Sofia Coppola has said she might never have become a filmmaker if not for Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel. Having read The Virgin Suicides (1993) on a recommendation from Thurston Moore, Coppola immediately connected with its depiction of suburban malaise and teenage desire. The film rights had already been bought and another writer attached to the project, but she decided to write her own adaptation, more as an exercise than anything. When the original screenplay was rejected for being too dark, Coppola stepped in and made Eugenides’ debut into her own.
It’s not hard to see why someone like Coppola, who had studied photography at CalArts and was an amateur photographer in Japan for a short time in the ’90s, would be attracted to The Virgin Suicides. Eugenides’ prose is evocative and lush, nearly woozy. Told from the point of view of a group of men looking back on their adolescence in the suburbs of Detroit, the tragic events that make up the plot are imbued with a heady power. When Cecilia, the youngest of the five teenage Lisbon sisters, first tries to kill herself, Eugenides likens her limp body on the gurney to “a tiny Cleopatra on an imperial litter.” His imagery and other sensory details are so wrapped up with the novel’s overwhelming sense of longing and lost youth that even quotidian scenes are rendered as mythic.
“I had a look in my mind of how it should feel while reading it, of that hazy, backlit style of ’70s Playboy photography,” Coppola told Vogue in an interview this spring for the film’s 20th anniversary. The film’s color palette, dominated by creams and tans and yellows, occasionally dulled by the sterile blue-gray of depression and decay, at once recalls the fashion of its mid-’70s time period while evoking a golden haze of idealized memory. The attention Coppola paid to the set design and wardrobe also functions beyond creating a realistic suburban setting. Cecilia’s room cluttered with candles and drawings, the flower print of her sisters’ homemade homecoming dresses—these are all details the narrators were, and still are, obsessed with, years after their classmates’ deaths. Alongside official documents like yearbooks and medical records, the boys collected diaries, family photographs, and grocery lists, numbering their “exhibits” as one would artifacts or evidence. For the narrators, the girls were nearly impossible to understand, a feeling that’s exacerbated when Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon forbid them from leaving the house after Lux breaks curfew the night of homecoming. The distance only deepens the boys’ obsession and their inclination to make icons of the girls. Everything more ordinary is left hidden, then imbued with magic once revealed.
While Coppola sometimes privileges the aesthetics of her films at the expense of story, here she shows just how much such details matter. The lipstick and Chinese fans, the vinyl albums and travel catalogs—before these objects become part of the boys’ collective imagination, they first form the texture of the Lisbon girls’ own lives. Like Lux writing out her crushes’ names on her underwear, they’re all external manifestations of inner desires.
Despite being well-received at Cannes in 1999, the film’s opening in the States the following year was modest. In the time since, the reverence for the film has grown considerably, reaching a peak in 2018, when it received a Criterion release (prompting a number of pieces like this one). The admiration is due, in part, for just how faithful Coppola’s adaptation of the revered novel is—not necessarily for remaining true to particular elements of plot or dialogue or character, though the director rarely strayed in that regard. Rather, it’s the overall tone she gets right, a lot of which has to do with the way the film looks. Along with cinematographer Ed Lachman, who used films like Terrence Malick’s Badlands as inspiration, Coppola alternates dreamy, ephemeral images with more mundane ones: a star of light glinting off of Lux’s eye when she first sees her crush Trip Fontaine; the outline of Therese’s underwear visible beneath her shabby nightgown. But Coppola did more than assemble a mood board of adolescent reverie and depression, of pretty blonde girls languorously draped over each other and looking sad; she slowed down to show the lives of teenage girls beyond the gaze of boys and men.
Essential to this mood is the film’s soundtrack and original score, Coppola once again pairing period-accurate choices with more stylish, figurative ones. By and large, the former is a mix of heartfelt singer-songwriter fare and sentimental soft-rock—Carole King’s “So Far Away,” ELO’s “Strange Magic,” Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally”—some of which Eugenides mentions in the novel by name. All of this is cut through with a pair of sexy and charged Heart songs in prominent scenes with Trip (partially making up for whatever was going on with Josh Hartnett’s wig). Such selections conjure the era while avoiding the distracting sense of recognition that can come with bigger hits.
Of course, one of Coppola’s most inspired decisions in the film came in the making of the score. During a visit to Rough Trade in London, Coppola said she had picked up Premiers Symptômes, the French electronic duo Air’s debut EP, mostly because she liked the cover. Listening to the album while writing the Virgin Suicides script, she realized Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel’s dreamy sound was a perfect fit for the mood she wanted to summon, and asked the pair to score the film. It’s somewhat serendipitous but shows what can happen when a filmmaker understands the intangible but essential qualities of her source material and then follows her instincts to a less literal, more evocative place. Air’s score, one of the greatest of all time, is unobtrusive yet indelible, so much so that I can’t even think of the book without hearing the swooning sax and lackadaisical drum fills of “Playground Love.” It not only enhances the atmosphere that Coppola creates elsewhere, one that is both nostalgic and laced with danger, but also works as an album on its own. Its ethereal sounds woven around the film’s familiar pop songs reiterate one of The Virgin Suicides’ most universal concerns: our memories and what the passage of time does to them.
Crucial to this is the director’s deft re-creation of the novel’s distinctive point of view—the rare first-person plural—Coppola casting four relatively unknown actors as the boys and Giovanni Ribisi as the voice-over narrator. As we see the story unfold, we hear how the events of the past affected the boys as adults. Just imagining being with the Lisbon sisters scarred them “forever,” making them “happier with dreams than wives.” Having raised the girls to the height of deities in their minds, the boys see them as untouchable. Closer to devoted fans than peers, they have no idea they can interact with them in far more usual ways. When Lux, Mary, Therese, and Bonnie return to school after Cecilia kills herself, one of the boys introduces himself to Mary at their lockers. “‘I know who you are,’” she responds. “‘I’ve only been at this school for my whole life.’”
Despite reflecting this gap in the boys’ perception, Coppola elides the moment in the novel when it’s more fully realized. Because it’s made clear from the beginning that all of the Lisbon sisters will eventually kill themselves, the narrative tension surrounding the act is diminished long before it arrives. The story must therefore become about something else, and in both the novel and the film, it ends up being the boys themselves and the obsession that has not let them go, even in adulthood. But before the climax of the remaining sisters’ coordinated suicides, Eugenides creates something of a turning point for his narrators. At the end of a phone call where the boys and girls trade off playing songs for each other, the boys come to a realization:
We had never dreamed the girls might love us back… But little by little, as we shifted bits of information in our heads, we saw things in a new light. Hadn’t the girls invited us to their party last year? Hadn’t they known our names and addresses? Rubbing spy holes in grimy windows, hadn’t they been looking out to see us?… Thinking back, we decided the girls had been trying to talk to us all along, to elicit our help, but we’d been too infatuated to listen. Our surveillance had been so focused we missed nothing but a simple returned gaze.
Obsessed with their own obsession, the boys failed to recognize the girls’ agency. The Lisbons were not mere vessels for desire, but of course had desires of their own. Coppola lovingly re-creates the scene, letting her actors’ doleful faces and the yearning, sometimes schmaltzy music do much of the work, but she omits this piece of narration. It may seem like a small point, but perhaps in this deviation, the film is also asking a question, one that viewers will see it’s already answered: What’s more truthful, the boys who realize the gaze goes both ways or those who don’t? The film then ends where the book does, with the boys, now men, still haunted by the girls, trapped in that hazy realm where memory is overtaken by the stories people tell.