Damsels in Distress
Everybody's a princess at one point or another. Rich girls work it from birth to final crack-up. Bourgeois girls play the precious-'n'-misunderstood game through adolescence. As for boys, the princess bug can strike at any age, provoking anything from satin thongs to music industry mogulhood. Ultimately no one is immune. Common symptoms also include painfully acute emotional sensitivity, a passion for unicorns and paralyzing shock at the discovery that pugnacity -- not poetry -- rules our consensus reality. Trapped in a realm of overwhelming patriarchal oppression, what's a dreamy feminine spirit to do?
Sofia Coppola grapples with this rumination in The Virgin Suicides, her breezy adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's wry novel. That this is Coppola's debut feature seems incidental; the movie is as sumptuous as her father's support could make it, and her vision and timing already match the skills of many veterans. (Perhaps this is through osmosis; her family tree includes not only Francis Ford but also Talia Shire, Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman). There's a massive machine behind Coppola, but she obviously knows how to get it into gear. She also understands the crisp, oblique horror and wistfulness of Eugenides's narrative, plunking down five enchanting princesses into an environment that is anything but magical.
It's the perspective that gives this material its weird edge. The Virgin Suicides is quite unlike Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, despite sharing its basic paradigm: dewy, adolescent whimsy butting heads with stern, oppressive mores, resulting in tragic release. In Coppola's take (and Eugenides's book), set in the tragic kingdom of suburban Michigan during the '70s, the dreams and fantasies of the five Lisbon sisters are kept largely under wraps. What we do see is hinted at in the random poetry of a purloined diary, or in stoner rock albums burned for spiritual salvation. To amplify the intrigue, we spend the movie outside with a gaggle of smitten boys, peering in on the shimmering, unattainable girls.
"Nobody could understand how Mrs. Lisbon and Mr. Lisbon, our math teacher, produced such beautiful creatures," comments Giovanni Ribisi, the melancholic narrator who sums up the book's chorus of voices, as the adult incarnation of one of the boys, Tim Weiner (youthful Jonathan Tucker). It is quite a mystery, as the preternaturally straight man (James Woods) and frumpy wife (Kathleen Turner) have begotten a singular quincunx of ethereal, intellectual, lyrical waifs, including Cecilia (Hanna Hall), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman) and Lux (Kirsten Dunst).
The movie launches into its purpose with Cecilia, the youngest, in the bathtub, her little wrists slashed, clutching an image of the Madonna. Of course, as soon as the girl is revived, a heavy blanket of denial descends over the incident, and the perilously sensitive child is sent to psychologist Dr. Horniker (Danny DeVito). Once we infiltrate the Lisbon home, we start to feel the unease ourselves. Local lad and lucky dinner guest Peter Sisten (Chris Hale) discovers it as we do: Something is off here.
The astute assessment continues, as the Lisbons, attempting to brighten everyone's spirits, host a spine-twistingly awkward party in their wood-paneled basement rec room. The kids struggle to enjoy themselves with some of the worst icebreakers on record ("Um, how did your SATs go?"), then have a little fun at the expense of retarded Joe (Paul Sybersma), until tragedy strikes again, and the angel of death looms over these maidens. The Lisbon house is consumed by a thick despair that withstands even the noble, pompous efforts of Father Moody (Scott Glenn) to dissolve it.
The angels of lust and melancholy provide the counterbalance for the rest of the movie, as the randy blond Lux discovers some wild oats growing in her field and takes to inscribing the name of the sexy garbageman on her panties. Her favor for the sanitation engineer swiftly declines, however, when roguish Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) falls madly for her. As the neighborhood boys continue their fascinated vigil, Lux and bad boy Trip grow closer until, via some miracle, Trip and his friends manage to score dates with the Lisbon girls for the homecoming dance. That night, as curfews, hearts, plausibility and stringent parental guidelines are broken, a terrible new order descends upon the Lisbon home, where the girls begin their slow suffocation.
Coppola has a way with actors, pulling knowing performances out of Turner and Woods. She also coaxes terrific work out of the five sisters, a tricky feat considering that they're essentially an allegorical presence, representing both budding passion and detached beauty. And Hartnett is hilarious, seeming for all the world like an extra from Dazed and Confused, his period-specific haircut forming his head into the shape of the penis that guides his actions.
The work is particularly impressive given that the director freely admits that she lacks firsthand knowledge of suburban living. She certainly hits the colloquialisms and the landscape on the nose. True, there's nothing new here, and Coppola's cultural appraisal certainly isn't as ballsy and radical as she seems to think, but The Virgin Suicides may stand as a significant document of the daydream. Did our world really look like this? Were those princesses ever really there? The movie wisely leaves us to wonder.
The Virgin Suicides. Directed by Sofia Coppola. With James Woods, Kathleen Turner and Kirsten Dunst. Rated R.
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