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“Cecilia was the first to leave.” Combined with the image of a boy Hannah Hall Swimming in a bathtub filled with bloody water, the opening line of Sofia Coppola‘s The Virgin Suicides is an invitation and a punch in one. It is designed to draw viewers in and make them curious as to what exactly is going on: if Cecilia was the first to leave, who was the second and third, and why did they leave? At the same time, the line adds to the shock of the film’s title and reassures us that there’s no cheating involved: this story turns out to be every bit as dark as its name suggests. Spoiler alert: This is a film about teenage girls who take their own lives. And the fact that its opening line still retains all its original appeal 22 years later The Virgin Suicides Original release that has everyone knowing exactly where the film is going speaks volumes about Coppola’s directorial debut in 2000.

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It’s no problem to call The Virgin Suicides one of the most influential films of the last 25 years. In fact, it feels odd just to point out that this movie is old enough to drive, vote, and drink considering how well it’s attuned to our cultural landscape. Traces of his melancholy nostalgia and hushed, romantic despair can be found everywhere, from the aesthetic Tumblr blogs of the 2010s to the depressing pastel filters of Cottage Core’s current Instagram accounts; from the music of Lana del Rey to the much livelier yet somewhat wistful films of Greta Gerwig; and let’s not forget our never-ending obsession with adolescent grief and boredom gossip girl to euphoria. Sure, the popularity of things like this can’t be attributed to Sofia Coppola alone, but it’s easy to spot the DNA of The Virgin Suicides in all of these examples.


Whatever your personal feelings about it, The Virgin Suicides is an extremely important film. That undying relevance was crowned recently with a release from The Criterion Collection, which includes interviews with cast members, Coppola himself, and a novelist Jeffrey Eugenideswho wrote the 1993 book of the same name that inspired the film.

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It’s not difficult to understand why The Virgin Suicides has become such a cultural phenomenon. For starters, the film is beautifully shot. The stunning images created by Edward LachmanThe cinematography of will stay with you long after the credits roll. Coppola’s writing is unforgettable, as are Hall’s performances, Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner, James Woods, Josh Hartnett, and many others. Additionally, the film’s themes of adolescent isolation, religious abuse and gender oppression remain as relevant as ever. But there is something else. The Virgin Suicides also manages to create an atmosphere of social decay and impending environmental collapse that current viewers can relate to.


In the universe created by Coppola – a haunted, pastel-colored version of a 1970s suburb – certain doom is always at hand. We see it in the dying trees scattered across the neighborhood’s lawns and in the chemical stench that plagues the city in the film’s final scenes, caused by a spill at a nearby industrial facility. Despite living in a wealthy, isolated neighborhood, the film’s background characters cannot escape the ecological catastrophe that is unfolding around them. WASP-y teenage girls are forced to come to pollution-themed debutante parties, and no matter how many trees City Hall has cut down, the disease that’s killing them just keeps spreading.

In the midst of this creeping environmental catastrophe, social ties are also beginning to lose strength. We see the disconnect between the Lisbon family’s neighbors in the film’s mockumentary-like interviews, in which a parade of aloof suburbanites profess their care and concern for the girls, but can’t help but treat their deaths as an amusing spectacle. One of them even manages to throw in a scathing remark about the decoration of the Lisbon residence. In what appears to be a rehab clinic, Lux’ (Havenst) plays Trip Fontaine (Hartnett) as an adult Michael Pareconfesses his love for the girl he left, but still fetishizes her.


This sense of general collapse is not solely a creation of Sofia Coppola, nor is it an afterthought. Widespread gloom and decay are an integral part of Eugenides’ novel and stem from the author’s experience of growing up in Detroit. Both Coppola’s film and Eugenides’ book are set in a suburb of Michigan’s once wealthiest city, which has fallen out of favor since the 1970s oil crisis and the subsequent decline of the auto industry, which made up most of its economy. The precipitous decline of the industry is mentioned by the film’s narrator, a stand-in voice for the four boys obsessed with the Lisbon girls, and in an interview with NPR, Eugenides explains that “growing up (…) in a city it is losing population, and the mood that prompted me to write was really in perpetual crisis The Virgin Suicides first of all.”


The fact that the story does not take place in the urban center of the city, where the predominantly black population lives, more directly affected by the economic crisis, but in its white suburbs, introduces us to a world that tries to be decent even in the face of the crisis and stay decent demise. Much like the Lisbons refuse to talk about Cecilia’s death, Eugenides and Coppola’s suburban residents struggle to maintain their sense of prestige and superiority even amidst the dead and the noxious fumes. In the novel, the epitome of this denial and apparent separation is the gravediggers’ strike, which forces people to go about their daily business while their loved ones literally rot in plain sight. In the film, the gravediggers’ role is somewhat reduced, and they end up representing a rare moment of actual humanity rather than another symptom of decay, as they seem to only allow Mr. Lisbon (Woods) to enter the cemetery to see his Boys bury daughter.

But how does this atmosphere of collapse relate to the suicides of the Lisbon girls? At first glance it seems like just a nice background for such a sad story to drive home how depressing this all is. After all, the girls’ deaths are usually attributed exclusively to the religiously motivated abuse of their parents. However, there is a clear connection between the desolation of this crumbling world and the downfall of the Children of Lisbon, and the key to understanding is Cecilia.

Cecilia never experiences the hardest part of the budgetary dictatorship in Lisbon. She was never expelled from school or forced to burn her rock albums in the fireplace. Sure, her parents are strict, and she has a clear vision of what the next few years of her life will be like, given the one-year age difference between the five sisters, but she doesn’t seem to care about a world outside of her home, either . Unlike her sisters, she is not thrilled to attend her first coed party sparked by her first suicide attempt and asks for an early apology. When talking to a doctor (Danny DeVito) about what could lead her to take her own life, she only brings up the fact that she is a 13-year-old girl. In fact, life can be tough for teenage girls, but Cecilia’s pain isn’t everything.

The youngest Lisbon daughter seems particularly affected by the environmental and societal breakdown surrounding the family. In her few living scenes we see glimpses of her concern for social and environmental issues. When Mr. Lisbon invites one of his favorite students over for dinner, Lux, Mary (AJ Cook), Therese (Leslie Hayman) and Bonnie (Chelsea Swain) resent having a boy around while Cecilia talks to her mother about a species of frog going extinct. What finally gets her up during the party is to see the boys making fun of a kid with Down’s Syndrome. Even after her death, her attachment to the tree on the family lawn is shown through her ghostly apparitions on its branches and her sisters’ attempts to save it from being felled.

Cecilia seems particularly sensitive to the impending death of the world she knows and the petty cruelties of everyday life. This creates a quiet desperation in her that sets in motion the entire chain of events in the film. In that sense, the atmosphere of the film’s collapse is not just a backdrop to the tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, nor is the death of the girls a mere addition to the list of ailments besetting that particular suburban neighborhood. The story of the Lisbon sisters thrives on the sense of decay that surrounds them and vice versa, generating an existential dread that emerges in a world fraught with pandemics, climate change and economic crises The Virgin Suicides feel as fresh as in the year 2000.

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