[Deep Focus]
Hey, ladies.

The Virgin Suicides is a tale told by an unseen narrator. Given voice by Giovanni Ribisi, who appears nowhere else in the film, this protagonist-by-proxy is apparently meant to speak for a sort of group mind -- a small circle of boyhood friends who came of age across the street from the infamous Lisbon sisters. The Lisbons were five pretty girls who seemed to enjoy all the benefits of suburbia, but were afflicted with a profound ennui that could only be salved through the release afforded by death.

Thus, we're told as the story begins, the girls took their own lives. First to go was the youngest, who let herself fall from a second-floor bedroom window onto the spikes of an iron fence in the front yard (the resulting death tableau is staged like a diorama -- the suburban inverse of a nativity scene). The circumstances of the remaining four suicides are the narrative question mark that hangs over the rest of the film. We know what eventually happens, but we're meant to scrutinize the events for hints as to how or even why.

This stuff necessarily reminds a viewer of those other recent sex-and-death-in-suburbia tales, including The Ice Storm and American Beauty, setting its tale of awkwardness and despair along the tree-lined streets of Grosse Point, Michigan. (In a nice touch, we learn that even the trees are dying; in one scene, the Lisbon sisters encircle a diseased elm in their front yard in an effort to keep the city from cutting it down.) As a narrative, however, The Virgin Suicides feels comparably inert. First-time feature director Sofia Coppola is an avowed fan of the 1993 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, and may have underestimated the amount of work needed to make a compelling screen story out of good literary material. Instead, she concentrates on style, cinematography and atmospherics.

When the movie verges closest to a conventional narrative, it's arguably at its best -- the scenes that take place in high school, with the boys convincing the girls' father to allow them out on a date, are genuinely funny, depicting the wobbly enthusiasm of puberty and the awkwardness of incipient sexuality. Elsewhere, Coppola is after something even more interesting but less effective in practice, creating a world that seems to exist in a realm of pure thought -- dim memories spun out to mythic proportions over the course of a lifetime. Now in his 30s, the narrator confides that he and his friends have remained weirdly obsessed with the Lisbons over the span of all those years.

As befits a movie about the 70s, The Virgin Suicides is kind of tacky. Period detail is the only excuse for Coppola's decision to inflict "Come Sail Away" on us during an important homecoming-dance scene, or what feels like a sizable portion of the Heart songbook elsewhere. (The musical score from French band Air either adds or subtracts a layer of irony; I'm not entirely sure which.) And by shooting the Lisbon sisters as bored-looking, vaguely erotic near-mannequins, she's surely trying to invoke the idea of a 1970s fantasy girl, a manifestation of adolescent wishful thinking, rather than a real human being. The resultant visual mood is a cross between vaseline-lensed soft porn and an episode of The Brady Bunch.

I'd love to comment here on some of the performances, but the girls get such a raw deal from the story that I'm not sure what to say. They're all lovely in an indistinct way, Kirsten Dunst in particular. James Woods is unrecognizably restrained, and quite good, as the father, while Kathleen Turner blends into the scenery as Mom. Josh Hartnett lights up the proceedings a bit whenever he's on-screen, but his character vanishes from the show abruptly (after proving himself to be an asshole after all).

In the end, the root of the girls' fatal despair is utterly banal: the men in their lives are pigs, their suffocating mother locks them in the house and burns their rock albums. (In futile rebellion, Lux takes to screwing neighbor boys on the roof.) Oh, yes, who wouldn't be suicidal under these conditions? But I kept thinking about Stephen King's Carrie as shot by Brian DePalma, a more lurid (but also more empathetic) tale with an over-the-top climax that really defined what it means to be 16, female, and miserable.

The Virgin Suicides is more careful than that -- reverential, even. The overall effect, a grim take on teenage sexuality and the enduring adolescent myth of feminine perfection, is worth achieving, I suppose, and Coppola does squeeze one quite alarming moment out of the scenario. But if you're hoping to get to know any of these young women, forget about it -- they exist on the screen with the same lack of specificity found in the mind of the narrator, whose life was changed forever not by the Lisbon girls, but by a hormone-addled perception of them. Mindful of the glowing notices Coppola's film has received in some quarters, I was surprised when it threatened to put me to sleep. Content in its bland enigmas, The Virgin Suicides is exquisitely boring.

Directed by Sofia Coppola
Written by Coppola
from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
Cinematography by Edward Lachman
Edited by Melissa Kent and James Lyons
Starring Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett
USA, 2000

Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Sony Lincoln Square, New York City

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