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review added: 1/5/01



The Virgin Suicides
2000 (2000) - Paramount

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Virgin Suicides Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/B

Specs and Features

96 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:06:40 in chapter 12), Amaray keep case packaging, The Making of The Virgin Suicides featurette, 2 theatrical trailers, Playground Love music video by Air, photo gallery, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned


The Virgin Suicides is Sofia Coppola's beautiful and faithful adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' highly praised novel of the same name. The fact that Coppola was able to translate to the screen a novel that is not written in a straight narrative style speaks volumes of her directing talent. Both are lyrical works that favor a dream-like mood over heavy, unnecessary dialogue. I like the book a great deal, and I love Sofia Coppola's adaptation of it. I think it's one of the more intriguing films of the year, and Coppola's direction stands out in my mind as one of the finest feature debuts in recent years.

At the heart of the story are the teen-aged Lisbon sisters, in 1970s suburban America. There are five of them, and as the story begins, Cecilia (Hanna Hall), the youngest of the sisters, has attempted to take her life by opening up her wrists. On the advice of the family doctor, the Lisbon's invite the neighborhood boys over for an afternoon party with the girls. This is when we see the passing of the first of the Lisbon girls, and when the boys' fascination with the enigmatic sisters takes hold. Getting to know the sisters is a different story. Their sheltering, fundamentalist parents won't let them wear sleeveless shirts outside of the home, much less go on dates with teenage boys filled with raging hormones.

One boy in particular, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) spells surefire trouble for the girls. Every teacher, high school girl and their collective mothers has the hots for him. But he's got his eye on one of the Lisbon sisters, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), and he'll do anything short of cutting his mop of hair to get her attention and win her dad's approval so that he can take her to the homecoming dance. At one point in the story, a grown-up Trip (presumably in a treatment center) takes on the duty of story narrator and discusses the effect of the girls on his life, as an adult. The bulk of the film is told through a collage of stories, gossip and recollections. It's a risky way to tell the story, but it pays off in the end, and retains the emotional honesty and strength of the novel.

As effective as the material is, it's aided by a fine set of performances. James Woods is an actor whose brazen performances usually come across just as loud as his off-screen personality. Here, his strong turn as the pandering, overprotective father is so subdued and reserved that his voice rarely raises above the timber of a hushed conversation. Kathleen Turner is equally as effective in her turn as the devoutly religious mother of the Lisbon girls. You will see no shred of the sexuality of her character in Body Heat, or the fiery temper of Barbara Rose in War of the Roses. Also look for small parts by Michael Pare, Danny DeVito and Scott Glenn.

Those expecting a film rife with death from beginning to end may be disappointed with The Virgin Suicides. Yes, there is death, and yes, as the narrator tells you right at the beginning of the story, all the Lisbon girls will come to pass. But this is not a movie about death or suicide. The Virgin Suicides is as much about youthful obsession as it is the wistful way we recall it as adults. The story's undefined narrator (voiced by Giovanni Ribisi) is obviously somebody who knew the girls, but didn't know them as well as he would have liked. Nobody really understood the girls that well, and it's the mystery surrounding them that drew the neighborhood boys toward them. The boys' desire and the girls' radiance are the driving forces of The Virgin Suicides. It's an impressive film, and one that stuck with me after the last reel finished.

On DVD, The Virgin Suicides presents a nice looking picture. The source print itself is of good quality, with no scratching or aging marks, as can be expected of a newer piece of film. The color palette is altered through different filters to fit the appropriate mood of the scene. A few scenes take on a greenish look, and other times the filmmakers used natural lighting for a more realistic feel. The flashback sequences are drenched in sunlight - the intended effect - and they look fine. What's not appropriate, however, is the obvious artifacting that rears its ugly head every now and again. Blacks looks stable and strong for the most part, but NTSC noise and artifacting makes them appear a little on the muddy side on a few occasions. It's not too much of a distraction, but it's there when it shouldn't be. The film also doesn't quite look as sharp as it could have. I'd say this was a product of the film stock used, but I don't remember it looking this soft in the theatres. On the whole, it's a good anamorphic widescreen picture, but there is definite room for improvement.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is not an overly energetic audio track, but sound effects, dialogue and music are all used to maximum effect. The track is subtle and practical, and you'll notice good separation and panning effects in both the front and rear speakers. Much of the action in the surround channels is reserved for the music track. The trancy, synthesized soundtrack (by the French group Air) enforces the dream-like quality of the movie, and stands out as the best part of the 5.1 mix. Dialogue is solid and the LFE channel adds depth to the sound mix. For the French-language inclined, there's also a decent 2.0 French track.

Paramount didn't set out to make this DVD a special edition, but the compact set of extras here is nothing to balk at. A few years back, Ms. Coppola did a sassy little gem of a short called Lick the Star. I was hoping that would find its way onto this DVD release, but it didn't. You do get a featurette on the making of the film, which is remarkably in-depth for a 25-minute piece. Shot by Sophia's mom Eleanor Coppola (who received co-direction credit for another brilliant documentary chronicling the making of a film by a family member, Hearts of Darkness), it features interviews with most of the principal cast, as well as the director and author Jeffrey Eugenides. It's a great companion piece for the film. Also interesting is Air's music video for their song Playground Love. It's a trippy, twisted little piece of video that's narrated by a couple pieces of lip-synching chewing gum - I'm not kidding. It must be seen to be believed. There's also a short slide show of behind-the-scenes pictures taken from the film, that's set to a selection from the film's score. Top that off with two of the film's theatrical trailers, and you've got a nice little set of extras.

The Virgin Suicides wasn't a huge box-office hit. This was due in part to an extremely limited release schedule, but also to a seemingly heavy subject matter. The title alone is enough to turn people away, but the old adage is as true here as it ever was - don't judge a book by its cover. The Virgin Suicides is also a sweet memoir of a specific time in American culture and a distinct period in the lives of young people. Paramount has crafted a real winner of a DVD, and The Virgin Suicides is well worth the hunt if you can't find it on the shelf at Blockbuster.

Dan Kelly
dankelly@thedigitalbits.com




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