I used to have Sofia Coppola’s debut on VHS, but it must be 15 years since I last watched it. It was an unusual, striking piece of work in 2000 and, somewhat unsurprisingly, it remains so today; not just for the hazy, dreamlike filter Coppola applies to the suburban American 1970s milieu, but also because of her empathy for and overall treatment of the teenage characters here (both the girls and the boys – they’re equally well-observed – even if a few are allowed to make more of an impression than others). The film’s best sequences – though not all of its best lines – can be found in the bittersweet second act, which begins with the family recovering from the suicide of youngest daughter Cecilia and ends with Kirsten Dunst’s Lux and Josh Hartnett’s swaggering Trip Fontaine – recently crowned Prom Queen and King – having sex on the school football field. The whole sequence builds to a terrific, earlier crescendo at the prom, with Coppola making wonderful use of Styx’s AOR anthem Come Sail Away.
Though the superb middle section has common ground with period coming-of-age comedy dramas like Dazed And Confused and even Stand By Me, it’s during the earlier and later parts of the film that The Virgin Suicides strikes out into different, often uncomfortable territory; it’s hard not to think of Peter Weir’s dreamy Picnic At Hanging Rock when you see the ill-fated Lisbon sisters in their oversized dresses and modesty-protecting nightgowns, imposed on them by their over-protective mother (Kathleen Turner on fine form); the two films also share a sense of the uncanny, and both feature strong female connections that undermine and frustrate adult characters. There are extremely dark moments in Coppola’s first and third acts, but also odd snatches of unexpected humour surrounding the men in the film: witness for example the gang of teenage boys with their telescopes and binoculars, straining for a view as Lux makes out with pizza delivery men across the street, and even the way the extent of the mental health problems that begin to affect her father Ronald (James Woods) after Cecilia’s death is established in a comic scene in which he talks to plants at his school.
There is indeed a great sense of fun here, which caught people off guard in the early 2000s, assuming they hadn’t of course read Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel beforehand and were expecting a miserable movie because of the title. For example, Coppola adds a twinkle effect into Lux’s left eye when she first sees a stoned Trip in her classroom, a small touch but one that’s indicative of the director’s playfulness. There’s similar attention to detail elsewhere: text that occasionally appears on the screen throughout the film genuinely looks like it has been scribbled on the front or back cover of a girl’s diary, and there are often laughs to be had by listening to the background noise of projected movies and TV shows, which inadvertently offer witty contextual commentary. Coppola proves very adept at gentle ribbing of the cockiness of teenage boys, too, and there are painfully awkward scenes of their teenage lust and longing that I find very funny indeed. The one shame is that some of this softens the film’s intended emotional punch at the end; it has always seemed a little flat to me, with events entirely lacking the same kind of impact that Cecilia’s death near the start of the film has. Aside from this small mis-step, Coppola hardly puts a foot wrong, even with regard to her choice for the original score (a floaty, retro-sounding mini-album by Air) and Giovanni Ribisi’s narration, which never intrudes too much. (****½)