“You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
“Obviously Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.”
So begins “The Virgin Suicides,” an ethereal mystery about a family of suicidal neighbourhood girls, and the boys who loved them. First time director Sofia Coppola captures the twilight of adolescence, somehow both endless and fleeting. The boys, now men, narrate the film, looking back on the tragedies that struck the Lisbon family. The men are still fascinated. How could these young women, who’d been so popular and desired, have been so miserable?
The film’s presentation of the deaths is unnervingly calm, almost unreal.
How can the boys feel so unemotional about the deaths of the Lisbon girls, except for the way in which they remind them of their own fleeting youth? The film understands the misery and confusion of being young, but also the tragedy of its transient nature.
Kirsten Dunst’s Lux wakes up alone in the middle of a football field. It’s the morning after a school dance. She has just lost her virginity. Arriving home, Lux and her remaining siblings are locked away inside their home, a punishment for breaking curfew. The Lisbon girls become guarded by their parents, trapped in an ivory tower stuffed with records from the 50s and soft toys. At night, Lux retreats to the roof, wrapped in a blanket, cigarette in hand, an adolescent siren calling out to the neighbourhood boys, who offer up one of their number every night to keep her company. The younger boys watch these rooftop rendezvous from across the street – entranced, awestruck and terrified. Lux holds court on the roof, as fascinated by her audience as they are with her.
The film becomes about the male gaze, about the simultaneous idolisation and protection of the feminine.
Coppola’s camera loves Kirsten Dunst, all long blonde hair and toothy smile. She dances for us in front of the camera, twirling in slow motion. She’s a stone fox. But Coppola’s greatest asset is her capacity to return this gaze onto the audience. Her feminine sensibility imbues the film’s leering stare with the perspective of its female subjects. They seem to be looking right back out at us, through the pastel colours and soft rock soundtrack, through the knowing stare of Dunst’s Lux, who occasionally glances right into the lens. In this way, the girls’ real selves peer out through the memories and projections of the boys who remember them.
The film becomes a commentary on the cinematic medium itself, particularly in the gendered way it depicts coming of age narratives.
By the end of the film, the causes of the suicides remain elusive, just out of reach. The film has led us to regard these girls more as puzzles than people, unknowable and unsolvable. We see them as little more than a mystery. Perhaps this is how it always was.
And so we’re left, like the boys, consumed by an enigma.