Film Noir Influence in The Virgin Suicides
Teenage suicide was not unheard of before the nineteen-nineties, but its growing instances during this period led people to acknowledge the problem. Schools even started publishing materials to educate students and parents about the phenomena. The Virgin Suicides confronts this delicate topic straightforward. Sofia Coppola blends elements of her own style with those of classic film noir to show how these young individuals become so alienated in a world they barely know or understand. Through the eyes of five sheltered teenage girls, Coppola opens up a dark universe of isolation.
From the start of the film, it is acknowledged that the five Lisbon girls all died before they made it to adulthood. A small group of boys, now men, from the Lisbon’s neighborhood have never forgotten about the mysterious sisters whom they have never come to completely figure out. One of the men narrates the film and informs the viewer that he and his friends still gather at every high school reunion and birthday party to discuss the fate of the Lisbon girls.
The film then flashes back to their childhood circa 1975, and introduces the girls as they get out of their family’s station wagon. Cecilia is the youngest at 13, preceded by Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese whom were all one year older than another. All of the girls seem so young, innocent, and beautiful. However, it is soon revealed that Cecilia has just gotten out of the hospital after an attempted suicide.
Cecilia begins seeing a therapist who recommends that the strict Lisbon’s allow their daughters to have a party to cheer the girls up and enable them to interact with boys and girls their own age. Cecilia is upset by a group of her peers making fun of a child with Down syndrome. She feels that she will never really belong to society either, and so she runs upstairs and jumps from her window. Her second attempt at suicide is successful since she lands on a pointed, wrought iron fence. The rest of the film deals with the Lisbon’s struggle to cope with this new reality. In the end, the remaining sisters decide that Cecilia was right about the world being a bleak and lonely place where existence itself is futile, and so they decide to join her by taking their own lives.
Although The Virgin Suicides is by no means a classic film noir, it is undeniable that Coppola was influenced by the ideas that it brings to mind. The mood of some scenes, for example, has parallels with that of film noir. After all, Coppola intends to bring the audience to the bizarre and heavy world in which these doomed girls live. Both of the suicide scenes and the scene when Trip leaves Lux in the middle of the football field after having sex with her evoke a sense of uneasiness and inconceivability that is definitely characteristic of film noir. The Virgin Suicides is also influenced by noir themes and style. The film is primarily about these teenage girls feeling separated from the crowd, cooped up in the half-reality that was their home. Everything about the Lisbon house is drab and gray. There is never direct sunlight, or high-key lighting inside the Lisbon home. It is as if the girls are covered in cobwebs like little china dolls being preserved in a basement somewhere. Coppola uses light throughout the film to symbolize life and change, like the cuts to outdoor time-lapsed shots with the sun glowing in the background. This also shows that things outside are changing, but the Lisbon girls are forced to remain stagnant in their rooms.
The Virgin Suicides also boasts a particularly edgy score for the time period it was meant to represent. Track titles include «Cemetery Party», «Dirty Trip», and «Bathroom Girl.» These are songs Mrs. Lisbon would most definitely not allow her children to listen to. Coppola even makes a point of this by showing Lux burning all of her rock CD’s at the hands of her mother. This represents the authority the girls’ parents still have over their lives, but the score still playing throughout the movie represents their struggle to make a place for themselves. Perhaps the girls would have made it and they were simply being suffocated. More likely, however, is that the girls saw no hope in living for a future they saw as lonely, awkward, and unfulfilling.
The Virgin Suicides also departs from noir, and more modern filmmaking conventions are noticed. Lux Lisbon is not the classic femme fatale of film noir. She knows her sex appeal and that she can use it to her advantage, yet she is not trying to deceive the men she sleeps with. Lux is simply trying to justify what happened with Trip. She had sex with him after their Homecoming dance because she thought he cared about her, and then he just left her asleep on the football field. Lux, being only fifteen years old, was really affected by this. She then reacts by trying to prove to herself that sex means nothing. Then it would be okay if she lost her virginity to Trip for no good reason.
The story of the ill-fated Lisbon sisters needed to be told in a modern context, while the world they live in and the experiences they have are sometimes noir. Therefore, a true infusion of a few different styles and genres were required. Sofia Coppola does a wonderful job of mixing conventions of film noir with her own thematic style in the direction of The Virgin Suicides. The music and lighting of the film are akin to noir, as is the general theme of the film and it’s setting where days blend together and even sex is meaningless. However, none of the sisters quite resemble a classic femme fatale. Also, the boys may be like junior detectives, but they have no ulterior or hidden motives. Their respect and wonderment of the Lisbon sisters is sincere, and that is something that cannot exist in a film noir.