“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl.”
Sofia Coppola’s debut film, based off the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, is somewhat of a beautiful mess, an unsatisfying mystery that has stayed with me all these years.
The film follows a group of teenage boys who become obsessed with five mysterious blonde sisters sheltered by their strict, religious parents in suburban Detroit in the mid 1970s. Even in adulthood, the boys are fascinated by the Lisbon sisters and have spent their entire lives trying to piece together the mystery behind their suicides.
When I was seventeen, I happened to catch this movie at a party. Bored and confused by the appeal, I dismissed it immediately. Revisiting it years later, I still found this movie to be a mixed bag – beautiful, yet hollow. It’s certainly an ambitious debut feature, and it’s an even better novel. Despite my three-star rating, I find myself watching this movie every few years…always finding something new to appreciate about it.
“When I was in my mid-20s, I came across The Virgin Suicides. I remember seeing the cover – it was just all this blonde hair. I read it and loved it. It felt like Jeffrey Eugenides, the writer, really understood the experience of being a teenager: the longing, the melancholy, the mystery between boys and girls. I loved how the boys were so confused by the girls, and I really connected with all that lazing around in your bedroom. I didn’t feel like I saw that very much in films, not in a way I could relate to.” Sofia Coppola via The Guardian
When I read the novel years later, I immediately understood what attracted Coppola to this project. Coppola doesn’t stray far from her source material and includes all important dialogues and scenes from the book. Her attention to detail from page to screen is magnificent; she incorporates minor details that only those who read the novel would notice.
But while the details and cinematography are stunningly beautiful, the movie fails to be as extraordinary as the novel. It’s literally all there from page to screen, but somehow lacks the spirit of the novel. Instead of focusing on the boys, Coppola chooses to focus more on the sisters…which kind of took the “mystery” appeal of them away. Whatever was so “mysterious” about them in the movie kind of vanishes making them just average girls.
One of the greatest mysteries in the movie, that still bothers me to this day, is Lux getting left on the football field. Coppola tweaked the character of Trip Fontaine from the novel. Josh Hartnett, who effortlessly plays the ultimate high school heartthrob, is much more likeable in the movie than in the novel. In the novel, Trip leaves Lux on the field because he “got sick of her”, but the movie leaves a tremendous question mark around this scene haunting Trip even in adulthood. The movie makes it clear that it’s one of the biggest regrets of his life, and he remains haunted by the memory of Lux.
I’m not sure if altering this part of the book is significant enough to care about, but it didn’t really help communicate the plot.
Then the sequence of events that eventually bring us to that ending. We’re just left with so many questions. Why did they do it? Could they have been saved? What could have happened differently? Unfortunately, we never really get to know the girls well enough to care about their demise. Like the book, their deaths happen very abruptly, and we’re left feeling somewhat empty.
I guess you could say this is a classic style over substance movie, but there’s that certain something that always draws me back to it. It’s beautiful, but it leaves me wanting more to chew on.