Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Virgin Suicides of Five Little Women

I’ve just watched the beautiful and talented Kirsten Dunst, at 12, play snippy little Amy March—a schoolgirl obsessed with fashion, popularity, and nice noses—in the 1994 screen version of Little Women. What a shock to jump five years and see Dunst as a very different young woman in Sofia Coppola’s debut film, The Virgin Suicides.

The Virgin Suicides, based on a sensational 1999 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, was the then-twenty-eight-year-old Coppola’s debut as a film director. She has said that prior to reading the novel, she had no clear artistic path. It was her intense enthusiasm for this book that led her to adapt it for the screen, and then to find her calling as a director. She loved this novel because—grim as it was—it seemed to capture her sense of young womanhood as a time of transition, a tumultuous passage from innocent girlishness into the powers (and fears) of an adult female life. Eugenides is the rare author who wholeheartedly praises the film made from his novel. He notes, though, that in his mind the tale had chiefly focused on the young suburban boys who obsessed from a distance over the macabre doings of the five gorgeous Lisbon sisters. The film version, he notes, necessarily puts the five beautiful blondes at the visual center of the action, giving us clues to their surprising choices, though by no means putting their mysteries to rest.

Yes, this is a film about suicide, beginning with that of the youngest Lisbon, Cecilia. She had previously explained her nihilistic mindset to an emergency room doctor who gently chided, “What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Her matter-of-fact response: “Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl.”

The young teenaged sisters so vividly depicted in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were facing real problems: poverty, serious illness, an absent father wounded on the field of battle, the rigidly circumscribed role of a young lady in 19th century America. Yet, blessed with lively minds, strong moral fiber, and a sublimely understanding mother, they all coped—and even managed to truly enjoy the innocent frolics of their girlhood. It’s startling to move from the world of Little Women to late twentieth-century suburbia, where the Lisbon family sends its daughters to a tony local school. The Lisbons seem to have no health issues and no particular money woes. True, Mom (Kathleen Turner) and Dad (James Woods, as the school’s math teacher) are intense both in their Catholic devotions and in their household rules of conduct. They don’t seem the sort of parents you’d come to with your personal woes. Maybe that’s why Cecilia, at thirteen, is so determined to end it all. And maybe it’s also why fourteen-year-old Lux (played Dunst) finds her own ways to rebel against the family’s rigid standards of behavior. Hardly virginal, Lux seems committed to giving herself to any boy who’s tempted by her beauty. 

Commenting on The Virgin Suicides years after the film was made, Dunst has noted that her role required her to explore the rawer emotions of the adult world she was personally poised to enter.  Though she’d been acting professionally since age 7, this was her first offbeat independent production, as well as perhaps her first chance to delve into her own sexuality on screen. That’s something Amy March and her older sisters never seem to do. Which makes the world of Little Women, for all its hardships, a friendlier place than the one the Lisbon girls so uneasily inhabit.

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