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One strain of Western perception holds that the highest purpose to which a woman’s beauty can aspire is early and tragic extinction. This idea is by no means unaesthetic; in fact, the satisfying, morbid thrill and extravagant sense of waste have been exploited to dazzling effect in some of our finest examples of painting, sculpture, and literature. Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, introduced five more heroines to the genre. The Lisbon sisters, so blond and sad and wise that their feet hardly touch the ground, so achingly young that their deaths—announced in the first line—evoke a prurient little frisson, aren’t ladies of myth but the daughters of an ineffectual Catholic schoolteacher and his hardheaded wife living in a mid-’70s Michigan suburb. Still, the novel has all the genre’s glossy aestheticism and dreamlike waft: lovely females who exist as golden reflections in the male eye and expire when the eye closes, and who are all of a type. Eugenides has even given them names that nestle comfortably in the historical lineup alongside those of Virginie, Atala, Elaine, and Albine: Bonaventure, Therese, Mary, Cecilia, and Lux.
Sofia Coppola’s lovely, disturbing screen adaptation may be the first film of the early-plucked-flower genre, so faithfully does it refuse to build a solid structure of context around the images and evocations that constitute Eugenides’ story. The lack of context also gives her a suspect freedom—characters don’t have to behave like human beings, and teenage existence as we understand it can pass as a heady cocktail of self-mythology, erotic transport, and black despair.
The film opens with Cecilia’s unsuccessful wrist-slashing, which she soon follows up with a final, and more gruesome, action. At 13, Cecilia (Hanna Hall) is, in a way, the ultimate Lisbon girl, the youngest and the wisest, easily exasperated, with a smart mouth and the perpetually raised eyebrows of a baby skeptic. To tut-tutting elders who insist that life is worth living, she sighs, “You’ve obviously never been a 13-year-old girl,” and she appears in vivid fantasy to the neighborhood boys—a collective “we” in Giovanni Ribisi’s grave narration—after her death, smirking down from trees or perched on the edges of their beds.
While the drab adult world, in the form of a rapacious television reporter and well-meaning school announcements that recall the sendup of suicide hysteria in Heathers, tries to understand Cecilia’s choice to obliterate herself (the very act is suggested to be a reaction against callowness), the remaining four sisters carry on much the same, as if simply waiting for their own chances. Coppola soon shifts the focus to 14-year-old Lux (Kirsten Dunst), whose intense but short-lived lusts for various local specimens of manhood only throw into relief her sexual naivete.
The riveted interest the script displays in Cecilia and Lux throws the film off balance; the three other girls get short shrift, even though, collectively, the Lisbon girls embody the unattainable who enact the incomprehensible. Approaching life with a vagueness that maddens the local boys—shown as shrimpy and unformed, not man enough for their ripe feminine coevals—and treating each other with the tenderness of languid princesses, the Lisbon girls aren’t distinct personalities so much as a mass of evanescent blond beauty. “We felt the collective imprisonment of being a girl” isn’t reason enough to explain why any young woman would off herself after puberty. Even so, the Lisbon sisters’ “imprisonment” is nearly literal and therefore not specific to girlhood—their Catholic household so repressive, the talismans of femininity offered by society so phony, so cheerful, so shallow.
But the rebellious Lux, with her bare shoulders and hair-tosses, attracts the eye of the school stud, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett, an almost ridiculously lush version of the Me Decade hunk). His courtship and betrayal of the fragile Lux unbalances the entire Lisbon family—such a narrative trajectory has sealed the fate of hundreds of doomed literary ladies—and Coppola hasn’t forgotten the hothouse aura of sexual fervor in school hallways. Trip’s iconic whisper of male approval—”You’re a stone fox”—resounds in Lux’s memory, first as the emblem of his admiration, later as a callous ploy, just as Sir Lancelot’s casual appraisal of a floating corpse—”She has a lovely face”— is the sum total of his interaction with the Lady of Shalott, who has seen fit to die for him.
Punished for supposed sexual intransigence, the Lisbon girls languish like princesses in a tower, indulging in such harmless pursuits as knitting, Chinese checkers, and TV nature programs. The neighborhood boys, armed with binoculars and a secret cache of the girls’ spangly feminine discards, plot to rescue them and reintegrate them into normal life via an aimless road trip, complete with such robust play as drinking beer and copping a feel. Unfortunately, the boys haven’t much of a life, either—if the girls are too ephemeral and legendary to exist in solid reality, why, too, are their admirers mere specters, in turn, of them? They are the sum of their gaze upon the Lisbon girls—bizarrely obsessed, void of psychologies, and strangely unprurient except in the most morbid way. When they fantasize about the sisters, they see them in entirely received terms, as wind-wafted and gauze-lensed daisy-field beauties off some cheesy ’70s poster, in scenes Coppola presents with a high satiric gloss and fine attention to detail.
Eugenides’ story offers numerous naturally satiric possibilities, but Coppola’s treatment is otherwise reverent and, in rare spots, gloopy—there’s a subtheme, whose meaning one can spot miles away, about the premature destruction of presumably beautiful and healthy neighborhood trees. Coppola’s playfulness sometimes obfuscates her intent—is Trip’s stud status on campus a target of mockery from a grown-up’s point of view, as she implies when filming Hartnett in a strutting montage sequence to the pitch-perfect sounds of Heart’s “Magic Man”? Her ear for music is exquisite—Air’s gentle sonic wallpaper sets the tone, and numerous well-chosen schlock hits of the period narrate the girls’ amorous landmarks. Coppola’s willingness to grant pop its immediacy and emotional eloquence is both admirable and surprisingly unpostmodern, and her impulses for satire, even when bemusing, leaven the film’s mythopoetic weight. CP