As someone who writes reviews only occasionally, I have the benefit of seeing many films without critiquing them. However, as I've been learning from this Cinematical Movie Club experience, it can be a joy to pull a film off the shelf, throw it into the player, and really pay attention to all of the subtle nuances, rather than merely getting lost in the cinematic world and its story. It becomes clear why a film finds its way to the library, why it gets watched more than once, and most certainly it helps to define what types of cinematic magic its owner finds most appealing.
Watching The Virgin Suicides again, with no distractions but a glass of whisky and a Twitter-fueled laptop, I finally began to see why I appreciated the film, and just how well Sofia Coppola did with her first feature. A counter-point to the suicide obsession in Heathers, Suicides explores the same theme -- from the false comfort suicide can provide young people, to the ill-placed efforts of teachers to quell the trend, and the media who latch onto it as a sensational news item. However, where Mark Waters' tale explores it all with harsh cynicism, Coppola uses nostalgic whimsy that is as much sweet and dramatic as it is dark and funny.
That's probably Coppola's biggest success -- taking the dark story of five young daughters who all kill themselves, and then framing it as a tale of the many forms of teen angst, rather than one small sliver. It's a serious and dark tale, but it's handled with the glow of nostalgia and innocent whimsy. Some moments are pastel and pensive with flowery music, while others are angsty and excited, often fueled by the era's music, from Nancy Wilson's power in Heart to that iconically perfect high school dance moment set to Styx's "Come Sail Away."
The film seems, at once, to both condemn the act of teen suicide with many reminders that life goes on and things change, while also fully entrenching itself in the teen experience and understanding the girls' motivations. For sure, they're not good or particularly solid motivations, but Coppola evokes the feelings we all had growing up, where every problem, from the most mundane to the most hurtful, leads to feelings of futility. When that's added to young Cecilia's cynicism in an ironic world where healthy elm trees are killed to save its brethren, patterns emerge.
The red notice for removal signs are juxtaposed with the bangle bracelets taped to Cecilia's wrists, and as the quintessential young loner, her suicide inspires a myriad of assumptions in all of the film's characters. However, the assumptions that matter rest in the other Lisbon girls. Cecilia's isolation and suicide then plague her sisters' future, and as they're isolated, Cecilia's way out is the only one they know. They don't share her melancholy and detachment -- in fact, they're pretty up-beat for girls who are locked away by their well-meaning, overly strict mother -- but when they feel there's no way to break out, suicide is the answer. Images of the ride that could've been with the neighborhood boys, intermingled with the revelation that every sister is dead, exemplifies that.
Additionally, the boys add a whole new layer and way of looking at the story, their inclusion and obsession with the Lisbons setting up depth for the suicide storyline while also giving this all the tone of untouchable nostalgia -- how we all know people from our youth that seemed larger than life, and how in our obsession and curiosity, they were made perfect. It's a theme that even speaks to people as a whole, as we think everyone else's lives are better than our own, easily swept up in the assumption and mystery over the reality. At the same time, they quest to know more, acting like a distinct, pulsing message through the movie, that no matter how much we can't understand these girls motivations, we can't begin to parse it without digging deeper, that base assumptions can't define the Lisbon girls.
And free from all of the thought-provoking fare and serious drama, there's a lot of laughter and light. It's clear that Coppola remembers her own youth and can invoke and stir those long-dormant feelings in her audience -- sharing music over the phone, the pain of parental law as Lux loses her records, or the hottie, untouchable guy who becomes the broken down alcoholic in later life. Even if the finite, deadly opinions of the Lisbon girls seem unrelatable, their school experience, and the boys who worship them, are.
The Virgin Suicides ultimately provides many films in one, from light laughter to pensive discourse, which becomes all too evident when you look at the film's awards. An MTV win for Best New Filmmaker rests alongside critic nominations and a win for best casting. Since that lends to many more discussions, I'll jump to the discussion.
- Kirsten Dunst is the only notable celebrity amongst the Lisbon girls. Do you think that was planned, as a way to show Lux's popularity and impact on the outer world?
- Why does Trip leave Lux on the field? It's not merely satisfied conquest, since he loves her even years later. Is it the fear of her parents and commitment? The aftermath of winning the unattainable dream?
- Are the Lisbon sisters doomed as soon as they give up fighting for their tree, letting it get cut down?
- Why do you think the neighborhood boys are obsessed with the Lisbon girls for years to come?
- Having not read Jeffrey Eugenides' book, I ask you: how do you feel about Coppola's interpretation, what was included/changed/left out?
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