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USA 1999
Directed by
Sofia Coppola
97 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Virgin Suicides

Synopsis: In suburban 1970’s Michigan the Lisbon family, an ineffectual father (James Woods) and overbearing mother (Kathleen Turner) and their five teenage daughters live out the timeless generational conflict with tragic consequences.

The 70s are a perfect metaphor for teen angst – awkward, gauche and thirsting for experience. Unlike a recent film with which this will be compared, the mega hit American Beauty, suburban dysfunctionality does not look stylish or witty in The Virgin Suicides. Not that this film is graphically realist. On the contrary, it is filmed with a gentle, almost ethereal, quality that it superbly appropriate to its main subject matter – the experiences of 5 teenage sisters living in a prison of well-intended but misguided over-protectiveness. So judicious is the overall approach to its subject that despite being told as a recollection, sometimes it looks as if it could indeed have been filmed in that most rose-tinted of decades.

Much of what we see here we have already seen many times before - scenes from innumerable American coming-of-age films - high school proms, manicured suburban lawns, too neat living rooms and messy teenager's bedrooms - and there are no bravura effects in the direction. What makes the film, however, is clearly both the original writing (a novel by Jeffery Eugenides) and Sofia Coppola’s adaptation and handling of it.

First-time director Coppola has translated the emotionally-disturbing material into the filmic mode with a lightness of touch and observational distance that is moving rather than manipulative, empathetic rather than dramatic. In this respect the narration works well to keep the film’s principal characters at arms-length. Indeed the Lisbon family remains very much an enigma to the narrator and his, then young, friends. Coppola never goes beyond this point of view, a telling strategy that enhances the sense of estrangement and thus gives the film its resonance. The girls are almost a single flaxen-haired, fair-skinned entity, characterised only by small differences and there is no insight into the parents – the neurotically puritanical mother (Kathleen Turner’s stand-out performance recalls Piper Laurie relationship with her daughter in a 70s classic with a related theme, Carrie) and the drably-dependent father (an unusual role for Woods which, although slightly stereotypical, he does well) – or their relationship. Rather, as watchers, we join the boys in observing a phenomenon that moves us yet we are unable to affect. Their helplessness is a microcosm of the helplessness of us all to prevent the inevitability of personal suffering or the simple twists of fate.

This sounds quite gloomy but The Virgin Suicides is not a gloomy film. There is much humour and irony in the story and the performances are excellent all round. There is the usual naff 70’s fashion, together with a perky soundtrack of some very cheesy songs, all deftly put together in a beguiling package that only a heart of stone could resist.

 

 

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