"The Virgin Suicides"

Subtle, breezy, serious and smart, Sofia Coppola's gorgeous directorial debut gets to the heart of adolescent longing -- singing chewing gum notwithstanding.

Published January 23, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"The Virgin Suicides"
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett
Paramount; widescreen anamorphic (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: "The Making of 'The Virgin Suicides'" featurette, Air music video, photo gallery

"The Virgin Suicides" is so subtle and breezy, so suffused with light detail, so enjoyable to watch that sometimes it's easy to forget it's so serious, so smart and so, well, deep. Adapted by Sofia Coppola from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, the film centers on five sisters in suburban Michigan and what happens after the youngest slits her wrists in the bathtub.

The story is partially told from the viewpoint of a handful of neighborhood boys who fall in love with the girls; a voice-over by Giovanni Ribisi looks back to the early '70s when the story takes place. All of the girls are gorgeous and Ivory pure, but it's Lux, a middle sister played by Kirsten Dunst, who draws the attention of school heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). To get her away from the Lisbons, her overprotective parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner), for a homecoming dance, Trip arranges dates for all of the girls.

The date is a wondrous experience for the girls, but when Lux comes home early the next morning the Lisbon parents crack down again. The film, astonishingly, manages to make several plot points repeat, all without seeming forced or obvious. Here, what could have marked a new opening for the girls' lives, a way for them to pull themselves out of the glum depression following their sister's death, turns into a new sort of oppression.

The film is about a lot of things -- teenagers, death, the suburbs -- but mostly about perspective and point of view. You can see those ideas most of all in the boys, who are obsessed with understanding the girls. But the theme comes up in other places as well: There's a crass newswoman who looks at the sparsest details of the family for her news reports, and you can hear chattering neighbors gossiping about the death of the youngest sister on a voice-over track. But it mostly gets back to the boys, who work through the paradox of the girls -- wanting to know everything, knowing they know nothing -- that marks the film at its most profound.

The DVD extras make a modest contribution to the film itself. The documentary, shot on video by Coppola's mother, Eleanor (who co-directed "Hearts of Darkness" about her husband's "Apocalypse Now"), shows Sofia in the middle of a family affair. Her father, Francis, is a supportive dad (and also a producer), hanging around the set, but as her mother points out, Sofia is mature enough to listen to his ideas. The featurette is most compelling when it shows Sofia working: She's quiet, humble, assured and hardworking and she knows everything there is to know about Eugenides' novel, all of which comes out in the film. At a cast party that takes place at the school dance, Woods manages to be kind of icky, grossly pointing out his crush on Sofia, even if it's clear that she'd charm just about anyone.

The music video for Air's "Playground Love" intercuts scenes from the film with a weird animated piece of singing chewing gum. It's a great song, and used beautifully in the film, but the video seems a bit odd -- it has none of the grace or subtlety of the film. The photo galleries, on the other hand, make up a nice little addition. Coppola was a still photographer before she became a director, and she used a lot of photos to help her through the production. The pictures here, sun-touched and gauzy, give you an idea of what she was after and how much she accomplished.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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