1990s

Memories of Place in Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’

The Virgin Suicides

For the 20th anniversary of The Virgin Suicides (2000) — Sofia Coppola’s haunting Midwestern period epitaph to a fictional group of girls and the space they held in their community — it’s fitting to reexamine this film set 25 years in the past; a story set in a wealthy, white Detroit suburb in the 70s that has hardly changed in demographics. For a movie that is fundamentally based on looking back, to continually rediscover this story is to keep it alive. Additionally, by revisiting The Virgin Suicides as a piece of the early 2000s, we are able to mimetically recreate the film’s retracing of the past, examining not merely the story, but also the film as an unchanging snapshot of years gone by; a transformative source of nostalgia.

Framed primarily through the eyes, ears and mouths of adolescent neighborhood boys, the pervasive, inescapable memory of the five deceased Lisbon girls — Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook) and Therese (Leslie Hayman) — is less of a rediscovery and more of a haunting involuntary memory. For the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) and the rest of the now-grown boys in The Virgin Suicides, it is a memory of place that stays with them so many years later. But this memory does not merely encompass a recollection of the Lisbon home, as it also embodies the corporeal resonance of these tragic events that transpired which grounds them to Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

In The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny (2012), Dylan Trigg asserts that as a concept, place can be perceived not as a physical location, but as a liminal entity captured experientially in the body. Descriptively, The Virgin Suicides is situated within the 70s suburbia of an upper-middle class, heteronormative and extremely white Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. However, the film’s conscious recounts a time and space that’s a vastly different image than, for instance, Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks —  a markedly similar environment but set just a decade later. Coppola carefully centers The Virgin Suicides’ intimate landscape around the physicality of the Lisbon house, feeding into the boys’ fixation on the home as the source of persistent recollection.

For Trigg, a place like the Lisbon home “where trauma took place and continues to be inextricably bound with that location in both an affective and evidential manner” becomes a site of “ruins” — describing not a place of physical collapse or decay, but rather a place carved by traumatic events. With the house as the site of the suicides for all five Lisbon girls, the home itself thus becomes an embodiment of trauma as experienced by both the boys and the neighborhood at large. The home is no longer one that was inhabited by the Lisbon girls, nor is it merely a coming-of-age locale of 25 years in the past. Rather, it is one tied to the specific circumstances that transpired, tying together time, place and event.

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides’  first mention of entry or exit through the Lisbon home is via Paul Baldino (Robert Schwartzman), who proudly claims to have accessed it through storm sewers that connect all of the houses in the area. The boys listen with a morbid fascination as he describes witnessing the aftermath of Cecilia’s suicide attempt in the downstairs bathroom. The only “true access” to events that transpired in the house are through covert means, a backdoor in the carefully guarded space — but even then, the veracity of this is dubious, and the boys cling to these scraps that seem to reveal all that’s hidden in the home.

Despite the boys’ brief contact with the interior of the house, the film itself is transfixed on the Lisbon home itself as a site of ruins. Discrete montages are dedicated to the passage of time through the trees and leaves around the house, the flicking on and off of lights in various rooms and the preservation of the basement and bedrooms as captured in time. The narrator even starts and ends The Virgin Suicides with an evocation of the home in relation to broader events: “Everyone dates the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls…” to the final words “and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”

Much of The Virgin Suicides is built on the house’s physical remnants of Cecilia, not merely the girl herself, starting with Peter Sisten (Chris Hale) fascinatedly exploring the upstairs bathroom filled with the girls’ toiletries and belongings as Lux bursts in, cracking, “I thought you died in there!” The party that Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon deign to host for Cecilia becomes the backdrop for the other four girls’ suicide pact, the abandoned basement still lingering with deflated balloons and party decorations from Cecilia’s suicide that night. The still-decorated basement also becomes the boys’ last fully obtained memory of the house, perpetually tied to both Cecilia and her siblings’ deaths.

The house collects evidence of the girls’ confinement like a sticky trap, as the Lisbons’ pastor carefully steps over dirty plates and tossed toys on the stairs, and the reporter Lydia Perl steps over days of collected newspapers on the front walk. But the adults much more easily pass by these physical reminders, even if they also more easily traverse the house’s space unattended. The boys remark that the parents seemed to very easily forget the girls, like the way they were able to extricate, with relative ease, the fence on which Cecilia impaled herself from the yard. Mr. Lisbon, in Cecilia’s bedroom, sees a vision of his dead daughter, before fixating on the open window that she jumped out of and hastily closing it. Like that, Cecilia disappears.

From Cecilia’s suicide, the boys began collecting objects owned by the girls, their personal outlet for expression inside the Lisbon house: diaries, images and everything they can find. But even though the boys saw Cecilia’s diary as an alluring source of information on the Lisbon girls, it was always unreliable, as evidenced by their mispronunciation of Kevin “Heins,” before Cecilia seems to correct him in a romanticized montage filled with images of unicorns, with Lux dancing in her sunbathing bikini, and saturated daydreams of the girls in blissful fields. Unable to leave the house, the Lisbon girls’ travel catalogs that the boys ordered to partake in their imaginary adventures became an escape, but the mere idea of leaving the house becomes impossible, and so their imaginary adventures become a distraction from the house itself. Moving from the mailbox into the Lisbon home, the catalogs are the only tangible objects traversing the boundary of the house, and so the boys cling to their copies as a way to share an experience with the girls, even if they devolve into male-centric fantasies of exploring “exotic” places and “placing [their] hands on [the girls’] warm, moist shoulders.” However, the boys are punished for their escapism, as the narrator recounts that the memories “scarred us forever, making us happier with dreams than wives,” drawing them back to the girls and their eternal home.

The Virgin Suicides

As the boys’ memories of the girls’ faces slipped away, hidden from the community by Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, the objects provided little solace. Although eternally bound to their home by their strict parents, the girls pulled the boys back in via an unsuccessful attempt at morse code light signals and then musical exchanges. The boys thus are communicating with the girls, but the method in which they are conversing is so abstract in nature that their voices disappear too. Every waking moment becomes about receiving a sign of life from inside the Lisbon home.

With everything else stripped away, the boys — and eventually, men — in The Virgin Suicides carry the Lisbon home with them as they recount this story. As viewers, we are privy to the boys’ singular retelling of this memory, one that, were they not fictional, would be undoubtedly transient and fluid upon each new recollection. Coppola’s film may be thematically and narratively built around the pressures of the strict Catholic Lisbon family and the whispers of gossip floating amidst the tight suburban community, but at its core, the filmmaker tells a story of a memory — that is, a memory of place. Like the Lisbon parents refuse to let their girls leave the house, the boys cannot remove or separate the girls from the house in their memories either, nor can they remove or separate the house and location from the girls and their deaths. After Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon sell the house, the still shots of the empty and near-empty rooms at the end of the film are still, lifeless and haunting, as if reflecting the deaths of the girls. For the boys, the sensory memories of the house are all that remain, including “a clock ticking on the wall” and “a room dim at noon.”

The Lisbon house becomes not merely the foundation of place, but also a site of the ruins of trauma, perpetually linked to the suicides of the girls as well as the persistent memory of their deaths within and beyond the film. As we retrace the boys’ memories, we can also look back on the director’s capturing of events through the lens of an early 2000s film. Viewers are privileged to, in a sense, a nostalgic memory — one that “relies on an image of the past as temporally isolated; that is, as fixed.” In this manner, Coppola’s film itself takes on a nostalgic quality, while the events captured are presented as ever-changing, despite the film only being able to capture a singular view of the memories. Although the events in The Virgin Suicides may not be presented through an innately nostalgic lens, they become a binding source of nostalgia by viewing the film 20 years after its initial wide release.

Olivia Popp (@itsoliviapopp) is a film, television and culture writer with a particular interest in stories about suburbia, queer socialization, Asian America and speculative worlds.

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