Mid-1970s Detroit: 5 beautiful, blonde sisters are all but cloistered in their home, kept safe and sheltered by their strict, religious parents. A group of neighbourhood boys become obsessed with these rarely-seen girls, and their intensity and curiosity is only heightened when the youngest sister, just 13, commits suicide.
One of those boys, now grown up and middle aged, recounts the story for us – is he a reliable narrator? He can only piece together the story with the rare glimpses they got from the outside. Even among his friends, he admits, they still argue about what exactly happened. But it says something that they still talk about it in such detail all these years later. It’s a morbid fascination that comes to include us.
Writer-director Sofia Coppola (based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel) loves to hide what her leading ladies are thinking, but they never remain as mysterious as in The Virgin Suicides, where the sisters are unknowable not by choice, but by the restrictive actions of their parents. In fact, they are desperate to communicate with the world, and in the 1970s, given all the barriers around them, this was in games of telephone, hand-written notes, even a lamp flicked on and off – morse code, perhaps.
The movie is ostensibly about the sisters (the next-youngest, Lux, played by Kirsten Dunst, especially), but the story really belongs to and is told by the people – the boys and the men – on the outside, trying and failing to make sense of it all. This sense of the outside looking in is often visually represented through Coppola’s shots of the house outside. We peek in through the windows, through cracks of the front door. When a little girl is taken away by ambulance, all the neighbours gather on their front lawns to watch. The cinematic voyeurism only magnifies what the characters do on screen. Short scenes in living rooms and beauty salons assure us that gossip is as rampant among adults as the teenagers who can’t stop watching, even through a telescope, if that’s what it takes. And when one boy, on the cusp of manhood really (Josh Hartnett), finally achieves the impossible and sleeps with the unattainable Lux, she wakes up the next morning to find him gone. He’s left her because once he’s pierced the soapy bubble of her elusiveness and mystique, he finds that she is, in fact, an ordinary girl, and is no longer interested. The sisters’ mythos has largely been constructed by others and is ironically fueled by the strictness of their parents.
This is a tragic story, one that manages not to have heroes or villains, simply victims and witnesses. The boys, in their youth and inexperience, are never held accountable, nor even judged. And the girls remain aloof, forever lost, reduced to a mere absence, a wistful grief.