The Virgin Suicides was Sofia Coppola’s debut feature film. Based on a critically acclaimed novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, it tells the story of five teenage sisters living in a middle-class suburb outside Detroit in the late 1970s. Like the novel, the film is narrated retrospectively by a group of adolescent boys in the neighbourhood, who are now grown up but have remained fascinated by the girls.
The sisters live with their highly protective Catholic parents: their father is a maths teacher at their high school, while their mother is very much the authority figure at home. The film begins with the attempted suicide of the youngest girl, Cecilia. She survives, and a psychologist advises her parents to allow her to meet boys her own age. They hold a chaperoned party with the local boys, and the girls cover up Cecilia’s scars with bracelets; but Cecilia excuses herself and proceeds to jump out of her bedroom window, impaling herself on iron railings in the garden below. In the wake of this, the parents become even more protective of their four remaining daughters.
However, the second youngest sister, Lux, begins a romance with the school heart-throb, Trip Fontaine; and Trip persuades her father to allow him to take Lux to the upcoming Homecoming Dance, as well as providing dates for the other sisters. After leaving the dance, Trip and Lux have sex on the football field, although Trip subsequently abandons her, and she does not return home until the following morning. In response to Lux’s breaking of the curfew, the girls are taken out of school and confined to the house. However, they manage to contact the boys across the street by using light signals and sharing songs over the phone. Lux starts to have anonymous sexual encounters on the roof of the house late at night, while the boys spy on her. The girls begin to leave messages for the boys, and they hatch a plan to escape one night. However, when they arrive to take them away, the boys discover that the girls have all killed themselves in an apparent suicide pact. The parents leave the area, and the community gradually returns to normal.
Like all the films I’m discussing, The Virgin Suicides centres on an unexplained mystery. Once again, there is no real doubt about what is going to happen – this much is clear from the title, and from the retrospective narration, which refers at an early stage to the girls’ ‘short lives’. Rather, the mystery is to do with how and particularly why they kill themselves. Right at the start of the film, Cecilia is shown recovering in hospital after her suicide attempt. The doctor asks: ‘what are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.’ Cecilia replies: ‘obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.’ Her suicide is ‘explained’ as being something to do with the state of being a teenage girl; but on the face of it, it’s hard to see what is quite so bad about her life.
To be sure, the girls’ freedom is tightly restricted, but suicide would seem to be a very extreme way of escape. The parents crack down on Lux’s romance with Trip Fontaine; but Lux herself is initially fairly dismissive of him, and after they have sex, he inexplicably abandons her and the two do not meet again. There’s little sense that her suicide is a reaction to a broken heart; and even if it is, it’s not clear why it would extend to the other sisters. Other explanations abound. After Cecilia’s suicide attempt, Danny de Vito is brought in to play a cameo role as a ludicrous child psychologist; and when she eventually succeeds, there is a flurry of misguided commentary on the part of neighbours and media commentators, and among the boys themselves, as well as a ham-fisted intervention by the school, with booklets listing ‘tell-tale signs’. Explanations to do with bad parenting, or the pressures on youth people in general, are offered, but little credibility is attached to any of them.
Another possible explanation – if it can be called that – is to do with the wider social and environmental context. The opening voice-over paints a picture of the suburb on the brink of decline, with the impending collapse of the local auto industry. The familiar suburban idyll is already troubled by the distant wail of an ambulance siren. In an early scene, a sign is fixed to the tree outside the girls’ house, indicating that it is scheduled for removal; and the outbreak (presumably of Dutch elm disease) gradually spreads down the street. Cecilia in particular is identified with the tree (she plants her hand print in the cement where a branch has been removed); and in a later scene, the remaining four surround it in an effort to prevent it being cut down. In the closing sequences, life in the suburb is returning to normal, although a plague of algae following a chemical spillage is spreading noxious fumes throughout the neighbourhood. In its dystopian image of American suburbia, the film has much in common with other contemporaneous films such as The Ice Storm (1997) and American Beauty (1999); and the girls’ suicide might be read as a symbolic manifestation of a kind of underlying sickness, or of creeping environmental degradation. Nevertheless, within the terms of the narrative, this hardly functions as an explanation either.
Meanwhile, as they themselves acknowledge, the boys struggle to understand what is happening, and ultimately fail. They collect and pore over the discarded paraphernalia of the girls’ lives; they observe them through telescopes and binoculars; they read through their diaries, which they have rescued from the trash. The direct communication between the girls and the boys is limited and awkward; and in the final act of the film, it is largely mediated through brief notes, religious mementoes, and the playing of bland pop hits over the telephone. During their confinement to the house, the girls order high-end fashion catalogues and travel brochures; and the boys go on to fantasise about enjoying holidays with them (including a now-resuscitated Cecilia) in exotic lands, captured in a montage of imaginary holiday snaps. Yet as the boys read the girls’ diaries, the depth of their incomprehension becomes clear:
… we started to learn about their lives, coming to hold collective memories of times we hadn’t experienced. We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing what colours went together. We knew that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them. We knew that they knew everything about us, and that we couldn’t fathom them at all.
As this implies, the mystery is essentially to do with girlhood itself. And despite the boys’ occasionally disparaging remarks, this isn’t just a matter of ‘knowing what colours went together’ – indeed, it’s notable that this voice-over is accompanied by a montage of soft-focus images which seem to parody conventional femininity.
Like the novel, the film is narrated from a male point of view; and it could be argued that it plays out a rather familiar tale of mysterious femininity – a version of Freud’s question ‘what does a woman want?’, perhaps. However, the boys are unreliable narrators, or at least uncomprehending ones. In fact, the male perspective in the film is by no means exclusive: we are shown and told many things about the girls that the boys could not possibly have known. Furthermore, the girls are always several steps ahead of them. When they meet face-to-face to go to the Homecoming Dance, the girls are much less self-conscious, and they seem to know more about the corrupt and hypocritical goings-on in the neighbourhood, despite the restrictions that are placed upon their lives. At the end, the girls effectively sucker the boys into discovering their suicides. With the exception of Trip Fontaine, the boys are all shown as immature and awkward, much less confident than the men they imagine themselves to be. Even Trip’s cocksure, cool demeanour – his rolling strut, and the red velvet suit he wears to the Dance – is somewhat parodied; and he appears being interviewed several years afterwards, as a much less attractive adult in what turns out to be a mental hospital. Despite their voyeuristic obsession, the boys seem much more frightened of the girls, especially of the sexually assertive Lux, than vice-versa.
Ultimately, this ‘girl question’ remains deliberately unanswered. Unlike Heavenly Creatures, the film gives us relatively little insight into the girls’ inner mental states. Indeed, its representation of girlhood could be described as disturbingly superficial: it hints at what might be going on beneath the surface, but it consistently denies us access to it. This is not intended as a criticism, although Coppola’s work has frequently been dismissed in these terms. Not least because of her family background, and her other work in fashion photography, she is often regarded as a privileged ‘daddy’s girl’: critics have condemned her films as lightweight, pretty and trivial, the work of a mere fashionista or a ‘Hollywood princess’.
Here, and in her subsequent films, Coppola does undeniably embrace the ephemera of girlhood: the camera takes us inside the girls’ bedrooms, lingering over their clothing, jewellery and cosmetics. The cinematography seems to emphasise the girls’ blonde-haired, pale-skinned luminosity: this is a world of pink and white, of glitter and sparkle, of gauzy soft-focus and slow-motion. As critics have noted, there are several similarities here, both with painting (once again, especially the work of the pre-Raphaelites) and with advertising imagery – yet here these images seem curiously false and hollow, even inscrutable, and there is a continuing sense of unease about what might be hidden underneath. For example, after Cecilia’s suicide attempt, the parents invite a local boy round for dinner. When he goes to the bathroom, he explores the cupboards, finding not just cosmetics but a large quantity of tampon boxes: humiliated by Lux, he promptly runs from the house.
Nevertheless, this domestic, feminine world is also presented as a gilded cage, a kind of prison. Cecilia dies by throwing herself onto spiked railings, an obvious symbol of the girls’ confinement. The girls are eventually detained in the house in a state of ‘maximum security isolation’, although others attempt to invade it, or intrude upon it: TV reporters turn up on their doorstep, neighbours look in from across the street, and the boys observe them with telescopes and binoculars. But the house too remains blank: in one sequence, it is filmed using time-lapse photography, unchanging as the leaves fall and the seasons pass. Underneath or behind the façade lies something ominous, even deathly.
As this implies, girlhood is not simply equated with innocence, or indeed with incompetence (as is largely the case with the boys). The girls are not especially fragile or vulnerable, and they have a shared solidarity that is evident, for example, when they return to school after Cecilia’s death. Lux in particular is represented as self-assured, and in some respects dangerously sexual: she is the primary source of ‘gender trouble’ here. The first shots of her include a direct echo of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, and she also makes a knowing wink to the camera. While Lux initially dismisses Trip’s clumsy advances, she goes on to take the initiative, secretly coming out of the house to kiss him while he sits in the car outside. Strikingly, as in several of the other films I’m discussing here, this active girlhood sexuality is constrained and punished, not so much by men but by adult women. The girls’ father is well-meaning but largely ineffectual, even if he does manage to persuade his wife to allow the girls to attend the Homecoming Dance. It is the mother, with her grim expression and the cross hanging round her neck, who places restrictions on the girls’ freedom. When they go the Dance, she dresses them in ill-fitting ‘sacks’; she forces Lux to burn her collection of rock records; and it is she whom the girls accuse of ‘suffocating’ them. In some ways, the girls’ suicide might be seen as a final, desperate assertion of their autonomy.
Like the other films I’m considering, The Virgin Suicides is a variant on the familiar adolescent ‘rite of passage’ film – but one in which the passage is blocked and impassable. There are elements of parody here that also seem to undermine this. For example, ideas about teen sexuality are indirectly ridiculed: when Trip and Lux sit together watching a film at school, the topic is about hurricanes; and when Trip comes to visit with her parents in attendance, they watch a TV documentary about wild animals. Likewise, the montage of TV clips that follows Cecelia’s suicide includes a range of trite observations about contemporary teenagers (‘adolescence today is much more fraught by pressures and complexities than in years passed…’); the montage sequence that accompanies the boys’ commentary on their own lack of comprehension (quoted above) echoes the style of 1970s shampoo advertising, as well as nostalgic home movies; and there is an ironic contrast between the cheesy records the teenagers play over the phone (Gilbert O’Sullivan, Todd Rundgren) and the misery of the girls’ confinement. These and several other scenes draw attention to the superficial ways in which adolescent girlhood is typically represented; but by default, they also point to the much more complex and difficult reality that lies beneath.