It’s hard to heap praises on something that doesn’t make sense. It’s a total paradox that starts from one absurd point to another absurd point to another absurd point, ad infinitum. But I’m going to do it anyway because the very experience of watching The Virgin Suicides is a paradox by itself. Nothing makes sense from the perspective of what we consider normal. Yet, I was drawn to it, to them — the characters, trying to understand how the parents’ good intentions and the teenaged girls’ yearning for nothing more than a “normal” life could lead to such tragedy of absurd proportions.
From a story point of view, the film version of The Virgin Suicides is downright bizarre and tragic. Based on the debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the film version was the debut directorial job of Sofia Coppola. The Virgin Suicides is a story about an upper middle class Catholic family in suburban America in the 1970s. Father, mother and five attractive teenaged daughters. The youngest daughter attempts suicide, is not successful, tries again and manages to do it right the second time. The already overprotective parents become even more overprotective and, after one daughter breaks curfew one night after a school dance, the girls are never again allowed to leave the house. In the end, they all commit suicide.
It’s a story I cannot relate to. I’d ordinarily be too full of judgment about the almost fanatical religious conservatism of the parents especially the mother (played by Kathleen Turner) who, from beginning to end, seemed frantic and unable to cope with the inevitable sexual awakening of any normal teenaged daughter. I’d be too full of judgment too for the daughters who, for the most part, exhibited nothing but weakness to defy the unreasonable restrictions imposed by their (ironically enough) well-intentioned parents. In short, with a story like that, I would have been scathing and dismissive in a big, big way.
Curiously enough, I watched The Virgin Suicides with the focus and fascination I usually display only when watching something with overly diverse philosophical nuances such as The Matrix. The film itself was mesmerizing — mostly, I think, because the bizarre story was told without judgment. A hard task, if you ask me, because directors are often caught in that situation where they want to please the viewers who, nine times out of ten, demand that there be a protagonist to commiserate with and an antagonist to hate and blame. And that situation, Sofia Coppola successfully avoided. Telling the story from a perspective where none of the characters are labeled, even by implication, as good or bad, it was just a story told with such rich details — visually, emotionally and, believe it or not, socially.
From a cinematic point of view, The Virgin Suicides is everything that a good movie should be with the amazing performance of the actors, the realistic (though understated) sets and costumes, and a cinematography that I can only describe as utterly surreal. I wonder what camera filters were used to achieve that but it was effective. In many scenes, the five daughters appeared quite ethereal so that just by looking at them, one gets that sense of vulnerability. Yet, one also gets the impression that the vulnerability is a veil that hides sexual tension waiting to be unleashed, ironically, sans wantonness and sluttiness. It’s mind-blowing how something like that can be conveyed visually. I suppose it takes the sensibilities of a woman to do it.
The Virgin Suicides is probably not for the film viewer who expects a closure by the time the final credits roll. It leaves you hanging and still wondering just what the hell really happened and why. You try to analyze who could be faulted for the deaths and it is so easy to blame the parents until you realize that everything they did, they thought they were doing for their daughters’ own good. And then you try to contextualize the story based on the era in which it took place. The 70s — years so full of social and cultural polarity. Out with the old ways, in with the social liberation. And you wonder whether those characters were all just meant to be portrayed as victims of their time.