AFED #5: The Virgin Suicides (US,1999); Dir. Sofia Coppola

Whatever Sofia Coppola may achieve in her career one suspects nepotism will remain the proverbial monkey she'll never get off her back. The memory of the raw young actress plunged in out of her depth as Michael Corleone's ill-fated daughter in The Godfather Part III lingers long; unfairly so as her casting was hardly the film's only failing.

To her credit she went away and reinvented herself. Lost in Translation was a considered and lyrical film with an inspired piece of casting, while subsequent work has garnered further acclaim. Yet her directorial debut in 1999 with the adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides was less assured.

I read the book about ten years ago and was underwhelmed. The story of five adolescent sisters who cast a spell upon the boys in a small-town Michigan community in the mid-seventies and then kill themselves, it's hard to determine whether the tone was meant to be blackly humorous, weird and enigmatic or some kind of paean to pubescent grief. Too stylised to be truly affecting, but with a quirky high concept, a cynic might suggest that it was written with the film rights sale in mind.

There's nothing to say that an average novel can't be turned into an excellent movie; one need only look at Alfred Hitchcock's career. The trouble is that Coppola's adaptation remains faithful to the source material, faults and all, without either expanding upon it or finding a voice of her own.

Part of the difficulty was perhaps the absence of any clear protagonists. The story is told from the boys perspective many years hence, but the narrator is diffuse and never identified. Transferred to the screen they're simply a group of unnamed boys and story is told through a voiceover that's excessive and irritating. One might expect Coppola to embellish the characterisation of the girls but with the exception of the most prominent sister, Lux (played by Kirsten Dunst), they remain for the main part obscure objects of not so much desire as curiosity.

Their ultimate demise comes across as inexplicable but also banal. If this was intended to convey some kind of point about suicide then it might be understandable, yet it lacks either a sense of tragedy or emotional resonance. It's a Greek tragedy without the catharsis. Like the rest of film there's neither lightness of touch nor attention to detail, it all plods pedestrianly along the middle ground.

French electronica duo Air provide a stylish soundtrack redolent of the era, yet there's little subtlety to the mix so that it at times becomes overwhelming or superfluous when what's required is space and silence. It's symptomatic of the entire film; too much money and polish - it was produced by Coppola's father Francis - when what's required is a skillful interpretation of the text.

The closest comparison to what I think the film and story should have been is Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, which achieves an ethereal and haunting mood in advancing towards a profound and tragic mystery.  It would be interesting to know if, given the same material again, Coppola might now do things differently.


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