At the end of 2017, Toronto held a Sofia Coppola retrospective at the Bell Lightbox (home of TIFF) and I made sure to see all of her films. I had previously seen Bling Ring and The Beguiled in cinemas so I made sure to watch the other four. I was more excited to see Lost In Translation once again, but also to see her third and fourth film on the big screen as my first time. But I knew I was in for all of it, so as I sat down waiting for Virgin Suicides, I wasn’t aware that everything could change.
As an infant, Sofia Coppola starred in her father’s The Godfather. Her parents Francis and Eleanor met on the set of Dementia 13. It is unsurprising that Sofia and her siblings (and extended family) are all involved in the filmmaking world. She had a few more acting roles, such as The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. She also starred in Tim Burton’s original Frankenweenie short film. She would also have a role in The Godfather Part III, which has been critically panned over the past 29 years. This might be a good thing because that led her to want to go into filmmaking.
By the time I truly got into film (circa 2006/2007), Coppola was a big enough name due to her second film Lost in Translation. And after I finally saw the film, I saw the appeal but didn’t understand it just yet. Her first film, The Virgin Suicides was praised immensely from one of my friends. One day we were hanging out at an HMV (a store severely missed where I bought all my DVDs and CDs) and we were trading recommendations like we used to. This was one of them. Let’s just make it clear, she was stunned when I later informed her that it wasn’t for me. “Yeah, it’s good, but what’s the point?” I didn’t know that two years later, I’d regret even thinking something so silly.
Even though I knew what was going to happen, it felt as if I was going through it for the first time. Part of that is the genius lines that pretty much open the film. When the youngest daughter of 5, Cecilia tries to kill herself and the doctor mentions how she doesn’t even know how bad life gets yet, she simply replies “obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” I think that line perfectly encapsulates the film. As someone who wasn’t a 13-year-old girl, it made me realize that that’s how I need to watch the film. Not as a 20-something male, but to try and put me in the five sisters’ perspective, not the five guys who ogle them and try and understand them from afar.
The movie is narrated by Giovanni Ribisi (who also stars in Lost In Translation) and as I previously mentioned, told from the perspective of the boys in the neighbourhood as they are fascinated with the five Lisbon daughters, ages 13 to 17. They talk about how even now, twenty years after the events, they still think about it and talk about it during their meetings and reunions. In a way, they never fully recover from it. At the beginning of the film, the youngest Cecilia is found in the bathtub after she attempts to slit her wrists, and luckily she is found in time to save her. There was no real saving her though, as shortly after she jumped out of her bedroom window during a party and impaling herself on the fence.
The rest of the film plays out as some sort of voyeuristic mystery. The boys who so infatuated with them keep watch and pay attention to their every move, but yet they can’t understand them. Nor will they ever. Over the course of the next year, the remaining four sisters (Mary, Lux, Therese and Bonnie played by A.J. Cook, Kirsten Dunst, Leslie Hayman, and Chelse Swain respectively) seem to move on and attempt to live ordinary lives as their highly strict and religious parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) either set them free or eventually lock them away in their own house.
After Cecilia commits suicide, she is a bit of the talk of the town, but never in a good way. As comes with the stigma behind suicide, the rest of the seemingly upper-class suburbia they belong to talks ill of her death. And it never really ends even though they move on as if nothing happened, the parents cannot. Once they are put essentially on house arrest due to Lux staying out all night after the homecoming dance and having sex with Trip Fontaine (a young Josh Harnett), the teenage boys have secret conversations with the girls in these lovely montages of them playing records for one another. It’s simple and childish, but adorable. It’s the same way we send YouTube links to those we are infatuated with – even if the links aren’t necessarily romantic, it’s still informing the other we are thinking of them. After one of these conversations, they are told to come over the next day, at midnight. The plan would be to run away, go on a journey together, as they want to break them free and save them. Instead, they walk in to find the rest of the sisters had all committed suicide as well.
It’s these moments that have haunted them – or as they put it, kept them thinking about them for twenty years and possibly for the rest of their lives. They later found diaries of some of the girls but even then, it’s a minor peak into Cecilia’s mind, only being able to see what they wanted someone to see. There’s no true way of ever understanding or truly knowing any of them, or why they did what they did. In a very over-simplified way of putting it, but Sofia Coppola and the author of the original story, Jeffrey Eugenides make the argument that these women are a huge mystery, and we will never find a way to truly understand them, especially from afar and afterwards. And how sometimes we also hold onto these moments and make us think about them for years and years to come.
I wonder what would have happened if the boys had made contact sooner, or if it was caused by a mental illness that seemingly might have been hereditary, they had found help early. But their and our minds are truly a mystery, and somethings just are and are without rhyme or reason.
Sofia Coppola showed up at the Cannes Film Festival with this as her debut and how I would have wished to be in attendance to see how she made the audience swoon and respond with yes, it truly is that good.