The Virgin Suicides

***1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The once bright suburban dreamscape is having a rotten year. First there was American Beauty, and now this. Not that Sofia Coppola's debut as writer/director intends to poke fun. It chills. And in doing so, questions.

Why did the beautiful Lisbon girls kill themselves?

Was it the fault of their parents for being too strict? Was it the stupid, ritualistic, high school mating game? Was it suburbia's broken promise? When you live in a privileged part of town, with future debutantes and prospective Yale students, happiness comes with the territory. What if it doesn't? Whose to blame?

Coppola's script, based on Jeffrey Eugenides's novel, tells the story, with narrative voice-over, from the viewpoint of four boys, now men, who took the girls out, the only time they were allowed. At that age - early-to-mid teens - the five blonde daughters of Mr Lisbon, the maths teacher, had mythical qualities. They were somehow beyond beauty, in that place where conversation is choked by desire and the heart plays hide-and-seek inside your chest.

Cecilia (Hanna Hall) slits her wrists in the bath and is saved. She's 13. The shrink (Danny DeVito) says, in his I've-been-there-before-you-even-thought-of-it voice: "You aren't old enough to know how bad life gets", implying that if things feel desperate now, just wait and see. She doesn't, and the whole cycle of tragedy begins.

Coppola demonstrates remarkable confidence. She takes risks, using imaginative photographic techniques and avoiding high school clich├ęs - she can't resist a pinning-the-corsage sequence - with admirable courage.

Kathleen Turner, as Mrs L, driven by a desperate conviction, shows a whole new side to her talent.

James Woods, as Mr L, plays against type and gives one of his least showy performances, proving that you don't have to be mad to be noticed. Josh Hartnett, as the football star heartthrob, who lusts after 14-year-old Lux (Kirsten Dunst), because she's not a pushover, is wonderfully vain and self-aware.

With the exception of Dunst and Hanna, the girls are figments. They decorate rooms with their presence. The film ends abruptly, as if arrested by the plot police. Setting up Death City in the 'burbs and forgetting to pay the reaper leads to langour and disbelief. American Beauty cut to the quick. Virgin Suicides bleeds into bobby socks.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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The story of sisters and suicide in the American suburbs.
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Director: Sofia Coppola

Writer: Sofia Coppola, Jeffrey Eugenides

Starring: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Hanna Hall, Chelse Swain, A J Cook, Leslie Hayman, Danny DeVito, Michael Pare, Scott Glenn

Year: 1999

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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