“The Virgin Suicides,” a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, came to life on the big screen under direction of Sofia Coppola in 1999, showing an astonishingly accurate translation of written word to film. With American gothic tropes visible from beginning to end, the movie leaves viewers with an eerie nostalgia.
The film stars James Woods and Kathleen Turner as Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, the parents of five blonde-haired beauties who begin killing themselves one by one. The Lisbons’ parenting skills, or lack thereof, are marked by Mrs. Lisbon’s remorseless hunger for control and Mr. Lisbon’s refusal to put his foot down as the man of the house. Submissive and weak, Mr. Lisbon has no backbone and rarely gives input, allowing his wife to rule the home with an iron fist. Ultimately, this dysfunctional imbalance in their marriage leads to their daughters’ suicides.
The first suicide victim is the youngest daughter, 13-year-old Cecilia, played by Hanna Rose Hall. Hall is best known for her role as the young Jenny in “Forrest Gump.” In “The Virgin Suicides,” Hall does an excellent job of playing the wisest sister, despite her age. An unsuccessful first attempt at suicide by slitting her wrists leads to Cecilia’s hospitalization, where Hall flawlessly delivers one of the novel’s most prized lines. When the doctor proclaims she is too young to have problems deep enough to prompt suicide, Cecilia says, “Well, doctor, obviously you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”
The actual suicide comes a few scenes later. While the other girls try to enjoy their once-in-a-lifetime house party, Cecilia realizes the life they live is nothing but a mental prison, and thinks waiting until their 18th birthdays to escape isn’t worth it. Jumping from her bedroom window, Cecilia crashes onto the family’s iron fence, which fatally pierces her through her back.
Sisters Mary, Therese and Bonnie Lisbon are played by A.J. Cook, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain. While each girl plays a significant part, each plays a supporting role to the movie’s true star, Lux Lisbon, who is effortlessly and impeccably played by Kirsten Dunst.
Lux is the rebel child of the family. She smokes, drinks, makes out with boys and listens to rock and roll, all of which her parents forbid. Lux’s rebellion becomes evident at the homecoming dance when she sneaks off with Trip Fontaine, the high school heartthrob, to sip on peach schnapps and engage in some heavy lip-locking. The movie takes a critical turn after Lux spends the night on the football field with Trip. Awaking the next morning, alone with only dew from the grass on her face, Mrs. Lisbon makes the unpopular decision to remove all of her girls from school.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the movie is the depiction of the neighborhood boys, whose stalker-like obsession for the girls buds into real friendships with each sister. The boys watch Lux from their bedroom window as she makes love to different boys on her roof at night, an act serving as a temporary fix for a lack of love her parents are too blind to fill themselves.
The Lisbon girls and the neighborhood boys develop a Morse code system by flickering flashlights into each other’s windows to communicate. A bittersweet scene shows the girls on one end of a phone line, the boys on the other, communicating through song. Classic tunes by Todd Rundgren and other popular hits are exchanged until there is nothing left to be said.
The movie ends with a Morse code signal sent from the sisters to the neighborhood boys instructing them to come over. When they arrive, they find Lux sitting on a chair in the living room, back facing the door, smoking a cigarette with the light on. She answers the door, seductively sweet, and instructs the boys to come in. Excited, anxious and nervous about getting caught, the boys begin to wander the house. That’s when they find them: Bonnie, hanging from a rope in the basement; Therese, dead from an overdose of sleeping pills and Mary, who stuck her head in the gas oven. The boys run out, terrified. The next morning, Lux’s fate is revealed.
The parents sell their home and move, never to be heard from again.
The movie does the novel justice. Read the book first to see the movie includes little insiders only readers would understand, like the strikers at the cemetery. Watch the movie first to discover that the book to contain elusive symbolism and ideas that can only be best expressed through pen and paper. Both experiences are worth the trip.