At the time of its release, “The Virgin Suicides” was like nothing most of us in my hometown had ever seen. To clarify, even though Fort Wayne is a medium-sized city in flyover country, interested parties could see cutting edge films. At the time of the film’s release, the city had boasted an independent theater for more than a decade, where movies like “Quills” that would never make it to the local cineplexes, played regularly. And while the Marquis de Sade shocked on personal and historical levels, there was something dark and different about “Virgin Suicides.”
About “The Virgin Suicides”
The movie is based on the 1993 novel of the same name. The book was the debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Set in a Detroit suburb in the 1970s, both the book and the movie have the feel of 1970s American culture. The narrators are a group of boys who have mostly unrequited crushes on the Lisbon sisters. The sisters are not allowed to socialize due to their strict religious upbringing. Adding to the awkward dynamics is that their father is a math teacher at the private school the girls attend with the boys who love them. In short, the girls are kept and smothered. They long for a different kind of life. The scenes of them going to the prom with the boys who have bargained with their parents to take them out are awkward. It is as though unused to talking to other people, the Lisbon sisters talk about anything and everything just to feel alive.
The Lisbon sisters are seen both under the careful gaze of the boys, then again in the boys’ (now men) memories at least 25 years after the fact. The film doesn’t tell audiences when the story takes place. It does supply an onscreen graphic that says 25 years ago. Which this far into the 21st century is only the early 1990s. But, the cars, the fashion, the music, all point out to audiences when the story takes place.
“Virgin Suicides’” rock ‘n’ roll ethos
The male gaze helps audiences to notice the rock ‘n’ roll ethos of the movie. Rock songs often depict boy meets girl, girl gets away, and now what does the boy do, kind of scenario. Or, boy meets girl and she’s mentally unstable, and again, there are choices to be made. “The Virgin Suicides” is like that. The boys who love them seem not to notice or care that they are suicidal. No one tries to get them help, not the way 21st century audiences might envision help. The boys watch. And obsess. The search for signs by using binoculars to try to see what is happening in the girls’ lives. When at last the boys and the Lisbon sisters connect by phone, they can’t talk. They play records – – snippets of some of the 1970s’ most melancholy tunes, including “Hello, It’s Me,” by Todd Rundgren, and “Alone Again, Naturally” by Gilbert O’ Sullivan.
When Lux, played by Kirsten Dunst, must be punished for missing curfew on prom night, Mrs. Lisbon decides to burn her rock albums. In the fireplace. The scene is telling because until that point, music and makeup were about the only freedoms the Lisbon sisters had. Mother and daughter argue over a milk container full of rock ‘n’ roll vinyl. KISS is among the bands represented in the bin. The LPs are thrown into the fireplace until the resultant smoke threatens to choke the inhabitants.
Before the girls are punished, rock music punctuates the film in ways that helps audiences to know when the story takes place and the relationship between characters. For example, when Josh Harnett’s character, Trip Fontaine, is introduced, he strolls into school with a classic bad boy swagger just as Heart’s “Magic Man” cues up. The narrators know about him, and audiences are made privy to the way girls give into him. He gets a pass to class even though he’s late, he gets his homework done, he gets everything, except the Lisbon sister he wants – – at least at first.
The school dance scene is made triumphant not just by the onscreen action, but by the searing enthusiasm of Styx’s “Come Sail Away.”
In a comedic turn, when Trip visits the Lisbon home, he endures a chaste evening of watching nature programming with the Lisbon family. Lux, the sister he desires, walks him to the door. A disappointed Trip gets into his red muscle car, and surprise, Lux has run outside, jumped in his car and surprises him with kisses. At Lux’s appearance, “Crazy on You” by Heart begins to play.
What is unmistakable is the idea that repression doesn’t work, and that there are different ways for the girl to get away. And, as in “The Virgin Suicides,” just because the girls get away, doesn’t mean that the boys forget them. It is a classic story told with classic rock. Other prominent songs in the movie include “Strange Magic” by ELO and “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies.
“The Virgin Suicides” uses music to highlight important moments and to underscore characters’ behavior. But the music is also part of the reason why some viewers cannot forget the film that is as dark as it is memorable.