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20 years later: Sofia Coppola’s debut ‘The Virgin Suicides’ is a Film of Beauty and Tragedy



Josh Hartnett and Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides

“What are you doing here, honey?,” a doctor asks a teenaged girl in a hospital bed, following a suicide attempt. “You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” 

“Obviously, doctor,” she responds, “you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” 

That’s the opening scene of The Virgin Suicides, and it goes to what the movie is about: No one knows the trauma being faced by teenaged girls- especially not the boys and men in their lives. 

Released widely on April 21, 2000- 20 years ago this week- writer/director Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides was the tragic tale of five sisters in 1970s suburban Detroit, and the complete befuddlement they engendered, both in life and death, in their male classmates. Considering the title, it’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal what happens at the end. The film positions the lives and deaths of the five Lisbon sisters, at some point in the mid-1970s, as an object of great mystery and fascination for the boys in the film, even years later, as told in a monotone narration by Giovanni Ribisi. 

Sure, it’s a bit of a male-gazey way to tell the story, especially one directed by a woman, and it probably wouldn’t have told that way if the movie were made now. There’s a lot of lingering on the body parts of actresses, something with which Sofia Coppola’s work has long been associated.  

But even so, The Virgin Suicides is a work that endures- and established its then-27-year-old director, who had previously been seen as something of a laughingstock, as a seriously talented filmmaker. It’s also not as nearly as sensational or exploitative, as movies about teens and sexuality often are. 

The film debuted at Cannes in 1999, before reaching theaters in April of 2000, 20 years ago this week. The events of the film, meanwhile, take place 25 years before that. 

The Virgin Suicides, based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, is about the five daughters of a devoutly Catholic family, led by the school’s gym teacher (James Woods) and his wife (Kathleen Turner.) The girls are played by Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Hanna R. Hall, Leslie Heyman and Chelse Swain. Their male suitors, who are so confused by them, are played by the likes of Josh Hartnett – playing the fantastically named high school bad boy “Trip Fontaine” – and a pre-Star Wars Hayden Christensen. 

Coppola’s film also makes it very clear that there’s a mental health crisis going on, and the adults in the story are completely clueless as to how to do anything about it. They’re also completely unable to provide compassion and help to a group of young women who very much need it. 

The Virgin Suicides is an aesthetically gorgeous film, which includes one of the best-filmed high school dance scenes in cinema history. It also features an outstanding score by the French band Air, and also a soundtrack of mid-’70s hits, most memorably Styx’s “Come Sail Away” and Heart’s “Crazy on You.”

Prior to the release of The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola was best known as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and the woman who gave a very tepidly received performance in her father’s 1990 film The Godfather, Part III. While she was cast at the last minute in place of Winona Ryder, that turn pretty much put an end to her nascent acting career. But she then turned to directing, starting with a successful push to adapt Eugenides’ popular novel. 

After Suicides, Coppola’s next film, 2003’s Lost in Translation, was both her most popular and most acclaimed work, and earned Coppola an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Then came Marie Antoinette, starring Dunst and Coppola’s cousin Jason Schwartzman, which was booed at Cannes but enjoyed a reputation that improved with time. Somewhere, in 2010, is largely forgotten, while 2013’s The Bling Ring was enjoyable but didn’t make much of an impact, although her 2017 remake of The Beguiled won Coppola her best reviews in years. 

It’s a film about how the boys didn’t understand the girls- and perhaps they should have tried harder to do so. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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