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Sofia Coppola’s debut – “The Virgin Suicides” – gets the Criterion treatment


School heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) and the Lisbon sisters outside school. (Frame shots courtesy of The Criterion Collection)


Blu-ray, DVD; 1999; R for strong thematic elements involving teens

Best extra: “Revisiting ‘The Virgin Suicides’” documentary

SOFIA COPPOLA’S debut feature, based on a best-selling novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, is a dreamy, haunting story of adolescent yearning.

Several boys in 1970s suburban Michigan become obsessed with five pretty, rather mysterious, blonde sisters. Thanks to narration by Giovanni Ribisi, who provides the adult version of one of the boys, we learn about the Lisbon girls: Cecilia, Mary, Therese, Bonnie and Lux.

The sisters live with their rigidly overprotective parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) in apparent benign coexistence. That begins to erode when Cecilia (Hanna Hall) attempts suicide and fails … but soon afterward, gruesomely succeeds. Sometime later, Lux (Kirsten Dunst) catches the eye of high school heartthrob Trip (Josh Hartnett). He asks her to the school dance and her sisters are invited by three of the other boys.

Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall) in bathtub following her failed suicide attempt.

Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, the girls' restrictive parents, played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner.

With Mr. Lisbon being one of the chaperones, the girls – to their delight – are permitted to go. But after missing curfew, and much worse, their parents revoke all the girls’ privileges, pull them out of school, and make them virtual prisoners in their home. This only heightens the boys’ fascination but, as the title suggests, it all ends in tragedy. “The Virgin Suicides” works on many levels, establishing Coppola as a thoughtful and original director, with a finely-tuned vision.

This Criterion Collection Blu-ray transfer in 4K, from the original 35 mm negative, was approved by Coppola. It looks terrific, with natural skin tones, great clarity, depth, detail, and consistent coloration. The DTS-HD audio is also flawless, with music cues perfectly modulated and dialogue extremely clear.

Extras include a 1998 making-of documentary; “Lick the Star,” a 1998 short film by Coppola; a music video for “Virgin Suicides’” theme song by Air, co-directed by Coppola and her brother Roman; recent interviews with Eugenides and young blogger Tavi Gevinson; and an illustrated leaflet with a fine essay by novelist Megan Abbott.

The group of adolescent boys, captivated by the five Lisbon sisters, who later look back on their story in "The Virgin Suicides."

The Lisbon sisters: Lux (Kirsten Dunst); Mary (A.J. Cook); Therese (Leslie Hayman); Bonnie (Chelse Swain)

The 2018 documentary, comprised of interviews with Coppola, Dunst, Hartnett, and cinematographer Ed Lachman is especially informative. Coppola says she had wanted to “make something that was artful for girls” and treat them with respect. She says she “loved the mystery between the boys and the girls” in Eugenides’ novel. When she heard that a man had optioned the book and was planning to make a “dark, violent” film of it, she began working on her own interpretation with a screenplay.

Luckily, for us, the man’s project fell through. Dunst says she had felt intimidated by her character at first because, although she had similar feelings, she hadn’t experienced some of the things done by Lux.

Lux Lisbon (Kirsen Dunst)
The Lisbon girls riding with their admirers.

The Lisbon girls dressed for the prom
Trip and Lux, just crowned Prom King and Queen

Coppola first saw Dunst in “Interview with a Vampire” and was impressed with her presence and performance: “She looks like the all-American blonde, but had something deep behind the eyes.” Hartnett says he was shaky at first, too, because Dunst “was much further down the road, in terms of acting, than I was.” Coppola recalls having fun with the scene when Trip is introduced, which Hartnett believes is what got him a lead role in “Pearl Harbor.”

Dunst remembers how intimate the set for the film felt, and that the actors had been living in the house together, having meals family-style at the dining room table. Coppola adds that the “summer camp feeling,” created a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the young actors.

Trip and Lux on the football field after the dance

Lux's suicide by carbon monoxide

Lachman recalls that Coppola was “still learning the language of how to tell the story,” but she “knew when something was right.” Adds Coppola, “I was a kid, just starting, and Ed took me seriously.” She says she tried to show how memories of important moments often come down to small details. Her father (Francis Ford), who co-produced the film, advised her to “always be really clear about the theme,” which should affect every decision.

Looking back, Coppola concludes that Eugenides’ book “found me. It made me

a director.”

— Peggy Earle

The empty Lisbon home



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