The Virgin Suicides and the transcendental quietude of young love
Swollen white petals,
Mis-taken, widowed trees,
Beyond Elysian Fields you lie,
Horrifically – grounded.
In 2000, Sofia Coppola made her first full-length feature The Virgin Suicides (based on the novel by Jeffery Eugenides), somewhat foretold by her 1998 short Lick the Star and a prelude to 2013’s The Bling Ring – both also about teenagers and also about the attempt elide attitude (societal-personal), emotion and memory.
In 2009, a 14-year-old teenager watched it, and was struck by its fidelity to everything his life was, under the haze of a high school crush. Atmospheric pressures both toxically raw and chidingly manufactured; a convergence of perspectives brought forward to anchor his breath to one perpetually abstracted (pro) noun, Her.
Set in the thoroughly wrought landscapes of upper middle class disturbia, Coppola’s picture follows the trajectories of a group of neighbourhood boys living across from the uptight Lisbons, and their five stunningly beautiful, proportionately aged teenage daughters: “Bonnie (15), Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Therese (17), Mary (16)”. Each interaction, each contact in their semesters-long dalliance with boys, the boys with them, is fitted with its appropriate contact highs and fated with inevitable, in this case literal, tragedy.
I was worried that The Virgin Suicides would reveal itself as a more teenage-focused American Beauty, yet it is, to be so blunt, much more interior-exterior rather than exterior-interior. Its characters are, as themselves, complicated by and viewed through a most personal framework – alienation cultured through forgotten histories as well as disquieting, almost paralysing loss. “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a teenage girl,” says Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), and of course, it’s the ‘line’ of the movie. All these people at different stages carrying the lenses of people at different stages (yet unable to see through them), projecting false futures onto the ever-narrowing wall of the past. Nostalgia for indiscoverable present tenses making the actual present a kind of irrefutable toxic daydream.
I remember the way her hair moved on windy afternoons and laid petrified on a rainy day. Her eyes made the lights brighter, illuminating the room before, at a glance, letting shadow leak through emaciated tones in the vacant spaces around me. I never knew her, I have nothing to offer.
In writing about this movie, I hope to communicate its profound importance in my life – merely an extended movement. At the time I watched the film, a great, almost unsayable yearning was moving through my blood, nostalgia for moments that never existed, and a want to return to some contextualised beginning and act these grand conventions; a first love, marriage, into existence. The neighbourhood boys go to the sole party at the girls’ home. It is awkward and claustrophobic: “we knew that they were really women in disguises, that they understood love and death – our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them,” explicates the wizened narrator. However, through their obsession aided by perfume and abetted by the flick of hair backwards behind an ear, uncovering eyes that flash with seemingly infinite romantic possibility, which is actually poverty, the boys can only manage shy small talk. The narrator serves the function of reminding audiences that all advice, in its eagerness, mirrored in us young people, is impatient, and patient we must be, for it is all, in nothing, happening.
The resounding silence obfuscates, deflates and the youngest, Cecilia, takes her own life. A horrific, surreal shot of a father (James Woods’ great performance) holding his daughter who lies above the ground, as if there were no fence below her. The mother (Kathleen Turner) screams and tells her daughters to turn away, the boys retreat quickly to their bedrooms. Eyes that will open briefly again, close, the doors of a house that will empty itself to the world are shut. When will the ground floor reveal itself as just another floor? Ready and willing to bare weight.
The picture activates the transcendental kitsch of being a teenager, even as it pursues the shifting points of absence; love, joy, regret, longing, desire. From the achingly quiet father speaking with protestors outside the graveyard to Lux (Kirsten Dunst) meeting with her crush – ‘the catch’ Trip Fontane – as they ready for homecoming, to the appropriately indulgent travelogue montage (the boys’ fantasies) or the ensuing conversation through music with the grounded girls – ending with one last flirtatious meeting, suicide, Coppola’s style and the application of the soundtrack by Air (fittingly sultry) thread the inexplicable ecstasy of presence in another’s life with the tragedy of living outside oneself, a stranger to the other for too long now.
In Charlie Kaufman’s meta about-face Adaptation, the two brothers discuss a memory from high school: Donald had a crush on a girl, Charlie saw that she was mocking him behind his back. “But she thought you looked pathetic,” says Charlie, “you are what you love, not what loves you,” rebuffs Donald. I think this is true. I watched The Virgin Suicides in the early hours of the morning, before dark, a cinephile ritual that allowed me a luminous screen as well as silence and repose when watching a picture - free from distraction. It also gives one a sense of getting to the day before it gets to you. The final shot of the boys at the curb, a lighter raised in an act of unadulterated sentiment as “Playground Love” by Air, the camera and the narrator wind us away from them, awakened me to who I was, who I am, a person, as those in the movie, grappling with (as Rainer Maria Rilke so brilliantly put forward) my lovely constant solitude, yet across from me sat the film, the DVD case a tactile thing, and another person, the girl I loved and would love. I would know her name and write it in steam on the bathroom mirror after a shower, a quiet joy unfolding within myself, perhaps, as I held it then, I would share it now.