“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.” So says Cecilia to the condescending male doctor who claims she’s too young to attempt suicide because “you’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” This memorable exchange underscores the indifference of the adults to the very real suffering of five sensitive teenage sisters depicted in Sofia Coppola’s film THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999). The film takes seriously the angst and melancholy of the Lisbon sisters as the camera follows them to their deaths, simultaneously celebrating and mourning their fragile female beauty and youthful spirits against the backdrop of a mundane suburb setting and sexually repressive Catholic upbringing.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES remains a relevant film worthy of discussion for its powerful, wrenching portrayal of the very real torment of adolescence and the inherent loneliness that is often so prevalent in the existence of a teenage girl. The film centers on the Lisbon sisters, who are trapped in the netherworld of being neither a woman nor a child, mature enough to desire independence and autonomy, but too young to command respect or appreciation from the adult figures who dominate their lives. To its credit, however, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES doesn’t find one focus of blame for the demise of the girls, and wisely doesn’t cast aspersions on any entity or person, depicting the parents as loving despite their overbearing manner and rigid religious beliefs. After their suicides, their mother states, “there was plenty of love in our house.” We don’t doubt the sincerity of their grief. Early on, they attempt to alleviate the unhappiness of Cecilia by hosting a party for their daughters and happily taking them shopping for prom dresses. But when Lux is caught staying out all night with her jock prom date, all five Lisbon sisters find themselves captive in a house arrest of Draconian proportions, removed from school and isolated from friends, peers and their entire community. They are even forced to destroy their favorite record albums, the smell of the burning vinyl making it difficult to breath in the house. “We’re suffocating,” Lux proclaims to her mother in a symbolic statement that has become literal.
The Lisbon sisters are desperate and vulnerable in this captive state and seek help from the neighborhood boys by sending out an SOS. Recognizing the girls are in trouble, the boys who have long been obsessed with them, are anxious to help, but fail—a consequence that haunts the boys into middle-age. Although the narrator of the film is male, remembering the girls in loving, romanticized detail, we are always in the perspective and point of view of the girls. In this sense, it’s the sisters always in control of the story and their memory.
The Lisbon sisters remain distant to the boys, never revealing themselves. The male narrator states, “We wracked our brains for a way of contacting them.” They eventually call the sisters, and communicate by playing records over the telephone rather than attempt any meaningful conversation . Because for all the passion the boys have for them, the sisters remain inaccessible objects of desire, never fully formed human beings with their own unique personalities, thoughts, desires and needs. These young boys mean well, but their infatuation is powerless to save the sisters. While the movie never confirms what drove these five girls to end their young, promising lives, there is a sense these girls chose death over a life of no agency, and a seemingly endless captivity of being not on a pedestal, but trapped in a cage. As such, the Lisbon sisters will forever remain shrouded in a veil of mystery and secrecy. While those around them are left to grieve and ponder their own mortality, these young girls are now free of the constraints of their world, frozen in time, forever young and beautiful. Like the boys who loved and lost these girls, we too are left under their spell long after the final credits have rolled.
© 2018 BeyondTheBechdel. All Rights Reserved.