"The Virgin Suicides" is playing at Cinema Rise in Shibuya.


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