Friday, July 29, 2005

The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides' novel "The Virgin Suicides," set in 1970s suburbia, is a creamy, moonbeam-laden love letter to the girls of the day, in their French-cut T-shirts, bell-bottoms and Love's Baby Soft. It's a tender and beautifully written book, one that makes the case once and for all that boys can be a sentimental and perceptive lot, but there's one big problem with it: It's so obsessively detailed that by the end it's almost unreadable.

The book's narrators are a group of boys who've grown into men, but who can't leave their memories of five neighborhood girls, the Lisbon sisters, behind them. If all boys had as many exposed nerve endings as they seem to, we'd live in a world with no skyscrapers and no bridges.

Leave it to a woman to boil all the excess, leaden moisture out of Eugenides' book and leave just the bare-bones poetry. Sofia Coppola's adaptation of "The Virgin Suicides" -- it's her directorial debut, and she also adapted the screenplay -- captures the loveliest visuals and bits of language from Eugenides' book and faithfully, but not slavishly, transfers them to the screen. There's no irony in Coppola's treatment; she nabs all of the book's humor without layering on too many smirks or ironic winks. She connects with the essential purity of Eugenides' story, stripping it down to its bare essentials and cutting straight to everything that's wonderful about it. It's a movie adaptation that's filled with love.

That's not to say that if a man had made "The Virgin Suicides" it would have been a worse movie, but it's safe to assume it would have been a rather different one. I've never been one for ghettoizing, and certainly not canonizing, female artists; it always seemed to me a better idea to look at a work, as much as is humanly possible, for what it is rather than to fixate on what's between the legs of the person who made it.

But there's no denying that men and women bring different sensibilities to their work. And you can't ignore the unusually large number of high-profile pictures made by female directors in the past year or so, among them Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry," Mary Harron's "American Psycho" and Bonnie Hunt's "Return to Me," as well as "The Virgin Suicides."

What's always frustrating about the trumpeting of "hot" new female directors is that, as always, the ones who get all the attention haven't necessarily made the best movies. Stacy Cochran is a case in point. Her wry 1992 suburban fairy tale, "My New Gun," made barely a blip on the radar screen, and her next feature, the more delicate and subtly shaded "Boys" (1996), was misunderstood by most of the critics who saw it and went unseen by just about everyone else. Cochran presented a film at Sundance this year that has yet to find a distributor.

There's also a tendency to overlook female filmmakers working in other countries, some of whom have been making subtly terrific movies for years: New Zealander Jane Campion earned lots of attention in 1993 for "The Piano," a foolish if visually lush movie that tapped into the feminist zeitgeist of its time. The success of "The Piano" was treated as some sort of signal that female directors had at last "broken through" -- though through to what, I'm not exactly sure -- and I would have been thrilled if its popularity could have ensured greater international success (or at least attention) in subsequent years for filmmakers like Great Britain's Carine Adler ( "Under the Skin" ); France's Claire Denis ("I Can't Sleep," "Beau Travail" ) or Catherine Breillat ( "Romance" ); or Canada's Lea Pool ("Set Me Free").

The point is, even though it's hard not to notice when a clutch of female filmmakers suddenly appear on the scene, it's never a good idea to lump them into a group that's defined by some broad women's view. But there's nothing wrong with admitting that women are likely to view things differently from the way men do.

Look at Denis' "Beau Travail," an adaptation of Melville's "Billy Budd" set in the Foreign Legion. On its most basic level, "Beau Travail" is a paean to the beauty of men's bodies. But even when Denis, with the help of her terrific cinematographer, Agnes Godard, shows us rippling muscles and sweat-dappled skin, the images are distinctly different from what you might see in gay porn. Denis doesn't sentimentalize or declaw the male form -- she revels in its supple, tigerlike qualities -- but she does view it with a certain amount of tender regard, tacitly acknowledging that there's always a fragility to that shell of skin and bone and muscle, regardless of whether it belongs to a man or a woman.

What's interesting in particular about "The Virgin Suicides" isn't just that it was made by a woman, but that it's a case of a woman's adapting a novel about a group of young men's nostalgia for the unattainable girls of their youth. In the old days, you might have said those girls were imprisoned in the male gaze. But Coppola's picture is completely nonjudgmental about the narrators' love for the Lisbon girls (although it should go without saying that love shouldn't be subject to anyone's judgment).

The picture has a feminine sensibility in terms of its dreamy languor, the pearlescent glow that hovers around it like a nimbus. (It's beautifully shot by Edward Lachman and features a willowy score by Air.) But there's also a clear-eyed precision at work here, almost as if Coppola subconsciously wanted to make sure she captured Eugenides' vision, while also giving a sense of the Lisbon sisters as real live girls.

There are five Lisbon sisters, all beautiful and clear-skinned, with that straight, fair California-girl hair that every girl of the era wanted desperately. Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) is the most luscious of them, and sends off signals that she just may be the most sexually adventurous.

Cecilia (Hanna Hall), the youngest, is a sensitive, troubled girl, given to traipsing around in a tatty vintage wedding dress, and for reasons that no one is quite able to fathom she attempts to slit her wrists very early in the story; she recovers, only to successfully off herself shortly thereafter.

The story is told from the point of view of a small group of neighborhood boys (represented by a wonderful voice-over by Giovanni Ribisi) who worship the Lisbon girls. The mysterious death only enhances the sisters' aura. But even before Cecilia's suicide, the girls had been carefully watched by their stern, overprotective mother (Kathleen Turner) and, to a lesser extent, by their docile math-teacher dad (James Woods).

After Cecilia's death, the household becomes even more cloistered, until local hottie Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) falls madly in love with Lux and decides he simply must take her to the homecoming dance; the only way she's allowed to go is if her sisters attend, too.

The real charm of "The Virgin Suicides" lies in the details, in the way it evokes both the era and the peculiar romantic fixations of awkward teenage boys. The movie gets the suburbs of the time exactly right, with the trim split-level houses and impossibly verdant lawns, the streets lined with lazy trees (and, in this case, dying ones -- there are references in the plot to diseased elms). Rec-room basements decorated with so much cheerful anxiety they can't help looking sullen; dens where family members gather, glassy-eyed and silent, to watch nature shows.

Coppola's suburbia is partly a half-remembered dream state and partly an optimistic interior decorator's sketch, a conglomeration of how people lived and how they desperately wanted to live.

Coppola's just as good, though, at showing what happens when that idealized world goes off-kilter. After Cecilia's death, the Lisbon home takes on a dullish cast, becoming heavy with grief and awkwardness. Coppola captures it with just a few shots: A priest (Scott Glenn, in a moody cameo) comes to bring solace to the family and opens the door to one of the girls' rooms, where he finds them, silent and listless, arranged in a haphazard starfish shape on the floor, a tableau of youthful beauty rendered lethargic and numbed by sorrow.

Of course it's the girls, as reflected in the eyes of the boys who love them, who sit like queens at the movie's throne. Dunst's completely winning Lux, with her velvet-powder-puff skin and wild-cherry smile, may represent the ultimate teen-dream ideal, but she's a believable one. She's a girl who's so open to the pleasure of sex she wants everything it has to offer: the giggling, the teasing, the whole damn pas de deux.

It's easy to see why Trip -- a lizard-like charmer in his slim-fit cowboy shirts and puka shells, an oversexed creature who charms young women and old alike -- wants no other girl. "You're a stone fox," he tells her with a kind of awestruck dumbness. Prefab as the compliment is, he makes you see it's been poured directly from his heart.

Trip gets three friends together so the group of them can take the Lisbon girls to the dance, rescuing them from the torpor of their too-long-in-mourning home. The dance sequence sparkles from the moment the boys pick the girls up at the Lisbon house: The sisters file down the stairs in their oddly shaped, matching homemade dresses, a procession of fairy tale maidens decked out in Butterick finery.

The dance itself, featuring a high school gym that's been halfheartedly transformed into a glumly festive forest by the simple hanging of a glitter curtain in front of the bleachers, captures perfectly those futilely hopeful school dances where the collective wish that something good would happen hangs in the air like a toxic cloud.

The forlorn hope of that dance is what makes it so moving: It's hilarious when Lux, her sister Therese (the charming Leslie Hayman) and their respective dates cluster behind that tinsel curtain to drink peach schnapps and make out. But it's still easy to see how they're hurtling themselves toward something, any old thing, that might change their lives. And when Therese beams at her date and says, "I'm having the best time," her utter sincerity is heartrending. Who ever had a good time at those things? But her simple declaration represents the way we always hoped against hope we would.

The music in "The Virgin Suicides" couldn't have been more perfectly chosen, not just for the way it evokes the era but for the way it builds subtle strata of moods: The homecoming dance, set to ELO's "Strange Magic" and 10CC's "I'm Not in Love," takes on a kind of swimmy surrealism. And it's a delicious joke when Trip first swaggers onto the scene to the tune of Heart's "Magic Man."

The picture's single loveliest sequence involves not just music but the magic of record albums. The girls, sequestered by their parents in their suburban prison, receive a signal from the boys who love them: Their phone rings, and when they answer, Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" drifts through the receiver. The girls cluster around their hi-fi to send a song back, and the plaintive volley continues: Gilbert O'Sullivan's mopey "Alone Again (Naturally)" is countered by the Bee Gees' "Run to Me," which is followed by Carole King's "So Far Away," the songs' plaintive messages traversing the phone lines like lantern signals exchanged between lonely sailors.

The whole time, the narrative of "The Virgin Suicides" is leading up to a single mysterious act. Yet the story isn't a mystery at all, but simply the affirmation of a simple truth: That even if memories of the people we once loved (from afar or up-close) are embroidered and enhanced over time, that doesn't necessarily make them less valuable or less "true." In other words, disillusionment doesn't necessarily equal enlightenment. In "The Virgin Suicides," Michael Par appears as the older Trip, skinny and decrepit-looking and wasting away in some bleak drug-rehab center (and still wearing the same ultra-fitted cowboy shirts). Par's grown-up and burned-out Trip tells the story, in flashback, of what happened between him and Lux, and when he asserts that he never loved anyone as much, you've no choice but to believe him.

The older Trip is touching not because he's so down-and-out, but because in talking about Lux he's momentarily transformed. You see a glimmer of the stud he once was flash across his face; even his body language changes a bit. Trip never had the ability to see Lux as the woman she really was. Hanging onto his dream vision seems to have done nothing but suck the life out of him -- and yet you wonder, if he'd been able to thoroughly dismiss her memory, would he have just shriveled up and blown away completely?

Some readers (in my experience they were mostly women) were frustrated with Eugenides' book for the way it fixated on the men's view of the women instead of the women themselves. But "The Virgin Suicides" isn't simply about the way men can fall hopelessly in love with ideals; it's about how they can be ultimately undone by them, and Coppola understands that perfectly. She re-creates their vision for us in all its beauty, but she also suggests the holes in it -- the dark spots that dance in front of you when you've been stupid enough to stare directly at the sun.

She has compassion for those boys, but there's no doubt that her heart really goes out to those girls. Descending that staircase to greet their anxious dates, they weren't sorceresses or fairy queens or succubi. They were just young girls in bad dresses, waiting to be understood. Instead, they were simply loved.