Last night I revisited a movie that left a deep yet vague impression in my teenage mind the first time I watched it, over 10 years ago: Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. I watched it because earlier in the week I read Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel on which the film is based for a class.
The novel is set during the 70s in a nondescript suburb of Detroit. There, a group of boys become obsessed with the Lisbon sisters, held prisoners in their own house by their religious mother. As its title suggest, the five sisters commit suicide for reasons beyond everyone’s comprehension, especially the boys’.
I quickly fell in love with the book. The unreliable, plural narrator, the gothic style and decaying atmosphere and its biting sense of humour are hard not to love. In Eugenides’s book, the mythology of the Lisbon sisters is undeniable. The unplaceable narrator makes an ideal out of the girls, a divine feminine creature forever suspended in youth, unblemished and unreachable, inhuman. And yet as readers, we can see some cracks in this perfect fantasy. There are never explanations or insights into the girls’ minds, just glimpses of the pain and the unbearable realities of adolescence. As a reader, you can tell it’s all a mirage, a play, another case of women being watched but never really seen or heard.
Eugenides’s narrator is probably the most interesting part of the novel: a collective voice that encompasses all the desires and expectations of boyhood and masculinity. It is clear, in a way that reminded me of Lolita, that we are not listening to a story about women or girls, but rather at a comical, satirical fantasy on which these boys, men by the time the story is being told, have reflected their frustrations and unfulfilled desires, their broken American dreams of suburban life, their hopes for a decaying country on five girls they barely knew, or rather refused to actually know.
Throughout the novel, we are surrounded by rot and decay: flies swarm the houses, the lake becomes a swamp and infested trees are being cut down. The Lisbon house itself is described as an epicentre for disease and moral decay. And yet amidst the violence and the post-war pessimism, our boys are happy to spend days in their house tree, trying to get a glimpse of Cecilia, Lux, Mary, Bonnie and Therese, each representing a particular part for an all-American, female ideal: Cecilia’s shrewdness, Lux’s sensuality, Bonnie’s religiousness, Mary’s sheepishness and Therese’s motherliness.
At the end of the book, we know nothing about these girls. They commit suicide in the boys’ noses while they daydream of moving to Florida with them. In Coppola’s film, we get a glimpse of this fantasy, a Kerouac-style road trip reminiscing of Lolita’s: five girls and five boys in a car, en route to nowhere.
In an interview, Eugenides said he would have liked for Sofia Coppola to cast several actresses for each Lisbon sister, thus denying them the cult-like fandom that inevitably grew around Kirsten Dunst’s Lux Lisbon. I understand his point and it is one of the things about The Virgin Suicides that I keep thinking about. A similar concern was voiced by Ottessa Moshfegh when she said she didn’t want women identifying or admiring her characters (they’ve been now boiled down to the “sad girl aesthetic). I get it. When I was a teenager I saw the Lisbon girls as perfectly believable female characters. The picture painted by the boys is just too pretty: who wouldn’t want to be thought of in such terms? who wouldn’t want to be described as a religious experience? The perils of the male gaze are strong. I mean, just how many of a teenage girl’s idols are the idea a man has of what a girl is?
It’s not hard to think of other examples and you just need to google “the virgin suicides” to come across thousands of posts on “coquette aesthetic”. The male gaze pervades and appropriates most things, and extricating oneself from it is the work of a lifetime. When I think of this I also remember Marilyn Monroe, of whom we knew almost nothing but managed to turn into a sex symbol, or Amy Winehouse, whom the media fought really hard to turn into a villain. In a way, most women who reach fame and success have been left alone on a football field, much like Lux Lisbon: idolising and idealising are just different ways of saying, “I don’t understand you, and I don’t really care to”. Sexualisation and fetishisation are other ways: “the mysterious nature of women”, and “their siren-like nature”— myths we have all bought into (yes, even us women), to avoid digging deeper into what troubles us: our place in the world, goals and fulfilment, control over our lives and even the basic right to make a path for ourselves, to build a life of our own.
Discussing The Virgin Suicides in class we came across the question, “how much does it matter that the book was written by a man and not a woman?” But then again, Eugenides’s novel is not about women and that is perhaps why it is so important. He is not trying to explain or appropriate teenage womanhood. What we have is an account of the fantasy, a portrayal of boyhood and masculinity through it. The fantasy of the Lisbon sisters might be at its centre, but the novel encompasses much more. Coppola’s adaptation, on the other hand, is much more focused on the sisters, especially on Lux Lisbon, and I find it an interesting experiment: what can be brought back from the myth? can we make real, human girls out of those beautiful creatures? The result is a beautifully nostalgic film that to me revolves around the space between girlhood and the fairy-like depiction the boys have made of it.
Where Eugenides’s novel is gothic, with its eerie undertones and images of young women trapped in a building, Coppola’s film tends towards the baroque: images of bedside tables replete with girly items, cramped living rooms, an abundance of religious images and virgins, saturation, bodies. Kirsten Dunst’s acting is another marvellous thing about the film, as is, in my opinion, Coppola’s choice to act out the boys’ fantasies and present the pictures of the imaginary trips. All of that comes together in a space of non-being, a nostalgia for what could have been, a longing for the irretrievably lost.
The teenage years are, especially for girls, the stuff of myths. I am now 27 and I recall that age of my life as the most difficult but also the most beautiful in many ways. I don’t wonder why we, as people or writers or filmmakers, are obsessed with making art about it. Often my favourite books are those that touch on similar questions, like The Bell Jar, Eileen, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Jane Eyre. I mean, even the mainstream film industry is obsessed with teenage girls.
Something always gets lost along the way, but surely we ask ourselves some of the most important questions when we are young. Being a teenage girl is the best and the worst, but why? There’s so much power and rage in that age, but sadly most of its depiction in popular media comes through the male gaze, its fetishisation and objectification. The Virgin Suicides brought me back to my old musings: what does it mean to be a girl or to become a woman? I can’t, of course, answer this question with any certainty, but a bittersweet mix of words and sensations come to mind: rage and melancholia, loneliness, bliss, love. It is the best, it is the worst, and I will never tire of reading about it.