Death and the Maidens

As purposefully ambiguous as its source novel, The Virgin Suicidesdoesn't so much unfold as waft off the screen, leaving behind a vapor trail of swoony, mysterious sadness. Sofia Coppola's thoughtfully crafted portrait of lost (or embalmed) adolescence is suffused with a wistfulness so consuming it transcends nostalgia—even before the first of the five doomed teenage Lisbon sisters has offed herself, the movie already feels ghostly and strangely bereft.

Jeffrey Eugenides's novel, set in a Michigan suburb in the early '70s, casts the suicides as the defining cataclysm in the lives of the smitten neighborhood boys (the book's omniscient collective narrator), who—having spent more than two decades cataloging the physical evidence and reconstructing the circumstances surrounding the girls' baffling demise—are now grown men who find themselves more haunted than ever. Eugenides's shapely, sinuous prose seems at once generously cinematic (well stocked with eloquent, prismatic imagery) and resistant to adaptation—a feat of precarious composure not built to withstand even the slightest manhandling. But Coppola's transposition is canny, faithful, observant—a disarming daydream of a movie, enhanced by Ed Lachman's lovely, gauzy cinematography and the voluptuous melancholy of French lounge hipsters Air ("Playground Love," the film's recurring theme, might be as close as a piece of music has ever come to approximating a sigh).

The impression of ethereal drift is deceptive; the film slices through its dizzying succession of events with clean, swift efficiency. First, the youngest sister—Cecilia (Hanna Hall), a glum, world-weary 13-year-old—hurls herself from her bedroom window onto a spiked iron fence. The other four are dead within a year, and the traumatic intervening period centers on a fleeting romance between the most flirtatious Lisbon, Kirsten Dunst's radiant Lux (eternally illuminated by soft, celestial sunlight), and heartthrob Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), introduced swaggering down a hallway to Heart's "Magic Man." When Lux breaks curfew, the girls areindefinitely grounded by their bedraggled, blankly stern mother (Kathleen Turner, suggesting Serial Momafter a born-again conversion and a regimen of sedatives). Dad, a wimpy math teacher, is played by James Woods, cast ingeniously against type as a downtrodden little man whose immersion in an estrogen-soaked household has left him in a diffident, emasculated daze.

Drop-dead gorgeous: Dunst and Hartnett in The Virgin Suicides
photo: courtesy of Paramount Classics
Drop-dead gorgeous: Dunst and Hartnett in The Virgin Suicides

Details

The Virgin Suicides
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, from the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
A Paramount Classics release
Opens April 21

From the Edge of the City
Written and directed by Constantinos Giannaris
Screening Room
April 21 through 27

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In the context of contemporary American film, The Virgin Suicidessets off all manner of red flags—suburbia, the '70s, teens. But the movie (thanks to its writer-director's empathic, intelligent reading of the novel) approaches its themes obliquely, averting kitsch and cheap irony. Coppola looks beyond the seductive metaphysical puzzle and locates the core of Eugenides's allegory in an obsessive, almost forensic act of remembering, both futile and inexplicably essential.


A free-associative initiation to an altogether different kind of teenage wasteland, Constantinos Giannaris's From the Edge of the Cityhurtles along with a heedless forward motion that, in accordance with the laws of physics if not of narrative, can only end with tragic abruptness. The city in question is Athens; 17-year-old Sasha and his friends are Kazakh refugees of Greek origin, doubly displaced youth who have fallen into a grueling routine of theft, prostitution, and drug use. The mood is despondent, the skimpy plot despon-dently familiar. Entrusted with the care of a hooker about to be sold by her paramour to evil provincial pimps, Sasha puts himself in danger to save her. Giannaris tries anything, everything—jump cuts, zip pans, bravura Steadicam, POV shots, to-camera asides, split-second interpolations—and scrambles the movie together in a flailing style that favors harsh juxtapositions: handheld agitation and freeze frames, deafening techno and dead silence, dutifully squalid grit and outrageous fantasy lyricism. The viewer, though unavoidably alert, is before long too numb to care.

 
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