Movie review of the Virgin Suicides

Monday, May 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Anyone who's read Jeffrey Eugenides's novel "The Virgin Suicides" might think it would be virtually unfilmable.

The imagery-stuffed "Suicides" focuses on the five Lisbon sisters (the titular characters) who serve as both paragons and enigmas to the boys of the neighborhood. Years later, these men look back on their loves that never were through the fuzzy, romanticized vision of middle age.

The film's director, Sofia Coppola, felt strongly enough about "Suicides" to write the screenplay on spec, then lobby to direct the film so the author's vision would remain intact.

In this she succeeded. Some may find "Suicides" precious or slow moving, but they (like the doctor who treats the youngest sister's first suicide attempt) "have obviously never been a 13-year-old girl."

Those who have, or understand the moodiness, boredom and dreamy quality inherent in female teenagers, will find "The Virgin Suicides" rings very true - even if we're never given much insight into who the girls really are.

Ms. Coppola stays close to the heart of her source material and shows impressive promise as a director. What isn't spelled out on the page is captured visually, and the intriguing qualities of the Lisbon daughters surface through close-ups of glass unicorns, party invitations or boxes of Tampons in the family bathroom. These serve as totems for the boys, who spend hours contemplating the objects of their unfulfilled desire.

The sisters are always shot like Breck girls, in a golden light much like the white-bordered photographs of the '70s in everyone's family album.

Visual tricks such as a montage of diary entries or pretend vacation slides showcase the boys' obsession of what can never be, as does a wonderful voice-over narration by Giovanni Ribisi. Even the use of some of the cheesier songs found on an AM dial ("Alone Again, Naturally," "So Far Away") are given emotional heft by their context in the film.

The actors are given ciphers to bring to life, and only the character of the sexually precocious Lux Lisbon stands out among the virtually interchangeable sisters. Kirsten Dunst is especially appealing as Lux (the only non-virgin suicide), as is Josh Harnett as the Trip, the school heartthrob who woos her by compliments ("You're a stone fox!"), then drops her.

Kathleen Turner and James Woods play against type as Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon - a frumpy housewife and befuddled math teacher - whose isolation of their daughters leads them down the path to self-destruction.

The movie may deal with the weighty topic of teen suicide, but that's not exactly what "Virgin Suicides" is about. As the boys say, "It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together."

The real subject of the movie isn't suicide, or even adolescence. "The Virgin Suicides" is actually a beautiful, metaphorical film about longing.