The first in an ongoing series on the Cinema of the Teen Girl.
tw: self-harm, suicide
“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”
Cecilia knows. She knows how many animal species have gone extinct that year, and at thirteen years old, she knows she wants to die. She is the youngest of the lovely Lisbon girls, and the saddest. That she lies in the bath at the opening of The Virgin Suicides, staring at the ceiling with her little wrists slashed, comes as no surprise to her, at least, even if no one else in her anonymous 1970s suburb can understand. They find her clutching a laminated prayer card of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps she was praying for a painless ascension.
Cecilia is only the first to go, as the narrator tells us. From an unspecified future, he speaks for the neighborhood boys whose obsession with Cecilia and her doomed sisters frames the plot of Sofia Coppola’s 1999 film. The boys pine for the ethereal blondes next door, alluring and always out of reach. But the Lisbons guard their girls as if the world was made to break them. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon are strict, religious folk, whose mortal fear of boys and cars and the outside world makes their home a prison. But the girls are learned in fear, and play with it, pushing the boundaries of their physical freedom with the boys even as their parents chaperone them.
On Cecilia’s second attempt, she jumps from a window to impale herself on her parents’ iron fence, at a party thrown for her, no less. She is a quiet girl who lets her sisters tape bracelets over her wrist bandages, but her death feels aggressive, its violence and public incident the ultimate teenage fuck-you.
As much as Cecilia is “the first to go,” she is also the first to know— to burden herself with whatever terrible truth it is that causes her remaining sisters to destroy themselves with abandon in a “suicide free-for all” a year later. But what she knows, she doesn’t tell. Her death might speak for itself, but doesn’t, somehow. In life, she was a bright girl who observed her small world with perspicacity and wrote it down in her diary. In death, she is Poe’s Lenore, all the more beautiful for being dead. With the act of self-destruction, she consigns herself & her sisters to mute myth, even as they fight to speak and impress themselves upon an uncaring world.
Her older sister Lux, played to nymphet perfection by a sixteen-year-old Kirsten Dunst, takes up this fight in the year after Cecilia’s death. She is the most brazen and flirtatious of her sisters, and acts out sexually with a smirk of untoward experience (“Do y’know how to wrestle?” she coos at a hapless boy at their dinner table, playing footsie). Within the boys’ narrative, she is the Id of the collective Lisbon girl conscious, and revels in the power she holds over them.
Of course, in the context of the film, she exists only as a reflecting prism in the narrator’s gaze. To the boys, she is a smirking sylph, but to her parents, and, by extension, a world that disallows young women from true self-realization, Lux is a threat. It is her prom night tryst with local loverboy Trip Fontaine (a painfully young Josh Hartnett) that provokes the ultimate crackdown, as her parents keep her and her sisters under total house arrest. It is her “devil music” records that her mother forces her to destroy in the family hearth (“Not KISS!” she whimpers).
The real Lux, Lux as she would describe herself, looks out at us only in stolen moments of introspection. She looks out the car window on the shameful drive home from the football field where Trip abandoned her, and she stares past the camera, smoking a cigarette on her parents’ roof after a clandestine fuck with a fast food worker. We see her, but we cannot know her. It is in these moments where Dunst’s performance and Coppola’s direction mark their greatest achievement. Lux cannot speak for herself, and what we know of her is only what the boys show us, but there she is, still—her terrible knowledge crying out to us, just out of earshot.
It is Lux who lures the boys into the Lisbon girls’ death nest, and she, as they say, was the last to go. She tells the boys to bring a getaway car, only to ensure that they are the ones to discover her sisters, each dead in ways both varied and cliched. They flee in terror, and Lux is found later in the front seat of her parents’ car in the garage with the gas running, a cigarette still hanging from her limp fingers. En route at last.
The girls act out in a violent attempt to impress themselves upon the world as individuals, with thoughts, dreams, and shortcomings, but soon realize that nothing they do matters. They are teenage girls, after all. Their gender and sexuality make them dangerous and endangered. They exist in extremes—they can only fuck in a football field or live under “maximum security isolation” in their parents’ suburban home. In their struggle to assert their humanity, they are eloquently mute, and only their boy admirers, their victims, can tell their story.
The Virgin Suicides is a film about silence and speech and desire. Coppola allows us to take the narrator’s side and enjoy the girls’ legend with fanciful, gauzy cinematography and dark humor, even as the film itself constitutes a papering-over of their testimony with the boys’ own. The narrator’s fascination with the girls blinds them to their humanity, and so their myth lives on, impenetrable. Instead of people, they are symbols, a vague, unhappy absence in the boys’ childhood memories, but forever pure. The Lisbon girls remain beautiful and dead.
Caroline Fulford is a data librarian, podcaster, and writer based in Brooklyn. She has been known to get emotional on the internet. Listen to The Loose Canon Podcast, her interview show about personal histories of film, here or here.
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