Coppola, the daughter of the famed director Francis Ford Coppola, was 27 when she wrote The Virgin Suicides’ script, and was at the time mostly known for her critically drubbed performance in his The Godfather: Part III (1990). Her adaptation of Eugenides’s book was an “exercise” in screenwriting, she later said, a labor of love mostly motivated by her adoration of the novel. But the production company that owned the rights to the novel was unsatisfied with the “really dark” draft it had originally commissioned, and eventually met with Coppola, who pitched her version as having “a lighter touch.”
Eugenides’s tale is told from the perspective of the neighborhood boys of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who grow fascinated with the Lisbon sisters, five girls aged 13 to 17 who have been raised in a strict Catholic home. In the book, the young men are beginning to think about the mysteries of sex and womanhood, and they project all of their questions and anxieties onto this strange household that eventually takes on a sort of folkloric status. The book begins with a tragedy (the youngest daughter, Cecilia, attempts suicide and then succeeds on her second try) and ends with something even more horrifying; but, as Coppola noted, the story is too surreal and wryly funny to ever be truly hard-hitting.
Coppola’s film retains the onlooking boys, but they are almost silent observers, whispering among themselves as they try to solve the puzzle that is the Lisbon family. The girls themselves are also fairly remote, except for Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), who lingers as a haunting presence after her early death, and Lux (Kirsten Dunst). The second-youngest, Lux becomes the most rebellious and embarks on a clumsy romance with high-school heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), who is alternately sweet and thoughtless in his courtship of her.
Coppola’s films often strike me as too manicured, with every shot feeling artfully composed to the point of airlessness, but in The Virgin Suicides, her aesthetic fits perfectly. She frames the Lisbon girls as ethereal creatures, playing up their mystique. In one pivotal sequence, they’re allowed to go to the homecoming dance only after their mother (Kathleen Turner) redesigns their dresses to make them as shapeless as possible. The narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) calls the gowns “four identical sacks,” but in those billowing garments, the sisters still look beautiful, like flower children a decade removed from the right era.
The boys collect facts about the Lisbon girls—about their interests, their complaints, and their restricted lives—by spying on them from afar, but they struggle to piece these fragments together into a meaningful whole. “We knew the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them,” the narrator intones, sounding both worshipful and confounded, as if reading from a sacred text.