In lieu of the hoopla surrounding American Beauty, the suburbs seems to be the hot choice of mise-en-scene for current American cinema. The trend seems to stem from Hollywood's contemporary writers and directors, who are the first generation who grew up in the decline of the suburban dream, the promise of two-kids and white picket fences. This modern American film landscape transforms the suburbs into a movie metaphor of malevolence underlying the pretense of normality. The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, although not a modern-day investigation of suburban life, explores this theme of banality and the darker side of the '70s two-car garages and fertile green lawns. Her first cinematic endeavor taps the similar suburban malaise of recent critically acclaimed indies The Ice Storm and Welcome to the Dollhouse, that attempt to show the reality of suburban dysfunction.
The Virgin Suicides is a movie based on the Jeffrey Eugenides' novel of the same name and told partially in flashback from the perspective of several neighborhood adolescents who recount the events surrounding the disturbing suicides of the five Lisbon sisters. These collective narrators bring us into the world of the Lisbon's and the suicidal domino effect that occurs when the youngest daughter, Cecilia, hurls herself from the second-story window of the family's home at a party thrown in her honor. After Cecilia's death, the remaining sisters are cloistered in the house only allowed to leave for school, by their oppressive and overprotective parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner. Woods and Turner are well-chosen to visually represent two parents who neurotically keep their children guarded from the dangers that lurk in the pernicious garden of the suburbs. The outspoken leader of the siblings is Lux Lisbon, played by Kirsten Dunst, the sexually prurient, mischievous sister who seems to negotiate with the outside world for the sisters. As the film progresses, she is seduced by Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the high school Casanova, who convinces Mr. Lisbon to take Lux to the prom on the agreement that he finds dates for the rest of the sisters. After a disastrous prom night, especially for Lux, the girls are taken out of school and eternally imprisoned in the Lisbon house. It is only a matter of time before the girls enact the film's title and make the house their execution chamber.
Sofia Coppola, previously best-known for her forgettable appearance in Godfather III, brings an ethereal and dark cinematic feel to the project. Leaving aside the fact that her father is one of Hollywood's immortal directors and produced the film, Sofia competently handles the job of director on her virgin film debut. Stylistically, the film has an interesting low-fi, '70s feel that adds to the mystery and spectral nature of the film. But the stylistic achievement unfortunately can't overshadow the problematic content that plagues it, and eventually relegates it to the label of "a good movie". After leaving the theater, the film's publicist asked me what I thought, and playing it safe, I replied with the aforementioned catch-all phrase. She said that was everybody's reaction to the film so far, nobody zealously praising its merit or damning it straight to video release. The reason for the lukewarm reaction is that The Virgin Suicides has a character crisis. Lacking a central protagonist, the film keeps the viewer detached . There is no character that the audience can latch on to or place its empathy with. There are the five Lisbon sisters, their two parents, the numerous neighborhood admirers, the unidentified narrator, Trip Fontaine, etc. The audience has trouble keeping count of all these faces and names, and no character materializes as the focus of the story. A multi-faceted character approach as a literary convention was a critical success, because Jeffrey Eugenides could verbally and descriptively acquaint the audience with the characters in novel form; but when utilized in film, a director is left with condensed screen time, visual cues, and limited dialogue to get at exposition and character development.
Another issue that leaves the audience unfulfilled is the dangling threads running throughout the film. The Virgin Suicides unfolds more episodically than narratively, leading the film to posit questions and leaving them unresolved. After Cecilia's death, two characters have visions of her a la Sixth Sense, yet nothing more is ever revealed or expounded on concerning these visions. Also, our neighborhood narrators introduce us to the Lisbon's sister and observe the girls from across their house across the street, but half-way through the movie this observation theme is abandoned, and the audience is introduced to a different group of boys who take the Lisbon girls to the prom. The original narrators return in the final third of the movie, leaving the audience to believe that the boys had no contact with the sisters in the interim. Whereas a novel can be successful through episodic narrative, a film loosely applying this technique suffers, and at the expense of the viewer.
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