To her credit, Sophia Coppola has proven herself a talented artist, more than the offspring of an illustrious director. But it is difficult to identify any redeeming feature in her breakthrough directorial piece The Virgin Suicides.
There’s the motif of Rock ‘n’ Roll music, deftly interwoven throughout. Songs such as ‘Crazy on You’ (the backdrop to a transgressive make-out session) portend the invasion of the suburban realm by progressive culture. Ascetic Mrs Lisbon forces her daughter Lux to burn her beloved Rock records, embodying the entrenched stubbornness of traditional American values and foreboding the film’s tragic ending.
But that is about the extent of the positive. I was personally offended by this noxiously-misconceived depiction of mental health. No insight is given into the causation of Cecelia’s suicidal disposition; Danny Devito’s performance as a counsellor, employed for only one session, is unrealistic – his proposed remedy for Cecelia is myopic and ineffectual; and the rapid psychological debilitation of the remaining sisters is not elaborated on.
The film deprives real-life mental health sufferers of the dignity to which they are entitled; the severity of suicide is ignominiously downplayed. In response to their daughters’ suicide, the parents’ acting – Mr Lisbon’s unrealistic composure and his wife’s over-the-top ululation– is unforgivably poor. And the film is fraught with such poor performances: Lux’s reaction to her records being incinerated; a television interviewee mourning the accidental death of her grandmother.
Woefully, the film regards and conveys mental health issues as intractable and mysterious. We’re left begging to know about the impact of the girls’ circumstance on their psychological condition. Virgin Suicides contributes to popular misconceptions about such conditions as depression, making us ill-equipped as a society to deal with them.
If that weren’t bad enough, subtle sexism pervades the film. The neighbourhood boys propound female stereotypes, such as the acute appreciation of beauty instinctive to all women. That women are imprisoned is no overstatement, but the boys condescendingly see themselves as the sisters’ rescuers-in-shining-armour. The antiquated feminine ideal of purity is also evoked; mawkishly creepy high-school heartthrob Trip Fontaine’s interest piques as Lux does not reciprocate. Herein we find the patriarchal notion, fuelled by a possessive jealousy, that the ideal woman is chaste, unattainable, and untouched by other men.
It’s impossible to emphasise how much we need to rid ourselves of destructive fallacies about mental health and persistent 19th century views on women. The Virgin Suicides is a stubborn obstacle in the way of such progress.
Image: Siren-Com, via Wikipedia