Sofia Coppola’s Directorial Debut: A Look at the Harrowing Lives of Five Teenage Sisters

The Virgin Suicides: A Film Review


Eden Carroccino, Writer, Artist

*Please note, this review is meant for mature (high school) audiences.

The Virgin Suicides is a film released in 1999, based on a book of the same name written by Jeffrey Eugenides, which was released six years earlier in 1993. The film is written by Sofia Coppola and is her directorial debut.

The Virgin Suicides follows the story of five adolescent sisters who reside in an upper-middle-class suburb of Detroit during the mid-1970s, told through the eyes of a group of neighboring adolescent boys, who become fascinated with the girls in question. 

Beginning the film, you are brought into the soft, warm feel of a quiet afternoon in the neighborhood. The five Lisbon sisters, being the main focus of the story, are introduced, each girl emanating an almost angelic air about them. Shared between the sisters are the characteristics of straight blonde hair and pale-peach skin, paired with bright smiles and light colored clothing. They are all beautiful, as remarked by the narrator, who himself observes the girls from across the street, surrounded by his fellow adolescent boys. 

At this time, you are notified of the fact that this story is being retold 25 years later by the same (at the time) adolescent boys, who apparently still puzzle over this story and their fascination with the girls, even over two decades later. 

Sofia Coppola makes it very apparent what the viewer must perceive the girls as: soft, hyper-feminine, ethereal, and innocent. In the movie’s title itself, these girls are referred to as “virgin”, furthering the emphasis on their innocence, which appears to reach beyond that of inherent sexual virginity. 

The girls are sheltered, being raised by strict, religious parents, though these traits seem to fall more heavily on the mother. Their father is a math teacher, and the girls receive public schooling; however, they are not shown to have any sort of social life, their spare time spent within the confines of the home. The sisters’ ages range from 13-17, each a year apart, however they seem to have been stripped of their own autonomy and independence, controlled by their upbringing.  

The tranquility of a warm, quiet afternoon is broken by the tragic event of a suicide attempt, performed by the youngest Lisbon girl, Cecilia. Though the actions during or leading up to this event are not shown, we are given the imagery of the bloodied bath water in which Cecilia slit her wrists, as well as a card labeled “555-Mary” falling to the bathroom floor as the young girl is carried away by paramedics. Amidst this tragedy, Mrs. Lisbon stands on her porch, holding a jacket (presumably meant to be given to Cecilia), while watching the departure of the ambulance which carries her daughter. 

Following this, Cecilia is referred to a psychiatrist, who later speaks to Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, recommending that they allow Cecilia to partake in more social activities (specifically, interacting with more boys her own age) despite their strict parenting. Taking up this recommendation, Mr. Lisbon convinces his wife to allow their daughters to throw their first party, which would occur not long after the suicide attempt.

During this party, Cecilia is closed off and uninterested. After upsetting events transpire, the young girl excuses herself from the scene. Only moments later, the Lisbons and their guests would hear a horrific sound, being that of the youngest Lisbon sister’s body becoming impaled on a fence post, right outside their front door. 

Coppola leans heavily into the innocence factor when she portrays the young girl’s suicide. Cecilia’s body is first shown in the hands of her father. Still impaled upon the fence, the blood of her fatal wound having not yet reached the pale pink fabric of her light dress, which appears almost white in the cool-toned lighting. As a viewer, you are given no direct reason for Cecilia’s demise, no proclamation of her tortured mind. Yet instead, you must piece together her apparent mental turmoil and her thinly veiled displeasure for her family, a puzzle in which you must now view her earlier actions in a different light, with a sad sort of scrutiny.

In the following weeks, the Lisbons are stricken with grief. Many other parents within the neighborhood place the blame for this incident primarily on Mrs. Lisbon, pointing to her strict parenting as the catalyst for the young girl’s loss in her battle against mental turmoil, which of course, only makes things more difficult for Mrs. Lisbon herself. 

An unspecified amount of time passes, we are shown a pile of unretrieved newspapers and dead leaves on the front walkway, daylight painting the house in a solemn gray as a reporter approaches the Lisbons’ front door. Answering the door are Mary and Bonnie, two of the teen-aged Lisbon sisters, who would be confronted by said reporter with questions regarding their youngest sister’s demise. Mrs. Lisbon soon discovers the impromptu interview, immediately cutting it off with an abrupt slam of the door.

Individuals involved in Cecilia’s life, however brief their involvement may have been, begin experiencing apparitions of the girl, though not reacting with fear, instead a mundane sort of sorrow. One interaction occurs between this apparition and her father, as he attempts to close the window from which she jumped. The two stare at each other in silence, the distance between them closed by a remorseful sort of understanding, perhaps Cecilia conveying that she does not blame her father for what happened. During said encounters, the soundtrack contains somber notes connected by high-strung chords, giving a definite supernatural feel to these moments, yet adding a layer of unearthed mystery and serene curiosity which leads to a feeling of strange discomfort, and the heavy questions of: “Did these interactions have purpose? Was Cecilia conveying a point or perhaps just provoking the intrigue in those who already deemed her a mystery?”

The Lisbon sisters return to school in early fall, appearing indifferent to the pain and sorrow of their previous mourning period, irritated by anyone who dares to take pity on their situation. Our narrator remarks that his group of friends, now thoroughly fascinated by the girls, could not help but tentatively observe the Lisbon sisters, searching for the supposed warning signs of suicidal intent.

It is now that we approach a drastic turning point for this story, a point in which symbolic innocence is broken. Note that up until this time, the Lisbon sisters have been given an almost angelic presence on screen, brought about by Coppola’s choices of warm, soft lighting, and thin, lightly colored clothing. They are ethereal beings faced with mournful bliss and scarce joy. We are led to believe that they possess little ability to defy rules or commit acts of wrongdoing, save for the occasional mischievous intentions. The Lisbon girls are placed upon a pedestal of defined innocence, not only by the viewer, but assumedly by those who surround them as well, as the rare glimpses into others’ minds show little contradiction.

Coppola commands this assumption from the viewer, romanticizing almost every moment in a fairytale-like way. Though these girls are most definitely complex in their own right, we are shown little depth within these characters, as their tormented minds are washed out by the rose-tinted glasses dawned upon the viewer.

Our next development to this ill-fated story comes in the form of the Lisbon girls’ invitation to prom. After much convincing, each girl arrives on the arm of a handsome boy, seemingly glowing in their white patterned dresses, which have all been cut and sewn from the same fabric. High on the euphoric feeling of freedom, the girls dive into an evening of dancing, laughter, and hidden trips behind the bleachers for peach-flavored alcohol and the quick passing around of a joint, hesitant though they may be. In the mix of things, Lux and her date are announced prom king and queen, layering on the seemingly eternal bliss of the night, for which they long to become forever lost in.

Slightly tipsy and dazed, Lux wanders out into the autumn night, accompanied by her fellow prom monarch. Alone in the football field, the two become intimate. However, this moment is not portrayed as particularly sensual or engaging, as it’s not a scene which the viewer is meant to enjoy; instead, we are not brought into the heat of the moment. Rather instead, we are shown a cold, dark outside perspective. 

Back with the other girls, speculative statements are thrown around, though a feeling of imminent dread taints the tense air, as they all know Lux will not return home with them. Even their accompanying dates understand the hopeless feeling sinking in, well aware that what comes next for the Lisbon girls will be nothing but terrible. After delivering the girls to their home, the boys would pass by the house twice more, searching the brightly lit windows for any sign of the girls’ safety, their faces plastered with a shared expression of remorse. 

Emerging from the fairytale narrative of warm lighting and soft beauty, Lux awakens in cold, blue-tinted sorrow, alone in the school football field. Barefoot and regretful, she journeys home, illuminated by the early morning light as she steps out of a taxi, greeted by her relieved, yet furious, parents. This sequence of events is where we see the facade of innocence broken. The Lisbon girls have defied all that we know of them so far, breaking through the rose-tinted glasses with the sharp contrast of their night free from the home.

What follows, is indeed, terrible. The Lisbon girls are taken out of school, removed from what little social interaction they may have, and imprisoned completely in the house which, even previously, allowed them little escape. After giving no explanation for his daughters’ removal from school, Mr. Lisbon’s teaching position is terminated, thus cramming all six family members into constant close confines. Over the following weeks, we see very little of the girls, as we are brought back to the perspective of the group of neighboring boys. We get glimpses of the girls as they retrieve magazines and newspapers from the driveway, as they leave simple notes for the entranced friend group, as they sneak onto their roof for the occasional cigarette. 

As a form of escape, the Lisbons subscribe to various magazines containing images and stories from beautiful, foreign places, living vicariously through the explorers who detail their various adventures into the unknown. The boys follow suit, trekking through the glossy pages in pursuit of the angelic girls who seem to be constantly just out of reach, longing to feel what their female counterparts feel in order to unravel the complexity that fascinates their adolescent minds. Adding on to many glitter-covered cards and identical magazine subscriptions, our narrators and the Lisbon girls communicate (on one last occasion) with bright lights and morse code, sending a cry of help through the darkness which spans between the two houses, one which can only be received with puzzled expressions and a deep feeling of hopelessness.  

Approaching the ending to this fateful story, the boys receive an invitation to sneak into the Lisbons’ house, under cover of the all-consuming layer of darkness which blankets the night. Reaching the house’s back door, they are greeted by an unusually flirtatious Lux, who wears a white spaghetti-strap tank top and black jeans, her only repeated outfit which falls somewhat outside of the modest aesthetic which clings to the girls throughout the film. Lux leads the boys into the living room, warning them to be quiet before sending them to the basement to retrieve another Lisbon sister. Following her request, the boys make their way down, engaging in some friendly banter expressing their desire for the girls, seeming unbothered by Lux’s depressing and quiet demeanor, and the tense, strange atmosphere. 

Only mere steps into the basement, one boy runs into the limp feet of another Lisbon sister, as she hangs unresponsively from the wooden basement ceiling. Startled and horrified, the group runs to escape, tripping over the cold legs of another corpse in the kitchen, the rest of her body not visible to the viewer. 

We do not see the boys’ full escape, nor their own reactions, as the scene instead transitions to a news report in which we see the aftermath of the Lisbon sisters’ joint suicides. One hung in the basement, another died with her head in the oven, the third overdosed on sleeping pills, while Lux herself would leave the boys to their discovery as she slowly faded from reality with carbon monoxide poisoning in the family’s garage. 

The boys give sparse commentary throughout the remainder of the film, what little there is, however, we are shown that Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon understandably could not escape from this tragedy, altogether leaving their home and neighborhood as a whole, the house remaining in its exact condition from the day of the terrible event. The neighborhood, although temporarily disarranged, recovers by the end of the summer, the girls’ end becoming a novelty for its residents, with a party themed around asphyxiation being the concluding event for this film. 

The Virgin Suicides becomes, inevitably, a story of just that. Five girls who did not deserve their fate, who did not deserve to struggle as they did, who barely experienced the world before it became overwhelming for their fragile minds. 

As a viewer, I fell in love with this film on my first watch. The most striking moment, to me, was the change in tone when Lux awakened on the football field. On the first watch, one does not dive deep into the nuance or content of a film; however, this moment thoroughly intrigued me, leading to my numerous re-watchings of such a beautiful story. I do not say beautiful in an attempt to lessen the girls’ lives, or to glorify what they experienced, but rather to illustrate the many complexities hidden within the folds of this fateful tale. Dispersed throughout are hints towards the girls’ demise, imagery which connects to various important moments within the sequence, and repeated visual metaphors which can only leave the viewer wondering, reveling in the puzzle of thoughts which this film leaves behind. As an avid viewer of Coppola’s works, The Virgin Suicides stands firmly as one of my favorites, a gentle ode to the characteristics of a thriller, yet still solemn and sorrowful in its portrayal.