str. kirsten dunst, josh hartnett, kathleen turner, and james woods
narrated by giovanni ribisi
the 'maiden film' of sofia coppola
The Virgin Suicides screens nationally from August 3
Films adapted from novels often have an oblique quality, as if they're floating on the surface of a void of unknown depth. It's like when you have a mote of dust on your eye, and when you try to focus on it, the object drifts casually out of your vision.Maybe it's because text controls detail so effectively, so that ideas are expressed expediently rather than being prone to misinterpretation. When an author spells out an idea she spells it out. When you're watching a movie all sorts of subliminal cues can go over your head while you?re noticing that one of the props looks just like a glitter sticker you had when you were twelve.
Adaptations might just feel awkward because so much is elided. It?s no mean feat to condense hundreds of pages of novel into 80-odd pages of screenplay, and if I haven?t read the book before I see the film I sometimes feel like I'm missing out on the beauty of the original detail. Or am I, perhaps, being exposed only to the essential purity of the story, the best parts, with all the fulsome parts excised?
In the case of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, elision is not only a product of the adaptation process, it's a narrative tool as well. The film is adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, narrated retrospectively in poetic fits of reminiscence by a guy who had the peculiar good luck to grow up around the corner from the Lisbon family.
It's suburban America in the seventies, and all the streets are named after trees and are populated by kids wearing bell-bottom jeans and riding hotrod bicycles with streamers on the handlebars. In your first flush of boyish adolescence you and your mates sit around on the kerb waiting for one of the five stunning Lisbon sisters to pass; spending the day in sun-honeyed anticipation of their soft shoulders in halter tops and soft-focused shampoo-ad hair. Sure, their Dad (Maths teacher at your school) and their Mom are pretty uptight, but you can imagine that they would be, with a houseful of peachskinned, budding virgin goddesses. It's as if the parents foresaw the appalling fates that would befall their daughters.
Throughout the film, as the story is divulged memory by unreliable memory, you get the feeling that The Virgin Suicides is leading up to some incredibly revealing denouement. Tantalising possibilities arise as you struggle to make sense of how such a normal family could come to such a kinky end. What pushes them over the edge? Is it some unspeakable transgression by the parents? Or the result of interference by Lux's beau Trip Fontaine, the impossibly gorgeous, peach-schnapps wielding teen-seducer?
Trip Fontaine infuses The Virgin Suicides with a breathtakingly erotic element of male sexuality. He's Mr. Heartbreaker until he sets eyes on Lux, in whom he's met his match. All he has to do next is get around her Dad so he can take her to the Homecoming Dance. There's an amusing scene in which Trip finally gets to lay one on his "stone fox" Lux in the front seat of his car, and even though you can't be sure if Lux is conquering or conquered in a car seat, the scene makes you long for the hormones you once had.
The Virgin Suicides is a romantic elegy- to youth itself, as much as to the Lisbon girls. It's American youth though, not my youth, but there is something universal in the way that life is fascinating for teenagers, full of the mystery and anticipation and pre-climactic yearning that exists before the cynicism of one's twenties. The Virgin Suicides evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for a past that?s neither real nor your own. And in this story, which never completely unravels itself, youth dies along with the five beautiful virgins.
Are they lost- the moisture, the vibrancy, the optimism/pessimism, lightness, lust of our collective adolescence? Or are they just wedged in the back of our minds like the purple rollerskates at the back of your wardrobe? How can we recapture that dewy feeling?
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