Rarely has a film mixed hilarity and heartbreak with such poetic subtlety as "The Virgin Suicides." 

Death of the Maidens

When I was reading about "The Virgin Suicides" some months ago, the title left me cold. The very last thing I wanted to see was a movie based on the true tragic anomaly of one '70s-era, well-to-do Grosse Pointe, Mich., household whose five golden-haired daughters all commit suicide.

Nor was I particularly enthused that the film marked the writing and directing feature debut of Sofia Coppola, daughter of famed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and wife of acclaimed director Spike Jones. Daddy Francis is also one of the pic's producers. But once the film began to roll, I found myself completely involved in the story. Hauntingly beautiful, the film is a working definition of paradox. It will make you laugh at the same time that it brings a tear to your eyes, capturing the yin and yang of the decade and of adolescence.

Interestingly enough, the female Coppola deftly plumbs the emotional world of teen-age boys, not girls. And while there has been a plethora of pictures about similar themes — the '70s, suicide, high school, suburban angst and ennui — "The Virgin Suicides" manages to deal with these ubiquitous subjects without being heavy-handed, crude or stereotypical. The "virgins" of the title are the Lisbon sisters, five dreamy-fresh beauties wrapped in naiveté and longing. Not surprisingly, they fuel the imaginations and fantasies of every male in their upscale neighborhood. What transpires over a year and a half of their short lives has a lasting effect on one group of young men, who decades later still try to solve the puzzle of the girls' deaths. The movie is narrated by one now-grown-up member (Giovanni Ribisi) of that group.

As the men ponder the deaths, we are introduced to several, possible, contributing factors. Their parents are strict: Daddy (James Woods) teaches math at the local high school. Mommy (Kathleen Turner) is an overprotective religious type who keeps her girls locked away like so many Rapunzels. But that's the extent of the dysfunction, until youngest daughter Cecilia (Hannah Hill) attempts to slash her wrists. In trying to respond to Cecilia's obvious cry for help, a psychiatrist (Danny DeVito) tries to tell the parents to loosen up, that their daughter might benefit from a more active social life. The parents agree, throwing the sisters' first and only party. Remembered years later, the way the evening ends only adds to the lingering mystery of the Lisbon sisters.

When the school year begins, the narrator closes in on the oldest Lisbon sister, Lux (Kirsten Dunst in her most memorable role to date), as campus stud Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) pursues her. Successfully persuading the Lisbon parents to let the sisters go to the Homecoming dance as a group, Trip puts in motion something he could never have predicted. What happens sends Mrs. Lisbon over the edge. She pulls her daughters out of school and keeps them imprisoned in their rooms. The neighborhood boys become obsessed with the girls and spy on them through binoculars, trying to communicate with them, dreaming of setting them free. Instead, the boys become silent witnesses to something dreadful that is far beyond their comprehension.

Coppola gets sound performances from her cast, including an unusually understated and funny portrayal from Woods. Even though each of the actresses turns in an equally believable performance, creating distinct characters as the sisters, it is Dunst's seductively nubile and intelligent turn as Lux that makes us understand why these young women could so deeply affect the males around them. And in what could be described as something of a comeback, former '80s heartthrob Michael Paré (Eddie of "Eddie and the Cruisers") turns in a strong cameo as the grown-up Trip.

The first-time director also shows a great empathy for the power of a soundtrack. Her musical choices are both inspiring and humorous, underscoring with period-perfect details the world of female adolescence. Although Coppola's dialogue suffers at times, her directing rarely makes a misstep. "The Virgin Suicides" is lovely and sad, gliding along on moments of pure joy and painful naiveté that makes the film and the sisters a haunting requiem to lost youth.


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