Motion/Captured Must-See: 'The Virgin Suicides'
Welcome to The Motion/Captured Must-See Project.
Been a while. I got busy running the blog, I guess. The reason for an ongoing column like this is to hit the "reset" button while you're writing on deadline about what's happening, part of a sort of a dull roar of entertainment sites all writing about the same thing. It's nice to pick something, a film you really love and respect and think is worth sharing with people, and write about that. Just refocus, then do whatever else you have to do that day to stay afloat.
That's doubly true of a film as delicate and particular as "The Virgin Suicides." I think this is a home run. An effortlessly great film. It's a film that's overflowing with this heated emotional secret language of girls thing, but it's told from the outside, so the glimpses of the girls are still like UFO encounters, these haunting surreal impossible-to-believe-and-impossible-to-forget memories that stick with these boys for life. Sophia Coppola nails both points of view, and that dreamy, sweaty empathy that she evokes throughout is what makes me love the film so protectively. It's a film that wears its heart bare, and that can make it uncomfortable because it's so strange and raw.
"The Virgin Suicides" is the tragedy of the Lisbon family. Walking into it, you should take the title seriously. This is a movie about how grief comes calling, and the only question is to what degree will it happen. The Lisbons have four daughters, four beautiful girls. Therese (Leslie Hayman), Mary (A.J. Cook), Lex (Kirsten Dunst) and Cecelia (Hanna Hall). Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon are played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner, and they're both in absolutely peak form here. Woods plays Mr. Lisbon as a sort of charming shambles, a flustered schoolteacher who has no idea how to talk to his household of women. He loves them, but he's as mystified by them as any of the boys in the neighborhood who orbit the girls, looking for any opening. The main obstacle is Mrs. Lisbon, and Turner's heartbreaking as a woman whose own twisted fears of reality corrupt her family to catastrophic degree.
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The film begins with the suicide attempt by Cecelia, the youngest of the Lisbon girls. And to the film's credit, there's no direct explanation offered. Cecelia never comes close to revealing what's going on behind those angry eyes of hers. Mrs. Lisbon is incredibly restrictive, but certainly not moreso than many parents of many girls. For some reason, the chemical mix of the four girls and these particular parents goes toxic. And no one in the family knows how to talk about it, so it just keeps getting weirder and sadder and colder.
From the outside, no one has any idea what's going on with the Lisbons, and the girls are the focus of much speculation and desire from the local boys. Their memories of the girls provide the framework of the film, and it also gives Coppola permission to make the entire film feel like a memory... incomplete, untrustworthy, impressionistic more than realistic. That's what I love about the film... the way it drifts, dreaming, cushioned by that incredible score by Air and the vintage soundtrack.
And before you roll your eyes, the music here isn't just an excuse to punch some nostalgia button... it's chosen with surgical precision, and in scene after scene, the music sets a mood or explains character or even advances story. There's one great sequence in particular where all the boys are gathered at one house, and they call the girls, who are under lockdown in their own home. Instead of talking, they use records, taking turns playing songs for each other back and forth, and it's one of those scenes that perfectly nails the way music can often speak in ways we can't, and the way a song can end up nailed to one particular memory for our whole lives.
The film takes one major digression, and it's hilarious, providing Josh Hartnett with the single best role of his life so far. Trip Fontaine would be a cartoon with most young actors playing the part, but Hartnett manages to play it real and ridiculous at the same time. He knows just how outrageous he is, so he plays right into it. He is able to tag any ass he chooses until he meets Lex Lisbon, who presents the impossible challenge. Trip is turned on by the idea that he can't have this girl, and so he sets out to have what he's forbidden, without really knowing what it is he's chasing in the first place.
Again, Coppola's control of tone is impressive precisely because of the way she can go from the preposterous to the piercing in the space of just a few scenes, and both Dunst and Hartnett do better-than-average work.
The thing that scares me most about this film is something that never occurred to me when I saw it originally in 1999. There is this primal urge to protect your children that kicks in when you become a parent, and sometimes, I can see how that might get twisted into something smothering. Finding the balance, the way to keep your kids safe while also letting them make enough mistakes to toughen them up for life... that's what keeps me up nights. Already, I can feel myself erring on the side of over-caution, and I can't help myself. And then I look at the ruin of the Lisbon family at the end of this film, and I know that it's worth constantly working at. It's important. Because the potential for disaster there is just too awful to contemplate.
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