Two on One: The Virgin Suicides

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Two on One    

Girls on Film

by Karen Moline and Ray Pride


THE SETUP: Based on the critically-hosannahed novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola’s debut as a writer-director reflects dreamily on youth and yearning. The story is told from the point of view of several suburban teenage boys who are left with nothing but cryptic, fragrant pieces of the puzzle that led the five lovely Lisbon sisters to do away with themselves. In memory, they’re silent as the grave; in this movie, they’re the mystery of girlhood, femininity and remembrance itself.

KAREN: I’ve rarely seen a film that so beautifully captures the confusion, embarrassment and raging hormones of those teenage years. We see both sides of the frustration: the longing of the thwarted and repressed girls (the Lisbon sisters) and the boundless desires of the shy, stumbling boys (the neighbors, peeping slyly with a telescope, yet rendered blushingly dumb by love).

RAY: The boys’ romantic lives aren’t about kisses and touching and sex just yet: it’s about a kind of fetishization — it’s the objects of the beloved that mean more than the beloved. When Cecilia, the thirteen-year-old, cuts her wrists early on, the boys, perplexed by her willful desire, exit their picture-perfect suburban world, begin to collect talismans as well as clues — lipsticks, scribbled notes. Trying to comprehend her death wish, they pore over the dead girl’s diary, lifted by a plumber’s assistant. From that, we’re given a fantasy vision from the boys’ perspective that is weirdly, girlishly rhapsodic as they imagine the five silk-tressed girls dancing in some magic glade, trailed by unicorns. The boys have to try to piece it all together from a jumble of adolescent impulses, pop song lyrics and misleading clues. They’re terrified of these girls yet totally enthralled by their unavailability. Are the girls unknowable, or, as the narrator suggests, all too transparent, spectacles of “the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself”?

KAREN: It’s a curious amalgam of the essence of the female as seen by the male. The narrator (voiced by a never-seen, adult Giovanni Ribisi) says, “We knew they knew everything about us, and we couldn’t fathom them at all.” This deliberately creates a scenario where all our knowledge of the Lisbon sisters comes from the immature male point of view. Only Lux, the daring one, played by a luminous Kirstin Dunst, is vividly sketched, so the other sisters remain curiously passive and blank. They rarely speak; they merely giggle. They voice no wishes or thoughts of rebellion; they do as they’re told, like good girls. We don’t understand them as individuals with hopes and desires, only as mute statues of woman as goddess.

RAY: What I find troubling yet lovely is how the camera simply looks at the objects that fill their lives — the small treasures arrayed on dresser tops and strewn on bedroom floors — from an unsettling distance. Yet we deeply feel the intimacy between the girls.We feel —

KAREN: — that they feel. It’s not spoken; it’s shared by touch. The girls are always toppled upon one another, stroking each other’s hair, gazing off into the distance. They’re doing to each other what the teenaged peeping toms across the street wish to do to them. Touch them and have them be real.

RAY: Eugenides’ novel was empathetic about the girls’ perverse situation — milquetoast father, tyrannical mother — yet Coppola finds images that are wildly effective, as piercing and true as the best still photography. The film is more about mood than plot, and more tactile, which to me, is a rare and wonderful thing in movies. It becomes more erotic.

KAREN: I think most viewers, female or male, will find Dunst’s radiant girl-woman the erotic center. She’s powerfully provocative. In the very first scene, she’s sucking on a cherry popsicle, then throws it away. Finished, forgotten. Shades of Lolita, but with no Humbert Humbert. Instead we get Trip Fontaine, the school stud, played by Josh Hartnett as sweetly feral and hopelessly lovesick for Lux. There is one astonishingly erotic scene, where Trip endures an evening of television-watching with Mrs. Lisbon — an impossible barrier between himself and the girl of his dreams. He’s made heartily unwelcome, Lux walks him to the door, says good night, and he then sits moping in his car outside her house in abject misery. Heart’s “Crazy on You” starts to play. Without warning, the car door is flung open, Lux flies in, wearing only her nightgown, and kisses him with all the stored-up passion of her tender fourteen years. And just as quickly, she is gone again.

RAY: Both times I saw this movie, the combination of pop music, lust and sheer exuberant sexual performance took my breath away.

KAREN: Until then, she’d never so much as properly touched a boy, which makes her risky, mad dash for Trip’s arms that much more poignant and desperate. It reminds me of an article I wrote ages ago called “How to Have Sex Like a Teenager” — it was about keeping all your clothes on and doing everything except . . . And how deeply arousing that can be. Knowing that you can fool around but that you absolutely won’t make love because you can’t. You’re just not ready. It’s both freeing and frustrating.

RAY: Get thee to a nunnery, Karen.

KAREN: I might as well have lived in one. This film took me right back to that small town and my own teenage years. My parents had a rule that my sisters and I were forbidden to date boys not of our ethnic persuasion, and as there were only three of them in my high school, this led to months of conniving and sneaking out of the house. At the time, you’re convinced you’re the only teen in the world this hemmed off, and your emotions veer from abject hatred to anguish in the few seconds it takes to put another Cat Stevens record on the turntable. And I noticed that Tea for the Tillerman was one of the albums Lux’s mother made her destroy, in a vain attempt to keep her daughter from flying off to freedom.

RAY: Next you’re going to be telling me about making out at midnight shows of Harold and Maude.

KAREN: Yeah, well, I think I probably did. But getting back to teen anguish, what’s left incomprehensible for the teenaged boys of Grosse Point as well as for the audience is why all the sisters made a suicide pact — and dare to go through with it. Yes, most teens certainly do wail in frustration to their parents (especially when grounded for some seemingly minor infraction) that their lives are over and they want to die. But aside from Lux, none of the sisters seemed passionately engaged enough with life to want to either live it fully or end it.

RAY: Even in their instants of illumination, the others seem like the quiet girls in class, the ones who grow up to be half-hearted gym teachers or angry activists for impossible causes. But the only impossible cause they’ve even attempted — and failed at — is life.

KAREN: And with a title like The Virgin Suicides, there is no surprise to the plot. All you can do is steel yourself for the perplexity of the inevitable.

RAY: The sensations of heartache and sexual longing you can’t quite fathom are timeless, though. I think the 1970s cultural references just enhance the telling for the appropriate audience, one of the age group that can decipher them.

KAREN: What do you mean “you can’t fathom”? I lived them. And even now, when life is far more complicated and information that much more accessible, teens are no less mortified by the havoc wreaked by hormones, and by the mortification of suddenly comprehending one’s nascent sexual self.

RAY: As for me, I thought that would be all over in the decades after high school. (Wrong!) Ultimately, I think The Virgin Suicides is a movie about sensation, about looking and being looked at and imagining how it might feel to touch what is only seen. Coppola has a gifted eye for the phantoms we can conjure up of those we long for. She loves bare limbs and gleaming grins and pale young bare feet. This movie’s a foot fetishist’s delight.

KAREN: For me, it’s really a film about awful, unshakable loneliness. And about how the resonance of your first true love shapes you and never leaves you.

RAY: That does get played out. Coppola drops the bottom out of the dreamy-dream with the handful of scenes of an older Trip, somewhat of a broken man, played by Michael Pare. He can no more understand his paradoxical behavior with Lux all those years later than he could as he was doing it. He’s still fantasizing and fetishizing the lost rosebuds of his youth.

KAREN: Rosebud was a sled.

RAY: Now that would make for a sorry adolescence indeed.

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