The first time I saw The Virgin Suicides, I was no older than the Lisbon girls, and the story didn’t resonate.
Based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, the film, like the book, is narrated by the boys that -now grown up- reflect on the final year of the five Lisbon girls. There is a sumptuous simplicity, and haziness that runs through the story retold as the boys remember it. The Lisbon girls are just as mysterious in film as on paper and since the boys never truly got to know them, neither do we; we observe just as they did, peering down telescopes from across the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of them, then piecing together bits of the puzzle and still never knowing why it is that they came to end their short lives. Those who have seen Sofia Coppola’s other films will be familiar with her flair for expressing vast concepts with minimalistic panache, so that it seems only natural that she be the one to adapt the novel, and the addition of a stellar soundtrack by Air becomes the final touch to bring the boys’ memory of that heady summer to life.
Given the nature of the film, it’s easy to forget the impressive cast list, after all, we learn few details about individual characters so that even though the Lisbon girls are at the heart of the story, as the boys say: they sometimes merge into one or become interchangeable. Of course, despite notable roles before the film was released in 1999, Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett had yet to be catapulted into the public eye by Bring it On and Pearl Harbor, but despite being ‘the famous faces’ they don’t draw attention to themselves and fulfill their roles with a subtlety that is not generally accorded to big teen-movie actors. Kathleen Turner and James Woods, who play the Lisbon parents, perform with restraint and embody their characters with casual ease; as for the rest, blink and you’ll miss appearances from Danny DeVito and (a very young!) Hayden Christensen, as well as a myriad of faces that you almost recognise before they blend into the story of a memory, just as memories tend to do.
As an adaptation, and as a film in its own right, The Virgin Suicides is captivating viewing, and at no point do you question the latent power of the ill-fated Lisbon girls.