Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (directed by Sofia Coppola) centers on the short lives of the five Lisbon sisters — Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese, aged 13 to 17, respectively. Set in an affluent suburban neighborhood in Michigan in the 1970s, the sisters live with their overprotective religious parents, a protection that grows increasingly overbearing when the youngest sister, Cecelia, first attempts and then eventually succeeds in taking her own life.
Throughout the film, a group of neighborhood boys display an undying fascination with the girls. It is through their eyes that we view the sisters and their story. The narrator — reflecting on the events that led up to the death of Cecelia and eventually the rest of her sisters — retells the events as he remembers them, relying on the memories of the girls he had collected when he was an adolescent. The narrator claims that he and the other neighborhood boys have never been able to figure out why the girls took their own lives, that the sisters were and forever will be shrouded in mystery.
From the outset of the film, the choice of narrator struck me as significant in understanding the story not as that of the Lisbon sisters, but of the boys’ view of them, causing me to question the validity of the narrator’s account. Recalling class discussions of the unreliability of the human eye as a means of surveillance — the beholder always imparts their individual biased opinion on the subject whether they consciously intend to or not — I feel as though the very nature of memory layered with the constant emotional separation from the sisters causes the boys to almost mythologize the girls, almost as one would when looking at a photograph of someone they don’t know.
As the film goes on, the sisters grow more isolated from the outside world (their mother eventually withdraws them from school); as a result the fascination that neighborhood boys hold for the sisters (or rather the idea of the sisters) continues to grow. Eventually, the sisters have consumed their thoughts, to the point where the boys order the same travel brochures and catalogues that the girls order as a means of connecting with the outside world, becoming consumed by thoughts of imaginary trips with the sisters, coinciding their day dreams with those of the girls. The boys even begin collecting items of the girls’, objects the narrator refers to as “souvenirs”.
One scene that particularly struck me was the scene in which the boys gather to read through one of the aforementioned “souvenirs”, the recently deceased Cecelia’s journal. Flipping through excerpts concerning frozen pizza and chipped front teeth, one of the boys comes across a whole section devoted to Cecelia’s favorite tree, exclaiming, “Elm trees. How many pages can you write about dying trees?”. Throughout the film, a focus is placed on one tree in particular, a tree outside of the Lisbon sisters’ home that is being prepared to be chopped down. While we see that Cecelia has a particular fascination with it (and the sisters attempt to protect it once Cecelia has passed) we never hear any discussion of it between the sisters; we never get a sense of its actual significance in the sisters’ lives. The fact that the boys choose to skip over this portion of Cecelia’s diary seems significant; this seemingly minor detail held the potential of linking the sisters’ reality to the perceived reality the boys have subjected them to.
The reason why the “pieces” that led to the eventual fate of the girls never quite add up is because the boys are tirelessly attempting to match their internal reality to the true reality of the sisters. I couldn’t help but compare this to the way Irene Adler confounds the great sleuth Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Because he fails to consider Adler as an intelligent individual rather than imparting sexist stereotypes onto her, Holmes overlooks details that allow Adler to beat Holmes at his own game.
It is worth noting that the diary scene mentioned above is interplayed with scenes of the sisters in lush, overgrown fields, the sky taking nearly indescribable glowing bronze hue just before the sun meets the horizon. The sisters are shown lounging in the grass, one staring dreamily off into the distance, another absentmindedly blowing the buds of a dandelion into the wind. A unicorn even makes a brief appearance in the boys’ collective daydream. To the viewer, this image of the girls is clearly not a realistic one. However, it displays the skewed perception of the boys, how they imagine the sisters must behave when left unobserved.
The judgements the boys pass on the girls are almost strictly visual. Even when they find themselves in the presence of the sisters, they never seek to understand them on a human level; instead they consistently hold the idea of them at arms length. By the end of the film, the sisters are so isolated that they cease to contribute any dialogue whatsoever — as their physical autonomy fades, so does their verbal presence. They communicate with the boys through phone conversations consisting of solely holding the receiver to a record player and morse code using flashlights. And once they have taken their lives, all that is left are their possessions, photographs, and the memories carried by those who knew them. Memories that were not completely true to reality to begin with fade as time goes on, and the sisters are never able to tell their own stories. In life and death, the sisters were viewed by the neighborhood boys as one would experience a photograph. While an image shares a likeness with an actual event in time, it can never actually be that event. The image that the boys held in their minds will never actually convey a true depiction of the sisters and, consequently, we as the viewer never get to truly know the Lisbon sisters.
The Virgin Suicides. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Paramount Pictures, 2000. Film.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Scandal in Bohemia”; The Strand Magazine, Stanford University, 2006. Print.
Images taken from the Internet Movie Database: