‘A world of silent hysteria’: The Virgin Suicides reviewed in 2000

As The Virgin Suicides returns to cinemas this week in a new 4K restoration, we look back at an original review of Sofia Coppola’s debut feature from our June 2000 issue.

Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Hanna R. Hall, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain in The Virgin Suicides (1999)

Making her feature-film debut directing her own adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola has essentially given herself two main goals: to portray adolescence’s delicate blend of whimsy and melancholy, while recreating the soft-rock and wood panelled-basement side of American life in the 70s. Her take is probably more in line with the actual recollections of people who came of age in that era, when suburban living had reached its decadent peak, more so than the coked-up disco-pants and haircuts imagery so commonly used to establish the period.

Moreover, that era has long been the main cultural touchstone for the casually wealthy, ultra-hip media-darling demimonde of which Coppola is very much a part. Before now she has dipped a toe into numerous endeavours, including photographer, actress and boutique owner. This diverse background makes her perfectly suited for the role of film director and perhaps the most impressive thing about her film is the way it’s very much a total package. All of its elements — performance, cinematography, sound, art design – combine to illuminate not just a theme or singular idea, but to create a unified feeling and mood.

An oblong detective story of sorts, the film’s unseen narrator recounts, 25 years on, one odd year in a suburb just outside Detroit. A group of five teenage sisters all kill themselves, leaving behind a group of boys whose odd fascination with the girls lingers into adulthood. Eugenides’s novel and Coppola’s film in turn are not concerned with explaining the exact details and motivations of the event. Tinged with a stately death-march pace that stems from the divulged outcome from the start, both film and novel are touched by a sad sympathy for the boys’s obsession, while allowing the girls to remain inscrutably unknowable, inhabiting a world of rainbows and tampons where reality and fantasy intermingle. As Lux, the only sister allowed a singular personality, Kirsten Dunst brings a remarkably knowing air to her character, suggesting that oddly feline quality of young women. James Woods and Kathleen Turner as the girls’s stilted and repressed parents both turn in remarkably restrained performances, cast against type. Woods in particular gives what may be the most sensitively nuanced performance of his career.

The film moves confidently through its opening sequences, establishing its characters and locale with energy and zest. Coppola frequently frames moments as if taking a still photograph, aiding the film’s air of suffocating memory: a mother washing dishes, the assorted clutter of a young girl’s bedroom, or a boy locked in the lonely late-night world inside his headphones. Explosions of energy – the dance, Trip’s stoner-elegant swagger to the spacy wail of ‘Magic Man’ — and a sly, off-balance sense of humour keep the film feeling brisk even as it delves deeper into a world of silent hysteria.

Having so deftly created this overall milieu and tone, it’s disappointing when the film splutters towards its finale. Following the homecoming, as the boys watch dumbfounded while the girls begin the grim slide towards their demise, Coppola doesn’t quite seem to know where to go and begins to rely on trickery – time-lapse photography or split-screen effects – that feels more like straw-grasping than skilful control. The central enigma regarding the girls’s inexplicable motives becomes central too late. Similarly, the ludicrously unnecessary sequence near the end in which a fashionable debutante party is celebrated with an asphyxiation theme falls too far into grotesquerie. Altogether a mixed bag, The Virgin Suicides is nevertheless a noteworthy debut. Coppola proves herself a director of burgeoning talent, as well as a sensitive screenwriter. If her missteps hold the film back from achieving the full grandeur it aims for, there is no denying the way it conjures a magic-realist American suburbia, rarely before brought so convincingly to life.

The Virgin Suicides returns to select UK cinemas 28 July.