Based on Jeffrey Eugenides' popular novel, Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides is an investigation into the unknowable, narrated from the combined memory of men with many years' distance from the events they're describing. Since the title confesses the ending, the atmosphere hangs with a feeling of dread that's at once eerily remote and curiously inscrutable, as if the entire story takes place in a hermetic bubble that can't be punctured by any psychological insight. Coppola stays true to the unique voice of the novel, which is narrated in a collective "we" by a group of boys infatuated with the five Lisbon sisters, a mysterious cabal of pretty adolescent girls living in an affluent Detroit suburb in the mid-'70s. In a severe response to the period's loosened moral climate, the girls' parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) keep them under tight watch, especially after the youngest is successful in her second suicide attempt. But when the most promiscuous of the remaining four (Kirsten Dunst) breaks curfew, they're abruptly pulled out of school and nearly imprisoned in their own home. The Virgin Suicides is frequently talked about as a tale of innocence lost but, really, the reverse is true: The tragedy of the Lisbon sisters is that their innocence was so well preserved that it couldn't make a healthy transition into womanhood. Though Giovanni Ribisi's ever-present narration laments the impossibility of explaining the suicides, it's patently obvious that the girls' stunted growth had more than a little to do with it. Aided immeasurably by a beautiful score by the French techno duo Air, Coppola creates an atmosphere that's hypnotic, unsettling, and evocative in design. But she never gets inside the heads of her characters—individually or as a group—so nothing substantial is learned about them over the course of the film. As a rare anti-coming-of-age story, The Virgin Suicides has a distinct allure, but in depicting the "imprisonment of being a girl," it remains separated by the bars.
More from The A.V. Club