The Virgin Suicides (1999)

The Lisbon sister’s left lingering behind bars on an account of their strict religious parents. 

This American teenage drama “The Virgin Suicides” was written and directed by Sofia Coppola in 1999. Quite admirably, this film made it her directional debut into the movie making scene, and famously went on to create another cinema gem four years later with “Lost In Translation” (2003). “The Virgin Suicides” is adapted from the 1993 best selling novel of the same name by American author “Jeffrey Eugenides”. Sofia Coppola remains faithful to it’s narrative, taking much of the dialogue and description straight from it’s original source.

The film portrays the short-lived lives of five high-school blond beauties, who just so happen to be sisters from the Lisbon family: Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A.J Cook), Bonnie (Chelsea Swain), Cecilia (Hanna Hall), and Lux (Kirsten Dunst). The tale is set in a middle-class suburban neighborhood near the outskirts of Detroit around the 1970’s, “where the cloying summer humidity is a metaphor for the claustrophobic atmosphere created by parents who are terrified of their children’s potential to become adults”.

The opening scene’s focal point is on a group of neighborhood boys, who are now grown men, reflecting on their very fond memories of the five beautiful Lisbon sisters and struggle to find any explanations for their very tragic and sudden deaths. “The Virgin Suicides” is narrated omnisciently by these group of men throughout the entire film, speaking “for all the boys in a Michigan suburban neighborhood 25 years ago, who loved and lusted after the Lisbon girls”. Hidden behind the main focus of the Lisbon sisters and their perfect young beauty, lays the missing subject of “the gawky, insecure yearning of the boys”.

Because of the girls over protective parents, Ronald Lisbon (James Woods) and Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), along with their strong Catholic belief’s, the attractive young sisters linger and remain unattainable for any suitors. Leaving the boy’s to craze over them from a safe distance, thus creating the enigma that fill the high school boy’s discussions and dreams. Especially for Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), the films narrator and “ultimate high school heartthrob”, as he hopes to lure Lux into having sex with him after they both win King and Queen at the Homecoming Dance.

However, after a night of love making between Trip and his young Queen, Lux stays out all night and fails to return home until dawn after falling asleep and “waking up in that blue early morning light on the football pitch”. Having broken curfew and the strict rules of her parents, Mrs Lisbon punishes Lux and her sisters by withdrawing them from the high school and grounding them from leaving the house entirely. “After the dance and Lux’s transgression, the sisters are locked away by their parents, and forced to spend their hours lying around the house, in their stuffy-sweet bedrooms”, creating a narrative that is filled with repression, promiscuity and confinement. Of course, from that moment on, the girls become intensely depressed. This marked the end of their adolescence and sparked the “beginning of a lifetime of compromises, disenchantments and real things”.

The dream of adolescence and young love is over. The beginning of realism reigns. 

The films arguably excessive ending is given away in the title of the film, so we all know the tragedy that is going to happen, but why does this ending come to pass?

After these unfortunate Lisbon girls were born into a religious dictatorship and a repressive household, the future already looked extremely bleak for these soon to be blossoming teenagers, “it’s not about what the Lisbon girls have; it’s about what they don’t”. All they longed for was a chance at a normal teenage life, a chance to make mistakes, to learn from them, to grow into gorgeous young adults, but they were never offered this opportunity by their parents. Mr and Mrs Lisbon had banned the girls “from dating, parties and movies”, and all of them “have gone a bit bonkers – from permanently wearing a wedding dress to frenziedly flirting with anything in trousers”. This is seen as completely unnatural parenting and totally unfair on these young girls. At least we can understand why they had no other choice but to top themselves, “they had nothing but each other and their own sadness, making their deaths an act of self-preservation rather than destruction”.

The dangers of repressing teenagers with an authoritarian religious doctrine is unnatural human growth.

To say the least, this film doesn’t put Catholicism in a very good light and portrays a Catholic household that is run more like a monastery than a religious family home. Tamara Collins, a research analyst from the Catholic League spoke out about the Hollywood movie that attacked the Catholic religion and flagged it as “offensive to Catholics”.  Her review of the film said, “a true story about sexuality and teenage suicide would show what happens to adolescents exposed to a ‘value-free’ Sixties-type home.  It is not the kids who learn from the Dr. Lauras who wind up a psychological mess, it is the ones who were told by the Dr. Ruths to act on their own appetites who wind up that way”. Basically, the Catholic Church believe the film was manipulated by creating a false impression of Catholicism, as discriminating to their religion and having a total lack of respect to their views and ideals. Some would call that prejudice.

This is evidenced when “The Virgin Suicides” “speaks of boys in the movie who seek to free the girls from the prison of their strict Catholic household”, and “the putative villain may be Mom, who runs her house like a convent”, and finally “we learn of a ‘guilt-racked Catholic [mother] ready to lock her girls away like so many storybook Rapunzels”, and so on.

The fact that Sofia Coppola released the movie’s opening on Good Friday perhaps evidences her intent on criticizing the Catholic church as non accidental, “and oh, yes, the movie’s opening on Good Friday was not lost on the Catholic League”.

Whether Coppola has an actual issue with the Catholic church is debatable, however, what we can learn from “The Virgin Suicides” is the dangers when you try to police sexuality, or perhaps when you attempt to inhibit a teenagers development from adolescence into young adulthood, the results are apparently deadly. Nonetheless, this movie remains a captivating tale of tragic circumstances that lingers long in the memory.