”What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets” An emphatic doctor with his back to the screen asks the youngest Lisbon sister following her suicide attempt.
”Obviously doctor you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” This curt reply sets Sofia Coppola’s breakout film in motion as we follow a group of adolescent boys, accompanied by the narration of their middle-aged selves, trying desperately to understand why the five Lisbon sisters decided to take their own lives.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, faithfully adapted by Sofia, infuses the conflicting and at times unbearable emotions of adolescence as we each come to understand the world around us. Following Cecilia’s (Hanna R. Hall) suicide a group of teenage boys, long since fascinated with the elusive Lisbon sisters, delve deeper into their lives and attempt to save them from the same fate.
Watching an adaptation of a book that struck such a personal chord with me is something I wouldn’t do lightly. But when in the hands of Sofia Coppola (a woman who gained my eternal respect for Lost in Translation) I was willing to take the risk. The film may fail to capture the complexity and satire of the novel, but it is by no means a poor attempt.
Remaining true to the source material, many lines from Sofia’s script are lifted right out of the book. She also retains the 70s setting, playing on the anxieties that infiltrated American culture at the time and the changes brought about by the social revolution of the 1960s, reflected in the sisters defiance of their parents oppression.
Yet we do not learn about the Lisbon sisters, who we get to know so intimately, from their own perspective but through the eyes of their male counterparts who wish so desperately to be close to them. They collect the girls possessions, read extracts from Cecilia’s diary and even spy on their neighbours through a telescope. But despite their at times grotesque voyeurism, the boys sensitivity is never forgotten. Grouping together to examine Cecilia’s journal, they come to feel “the imprisonment of being a girl. The way it made your mind active and dreamy” and project themselves into “memories of times they hadn’t experienced.” While their fellow neighbours treat Cecilia’s death as nothing more than a piece of gossip, the boys seek to learn who she was and seem to be the only ones paying real attention to the elder Lisbon sisters.
It is Kirsten Dunst who has emerges the true star of the film. Capturing the life, dreams and tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, Kristen – already a well-known Hollywood starlet – was praised for her portrayal of the 14-year-old Lux that showed a new depth to her talent. Through Lux we witness the extent of her fanatically over-protective patents control and their daughters attempts to break free. She sneaks out to passionately kiss her date goodnight after a dull evening under her mother’s watchful gaze and encourages her parents to let her and her sisters attend their homecoming dance. But these freedoms can only go so far and after she is forced to burn her precious record collection, filling the house with toxic fumes, her optimism turns to resentment. A prisoner in her own home she begins a string of sexual encounters on the roof, sticking her middle finger up to her parents rules and manages to hold onto some of her records that are later used to communicate with the boys.
Sofia Coppola’s frequent use of imagery, from the discarded newspapers scattered on the Lisbon’s front lawn to Cecilia’s favourite tree rotting in the garden, reminds the audience of where the film will end up. On the other hand, the diverse soundtrack that ranges from The Bee Gees to ELO and Gilbert O’Sullivan, reflects the girls free and resilient spirit that seeks an outlet beyond the confinement of their home.
The Virgin Suicides may not be able to keep pace with Jeffrey Eugenides’ remarkable novel, but Sofia Coppola’s directional debut paves the way for the brilliant career that was to follow and if you are unfamiliar with her work, this is definitely a good introduction.