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'The Virgin Suicides'

'Virgin Suicides' tells a dreamy mystery of desire

Saturday, May 06, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"The Virgin Suicides" left me with a feeling of disquiet appropriate to its title. This oddly absorbing movie flatly declares the unknowability of its central characters, the inability to solve the mystery at their core.

"The Virgin Suicides"

Rating: R for strong thematic elements involving teens.

Starring: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst.

Director: Sofia Coppola.

Web site:

Critic's call: 3 stars


This is both asset and detriment. The movie examines the self-inflicted deaths of five teen-age sisters, mostly from the obsessive point of view of the boys who fell under their spell. That fixation is partly sexual and partly a factor of a remoteness that made them obscure objects of desire.

Who can understand teen-agers, after all? And if grown men have trouble figuring out the opposite sex, what chance do high school boys have?

The movie allows the five Lisbon sisters to retain their inscrutability even after death. In life, they carry around a look that suggests they know all the secrets of the universe. They can't, of course, and occasionally they do lose their composure. But if they are skilled at putting up walls, they had a great role model.

Take their mother -- please. Kathleen Turner plays this soft-voiced, stifling presence who is unwilling to let the girls out of the house for much of anything except school -- and, after she relents for the homecoming dance and the girls enjoy themselves a little too much, not even for that.

What makes her so overly protective? Unfortunately, the movie skimps on this crucial question of motivation. She exists, alas, all on the surface -- or reflected in her effect on her family. James Woods, usually so wonderfully bombastic, turns in a performance of sadly humorous subtlety as the emasculated dad, a nerdy high-school math teacher.

His stiffness epitomizes both the inability of the characters to communicate meaningfully and the movie's gawky rhythm. Writer-director Sofia Coppola -- yes, Francis Ford's daughter, the one you loved to hate in "Godfather III" -- opens the movie with scenes of seeming normalcy in leafy, placid, well-to-do Grosse Pointe, Mich., circa 1975. But she leaves clues to the dysfunction that infests these homes like the rot that has taken hold of the trees in the neighborhood.

There's the formality with which the characters move and talk, or try to. There's the quiet sexual symbolism in much of the imagery. Even the light is muted, as if the sun can't break through the clouds.

The Lisbon girls seem golden -- especially Lux (Kirsten Dunst), the most mischievous and lustrous of the bunch. She and the others -- played by Hanna R. Hall, Chelse Swain, A.J. Cook and Leslie Hayman -- are like a secret sorority, a microcosm of budding femininity.

But the boys in their thrall -- the chief among them played by Josh Hartnett, Jonathan Tucker and Anthony DeSimone -- are just as good, on the cusp between awkward adolescence and the undiscovered country of adulthood. Watching them, I thought of a more hormonal version of "The Wonder Years."

Indeed, Coppola punctuates the movie with moments of humor that are sometimes biting but more often airy and even silly. When we see the girls' faces superimposed over blue skies while a sappy tune plays underneath, we are seeing the vision of innocent youth that we used to find in commercials and shows like "The Brady Bunch."

Reality, as the headlines all too regularly remind us, is something else.

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