The Virgin Suicides has become a shorthand for a kind of girlhood, one which is warmly lit, observed voyeuristically, and deceptively brutal. I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, following the tragedy of five teenage sisters who end their lives during one sleepy summer in Seventies Detroit, when I was a teenager myself. Published in 1993, the book captivated me with its darkness, its lushness, as well as its unusual narrative style: it is told in the first-person plural by a group of neighbourhood boys, who are transfixed by the sisters, and watch their every move. I loved it so much that I created an illustrated version for my art A-level project complete with doodles, watercolour portraits of the sisters and photographs of my own sister and her friends. I had cajoled them into dressing up in school uniforms and nightgowns, posing with crucifixes in their hands.
Hungry for more of the girls, and their world, I watched Sofia Coppola’s hazy 1999 film of the book soon after. It’s rare that a screen adaptation can do a book such justice, but the atmosphere of the novel is so specific, so visual, so drenched in the sepia tint of a collective nostalgia, it seems as if the movie couldn’t have been made any other way. It is a film as much about mood as it is about narrative, about capturing a specific moment in time by every sensory means possible.
My experience of watching it was also very specific, but very probably not unique. As a teenager, I felt it with every fibre of my being when Cecilia, the doomed youngest Lisbon girl, looks at the psychologist, who’s assuring her she’s “not even old enough to know how bad life gets”, and says, with gravity and prescience, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” I watched it so often that I scratched the DVD, which would warp and jump.
I’ve wondered, over the years, why it was such a formative film for me, and continues to be, enduringly, for new generations of teenagers. (I used to write quotes from both the book and film in my diary; today stills from the film and Gifs proliferate on social media.) It’s beautiful, for one thing – each scene arranged as carefully as a painting, underscored by a dreamy pop soundtrack – though most of the action happens only in anonymous locations: a house, a street, a school. Perhaps it was, in fact, this: the sense that a story of the inner worlds and inner workings of siblings, the small-scale dynamics of suburbia, could be as sweeping and as huge as any Greek tragedy (with a schoolboy chorus).
Or it could simply be that, as a teenage girl, I felt seen. In The Virgin Suicides, the torture of adolescence is given gravity. The sisters’ suffering is born of claustrophobia, a family dynamic where their burgeoning womanhood is both loved and feared. That a male writer, in his 30s when he wrote the book, could portray this experience of girlhood so well is a testament to the novel’s compassion. Teenage angst is not dismissed – it drives the film.
The film makes their pain an object of fascination – to the extent that it lies open to charges of glamorising the suffering of young girls. In fact, both the novel and the film investigate those impulses. Our chorus of schoolboys mythologises the Lisbon sisters: observing, imagining, projecting. But when we, the audience, glimpse inside the house in which the girls are increasingly confined, and experience the texture of their inner worlds, there is little glamour. There’s just a slow, gentle slide towards tragedy.
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Saying that, I have still wondered, as my own life and perspective on the film changed, about the risk of fetishising a certain gauzy, doomed youth. The young and lovely bodies of the girls, draped over unmade beds, surrounded by the paraphernalia of adolescence.
I thought of this trope while writing my first novel, The Water Cure, where three sisters are raised in isolation by their parents in a strange and ritualistic environment. As a teenager I wasn’t able to appraise these set-ups with anything approaching criticism; I found it comforting, rather, to see my own uncomfortable feelings taken seriously, recognised as containing their own poignant beauty. The sisters become otherworldly in their pain, and so their pain becomes beautiful too – perhaps desirable. This isn’t necessarily the best way for a teenage girl to feel, but I liked that it made my burdens seem lighter, and that I felt understood, in communion with the doomed sisters.
To dismiss The Virgin Suicides as a film that romanticises mental illness feels reductive. If anything, it exposes the hard edges so often blurred by the soft-focus gaze through which we view our lives – the things that live under the surface, the unspeakable things a family can do in the name of love. Watching it now, in my mid-thirties, The Virgin Suicides seems to be a film about how a home can become a place of repression, and where love can so quickly become warped by fear and misunderstanding. It reveals the unknowability of even those closest to us, exposes the tiny miracles and huge tragedies that are happening around us every day, but are rarely given such attention. The film’s visual style is not in thrall to aestheticised despair, but best understood as an appreciation of the Lisbon girls themselves, a celebration of their lives, fairly unremarkable until they are not.
And how lovingly, objectively unremarkable the girls are in both novel and film, moving from amorphous sisterly mass – “a mythical creature with ten legs and five heads, lying in bed eating junk food” – to being delineated people in their own right. The boys closely watch the girls, but can never really know who they are, even when they enter the Lisbon home, or pore over their private diaries and medical records. Their not-knowing means the girls remain extraordinary to them. Strange Cecilia in her wedding dress, the first suicide and the one that changes everything. Bonnie, pious and quiet; Mary, ladylike and groomed; Therese, studious and fascinating.
But we spend probably the most time with Lux, the most rebellious sister, the second-youngest at 14. She fools around with boys behind the school bike sheds and on the roof of the house that she eventually cannot leave; her desire is an escape route that connects her and the sisters to the outside world. Her attempts at intimacy are sparks of aliveness, the physical asserting itself over and over. To see teenage desire observed like this – without judgement – felt radical to me. Here is sex in all its grubbiness and transformative potential, with Lux never really reduced by it, even as the rumours about her swirl. Desire is urgent and can’t be contained – it seems like hope, it seems like something that can set the girls free. But it’s this grasping at desire that in the end makes the house of cards fall, and the inevitability of the film’s title rush ever closer to us.
Adolescence is fraught, rife with its own dramas. We can probably agree on that. And agree on the high stakes of everything, how home can feel like safety or like nothing close to it, how loneliness and fear can permeate our days, but also how there can be great wonder, too. Like the moment when the siblings run out to save the beloved elm tree outside their house from dying, clasping their arms around it, or Lux being crowned Prom Queen, or the neighbourhood boys playing songs to them down the telephone.
The Virgin Suicides is more than just a nostalgic dressing-up of teenage angst – it does something cleverer, and more seductive. It pulls us in and back to a stylised and surreal place: our own coming-of-age, where stark reality can be forgotten, for a moment, for the tenderness of the everyday.
“The Virgin Suicides (4K Restoration)” is in cinemas now
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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special