Two writers keep the Virgin Suicides discussion going...
Tasha: I’m always impressed when a first-time director (especially a writer-director) chooses to make a debut with a period piece. There are enough challenges involved in making a first feature—especially budgetary and time challenges—without raising the difficulty level by adding period costumes, hairstyles, makeup, set design and decoration, plus a custom color palette, era-appropriate cars and external environments… basically every part of a production like The Virgin Suicides says you can’t just ask actors to wear their own comfortable clothing, drive their own cars, or shoot scenes in their own houses. You can’t casually shoot on found locations. This is a debut feature where the production design had to be calculated at every step to create a specific look and feel. And that’s the downside of the tactic. But the upside is that a film with such specific design, which is such an important part of the story, gives the impression of a director who’s ambitious, specific in her intentions, and in control enough to get exactly what she wants. Virgin Suicides is a highly controlled piece, with a very specific look: gauzy, dreamlike cinematography that lays a soft wash over all the specifics of period clothes and cars. It enhances the feeling that this is a nostalgia piece, about boys looking back on the fever-dream of adolescence and the fantasy of the girls next door, rather than a hard-edged tragedy observed in the moment. What else strikes you about the overall look and feel of the film, Keith?
Keith: I think “gauzy” is a good word for it. The production design and period detail is remarkable while also kind of being non-specific. It’s set 25 years ago, which would have been 1974 or 1975, depending on whether you date the film from its copyright or its première date. Not counting the Sloan songs, the most recent song on the soundtrack is Heart’s “Crazy On You” from 1976. So it’s in the mid-1970s, but it doesn’t feel tied down to any specific moment. Similarly, it’s firmly in the affluent (but declining) suburbs of Detroit, but it also feels like it could be a suburban, Midwestern anywhere. It’s in keeping with the overall feel of the film, which tells a specific story—five sisters commit suicide—while also capturing something universal about the way teenage girls mystify boys. The group of boys at the center of the film have spent a lifetime trying to untangle what happened to the Lisbon sisters and why, but the deeper mystery of the event eludes them. The Lisbons remain as unknowable to the boys now as they did when they were a closed circle with their sisterly codes, their bathrooms filled with feminine products, their notebooks covered in little drawings, and their un-boylike ways. The boys grew up, and presumably formed relationships with women that weren’t defined by awe and intimidation. But the Lisbon sisters will always have them in that state.
I liked this movie when I first saw it, and I like it even better now. It’s not only an extremely confident debut from Sofia Coppola, but one operating at a high difficulty level. For starters, how do you translate a novel told, and told well, in first-person plural? Coppola’s solution, to let Giovanni Ribisi provide the occasional narration without becoming that much of an intrusion, both brings some fine passages from Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel to the screen, and gives the film some of its most moving moments. Trickier still is the way she moves so well from black comedy to tragedy in part by not making that big of a deal about it. The Lisbons’ father appears comic until circumstances make him seem helpless or, worse, negligent. (A side note: Isn’t it great to see James Woods playing a character that’s outside his usual range?) Did that strike you too? And, if so, how do you think she pulled it off?
Tasha: Woods and Kathleen Turner as the overprotective parents hold a lot more fascination for me in this film than the Lisbon sisters do, honestly. Both of them are operating out of their range—it was a little depressing to me to see the fiery sexpot of Body Heat and Romancing The Stone reduced to shy, dowdy middle-aged roles—and both of them are playing buttoned-down characters who don’t reveal a great deal about their motives for treating their children like a virgin harem that needs to be walled up until they can be married off. There’s a vague gloss of religion and conservatism as an explanation for their behavior, but the audience never gets to know them as people. Much of the film is about the way the girls evoke a primal female mystery, simply by existing and being unknowable. But as a woman and an adult, I’m not particularly taken in by that unknowability and the female mystique. I’m more captured by these lurking figures of control who attempt to repress something portrayed as iconic and magical—but who, at the same time, are straining so hard to give their kids a normal life, within acceptable boundaries.
There’s so much anxiety and awkwardness hanging over their performances. The film portrays the Lisbon girls’ deaths as a tragedy for them, in the sense that most of them never really got to live. It’s portrayed as a tragedy for the boys who obsessed over them, who mostly never got close enough to demystify the feminine ideal and see the actual people they lived with. But Coppola doesn’t seem much interested in the parents who have to survive and contend with five funerals and a lifetime of guilt and loss. And in part, that’s because the Lisbon parents are abstracts. Coppola’s films are all about loneliness, anomie, and dissatisfaction, but none of the rest of them really have villains. Tokyo in Lost In Translation, the court in Marie Antoinette, Hollywood in Somewhere, the myth of celebrity in The Bling Ring—they all become alien and alienating backdrops, but their disinterest in the protagonists isn’t personal, and they aren’t actively working to muffle and depress the leads. Virgin Suicides is the only Coppola film to have something like villains, or at least consciously repressive forces producing that alienation with their deliberately enforced values. As a father, can you relate to the Lisbon parents, however symbolic and fuzzy they are as parental figures?
Keith: Hmm… I’m hesitant to call them “villains,” which might answer your question. They’re wrong, to be sure, in almost everything they do. And they have a tragic unwillingness to accept their daughters as independent individuals who need to make their own way in the world, but I never get a sense of malevolence. They’re not locking their girls up for their own personal gain, or in order to harm them. Then again, I guess the same could be said of Carrie’s mother in Carrie, so maybe that’s not the best argument.
That said, I don’t think The Virgin Suicides is like The Graduate. Watch the latter film when you’re 18 or 19, and it’s a film about Benjamin Braddock’s coming of age. Watch it when you’re older, and it’s the tragedy of Mrs. Robinson. The Lisbons are bad parents no matter how you slice it. No matter what you do, the world is going to find a way to reach your kids, and every attempt to prevent that is going to have a consequence. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon lock their girls up, and Lux responds by having boy after boy onto the roof. Deprived of their records, they find other ways to communicate with the boys across the street, even arranging a rescue operation, of a sort. But, in the end, it’s the Lisbon girls who break, killing themselves en masse. One of the most heartbreaking shots of the movie is that of the Lisbons in the cars with the boys who dream of rescuing them, from which Coppola then cuts back to the awful truth of their final fate. Any thoughts on why they gave up? Or is that as unknowable to us as it is to the boys?
Tasha: I should preface this by saying I haven’t read the book, and there may be clues there. I can only judge by what I see in the movie. I think we don’t know what prompted Cecilia to attempt suicide in the first place. When her doctor questions why she’d do such a thing, since she’s too young to know how bad life gets, she wearily tells him, “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” You can read that any way you like: As an admission that 13-year-olds are dramatic people, as a suggestion that being 13 is terrible, even as a revelation that 13 is the worst age, much worse than the doctor’s indeterminate middle age. But it’s also yet another point in the story where the film suggests that a male character can’t understand female life, because he’s never experienced it, and never will.
At any rate, I think we do know why Cecilia goes through with it the second time: She makes an effort to socialize with the boys, until she’s depressed by seeing how they interact with the boy with Downs Syndrome. That scene is so uncomfortable. I don’t think they’re deliberately mocking him, but they are treating him like a dog that does tricks, and they’re showing off their ability to make him perform for the girls. It’s the one time during the party that they perk up and start acting naturally and comfortably, and their behavior suggests that this is what they’re like all the time. Whether Cecilia is sorry for Joe, or angst-stricken about the larger ugliness or the world, or just miserable to see that boys aren’t some magical, better form of human who can fix her problems, I don’t know. But the moment depresses her, and she opts out.
I think Lux experiences something similar when Trip leaves her on the football field, and as the leader of the group, she presumably drove the group suicide. There’s a sense that these cloistered girls feel that collectively, they’ve experienced everything the world has to offer—isolation and freedom, virginity and sex, close sisterhood and individual romping with boys—and none of it is fulfilling. The way ennui hangs over all Coppola’s films contributes to the feeling that the world can just be a dreary place for sensitive souls. That’s a mighty romantic notion (and Romantics notion), and it seems to me that the film seriously romanticizes suicide by associating it with purity, being above it all, and creating a timeless, enduring mystery for others to pore over as they wend through their mundane, boring lives. You’ve read the book—do you feel like it has more answers? Does it put the same dreamy, idealized gloss over suicide?
Keith: It’s been years since I read the book, but honestly, both versions strike me as more tragic than romantic. I know the two can get all mixed up together, but both the way Cecilia ends up impaled on the spikes and the discovery of the bodies after the mass suicide plays like a horror film to me. The subsequent literal toxic funk that settles over the neighborhood only drives that point home. Their deaths don’t rid the neighborhood of its troubles. If anything, they make them permanent. The girls are forever destined to be mysteries for the boys, but their suicides ensure they’ll be mysteries in the same way a haunted house is a mystery. I think the boys continue to try to understand the Lisbons even into adulthood less out of reverence than fear.
But maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. The Lisbons are everything that’s inaccessible and incomprehensible about womanhood to the boys, but they’re also figures out of their collective pasts, an embodiment of the way things vanish. This sort of thing has been my mind a lot lately as I’ve watched everything that defined my childhood start to disappear: In the past few years, my elementary school, the local grocery, the video stores, and virtually every place I used to go to the movies have all vanished. You grow up thinking about these sorts of things as permanent, but as a teenager you start to realize they’re not. And, after a certain point, adulthood involves watching one landmark of your youth disappear after another. The girls vanished instead of fading, but that just lets them stand in for everything irretrievable about the past.
On a related note, what do you think of the scenes of Michael Paré as the grown-up Trip? They’re the only glimpse we get of the present, and it’s clear that life has had its way with Trip. Paré is, in real life and in other roles, a striking, attractive man. But his bedraggled appearance in what appears to be a rehab clinic is a far cry from the “Magic Man” strut of Josh Hartnett. What do you make of those scenes? It feels a bit at odds with the rest of the movie, but it works for me anyway.
Tasha: I was always put off by the way Trip admits to abandoning Lux post-sex, with no interest in how she got home, while simultaneously bragging about how he tasted a love most people don’t get in their lifetimes. He’s self-mythologizing in that moment, not even excusing the inexcusable so much as shrugging it off in favor of the way he wants to remember the encounter. As with Cecelia’s first suicide attempt, you can read Trip’s apparent adult hardships in a variety of ways: Was he always damaged, and missing some essential human component that would have let him help Lux? Did he try to replace that component with drugs? Or did he blame himself for Lux’s death and fall into a spiral, and his life would have ended up differently if they’d never met? Is his emotional inaccessibility and dissatisfaction meant to parallel the girls’, to make it clear that women don’t hold market exclusivity over mystery or remove? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the movie’s early scenes has a psychiatrist (played by Danny DeVito) showing Cecelia Rorschach blots, which she gamely interprets without giving away anything useful. A lot of things in this film are deliberately opaque, and left open to interpretation—and as with Rorschach blots, any interpretation probably says more about the viewer than anything else.
Coppola does like pointing out the mysteries of the human heart, seemingly much more than she likes revealing them. Here, it’s an open theme, and the characters spend a lifetime trying and failing to solve it. In The Bling Ring, so much mystery revolves around celebrities: What’s it like to live a Paris Hilton lifestyle? What (if anything) does she feel and think? Will she ever notice someone’s been walking off with her possessions, or does she live at such an alien remove that she doesn’t care? In Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, people are always a mystery, from the strangely belligerent young king to protagonist Johnny Marco, pinned down under a journalist’s simultaneously ridiculous and revealing question, “Who is Johnny Marco?” And Lost In Translation deliberately ends with a whisper too quiet to hear, and a parting that can be read any number of ways, depending on what was said. I don’t think we’re meant to know for sure why Cecelia made her original choice, or what Lux meant to Trip. (Especially since even he doesn’t seem to know.) And that’s fine: I firmly believe ambiguity in film (or any art) is a good thing.
The one mystery in The Virgin Suicides that does bother me a bit, though, is the cruelest one: Why do the girls invite the boys into their house to find their bodies? Coppola gets plenty of horror and irony out of the scenario, particularly by juxtaposing the boys’ fantasies of driving free with the girls and the ugly reality. And the whole thing feels like a punishment for the boys’ inability to rescue the girls, not just through inaction, but because as Lux finds out, neither sex nor love is a guaranteed escape from loneliness. (It’s also a neat little parallel to, and again punishment for, Paul Baldino’s tall tales at the beginning of the film about sneaking into the house through the storm sewers, and being the one to find Cecelia in the bath after her first attempt. He gets so much social currency out of that ridiculous lie that narratively, having the rest of the group face a real-life similar scenario feels like a karmic payback.) But from a character point of view rather than a narrative point of view—why does it happen? Do they consider the boys as friends and want them as witnesses? Do they want to make sure their parents can’t deny what happened? Are they punishing them for coveting the girls’ bodies, or for Trip’s failure on behalf of their gender? Any theories about any of this? And finally, are there any mysteries here that you find problematic, rather than just intriguing or tragic?
Keith: My theory is this: It’s a way of making sure their story gets told. They’ve spent their time being kept away from the world, but this assures that, in some way, the world will know what happened. It’s a way of making their stories their own, or at least the endings of those stories.
So maybe you’re right. Maybe there is some romanticization going on here. But maybe we have the boys to blame. They’re a collective narrator, but are they reliable? In both the book and movie I found the likelihood of the boys seeing Lux have assignations with boy after boy in plain view on the roof of her house about as likely as Paul Baldino having access to everyone’s home. How much has memory colored their account? Are the scenes within the the Lisbon house what really happened or an earnest attempt to fill in the blanks? I honestly have no idea, but I think the ambiguity gives the film an added poignance and makes us partners in their bafflement as the camera pulls away from them standing on the street that shaped them knowing they’ll never understand its mysteries. In that, we’re destined to join them.