The five Lisbon sisters - Cecilia (the 'kook'), Lux (the beautiful one), Bonnie, Mary and Therese - were objects of fascination for the neighbourhood boys, 25 years ago. They were beautiful, mature and mysterious - even more so because of their family's strict rules.
It is a stiflingly hot summer, plagued by flies and Dutch elm disease, when Cecilia attempts suicide. In response to this, the Lisbons are advised to relax a little - the girls are therefore allowed to throw a party. It is an awkward, chaperoned affair and Cecilia asks to be excused. She mounts the stairs, jumps from a window and finishes the job by landing on a fence-post.
After her death, the boys watch the Lisbon girls seemingly forgetting her - becoming 'normal'. However, their characters take on some disturbing qualities, such as Lux's promiscuity and Mary's attention to her appearance. The boys' fascination grows as they try to fathom their moods; they collect mementoes, such as Cecilia's diary, which help them to understand how the girls think.
Lux begins a closely scrutinised relationship with the universally loved Trip Fontaine, concluding when he and three boys are permitted to take the sisters to the Homecoming Dance. It ends with him leaving Lux alone on the playing field after a desperate bout of lovemaking, whilst the others leave in order to keep their curfew. The results of her disobedience are drastic.
Mrs Lisbon removes the girls from school and imprisons them in the house to keep them safe. Their behaviour becomes more erratic - Lux begins making love on the roof, in full view of the boys. They continually watch the house and are rewarded when the girls leave notes requesting help. Unable to talk to them, they play records that express their feelings over the telephone. Eventually, they arrange to meet the girls and 'rescue' them.
They meet Lux in the living room - she says the others are still packing. Whilst she goes to sit outside in the car, the boys explore the house looking for her sisters. They venture into the room where the party was held. It remains unchanged, apart from one thing - Bonnie is hanging dead from a beam.
The other girls are also dead or dying, with Lux being found last, gassed in her mother's car.
They had brought the boys to share their final moments in order to show them, to make them fully realise, how little they had known and understood them, and that now they never would.
The style in which Jeffrey Eugenides' book is written could be described as syrupy if it weren't so sharp. It's certainly heavy, dream-like and rose-tinted. However, this contrasts nuggets of random black comedy in the form of wry observations, abrupt changes of mood or simple irrelevancies which add to making it seem like a real, remembered account. The descriptions of a none-too-idyllic summer, full of pestilence, is a parallel for the 'poison' which is released with Cecilia's attempt and nurtured by the imprisonment of her sisters - heavy with fumes.
It's also far from sentimental. The narrator cruelly disposes of the girls, simply relating the facts (both pertinent and insignificant) of their deaths in a way which conveys the shock of the discovery. There's a simple statement to the effect that they could not be sure of which order the events happened, followed by a summary of each suicide method and probable sequence. This part of the book is detached but not clinical, implying the endless theorising of those involved and their fruitless search for explanations.
There are plenty of metaphors in the book, most notably the idea that the disease inherent in the season was the cause of, and aggravated by, the original suicide - this 'infected' the rest of the neighbourhood upon the realisation of the girls' deaths. The demise of the area is said to date from the time they - its most glorified and celebrated feature - ended their lives. This is partly because their collective end was not perfect or romantic, but, to some - particularly their Catholic parents - sinful. The boys in adulthood are still somewhat lost and immature - unable to cement relationships, (in Trip's case, divorced and with drug problems) and obsessed with their adoration for what has gone. The neighbourhood, the boys and their ideals, lose all innocence.
The last paragraph of the book is what reveals their now-adult incomprehension and sorrow - how they, with their incomplete memories and fragmentary relics of the girls, will never find a way to resurrect them.
The film, by Sofia Coppola, is a vague, fairy-tale like adaptation of the book, which suits the story exceedingly well. It is shot in a hazy, diffused manner suggesting the boys' fading memories and lack of certain fact about the events. The 1970s setting is perfectly evoked in the style and attitudes displayed, more so than in the book, which although heavily nostalgic, obviously doesn't have the exact visual references. The soundtrack mixes somewhat cheesy but effective 1970s pop such as Heart with instrumental music inspired by the events that occur1. For example, at the end of the story, when the girls are dead and their house being gradually sold off, there is a piece entitled 'Empty House'. The choice of music is obviously meant to fit the ideas within the story, 'Sail Away' by Styx at the dance, for instance. Throughout, there is a melancholy, repeated instrumental theme called 'High School Lover', which functions both to add cohesion and, due to its mournfulness, remind the viewer of what is inevitably going to happen.
The original mood of the book is faithfully retained, particularly in the way it is narrated with excerpts straight from the text by a nameless admirer of the Lisbons. Also, the boys are treated more as a homogeneous group than in the book - their individual accounts are considered less than their collective experience. The predominant 'colour' of the film is a soft-focus amber glow, changing only at the very end to harsh white and putrid green to symbolise both real and metaphorical asphyxiation, pestilence and adulthood.
Opinions on the Film
There has been criticism of the film for lacking a 'plot' because from the first paragraph of the book the girls' ultimate fate is known, and the following story merely a drawn-out chronicling of the events which affected them. The fact that there is no single cause - Cecilia's death, the afflicted trees and their mother's strictness - is also frustrating to some. However, unreason is the true purpose of the story - the boys who knew the Lisbon sisters attempting to find some clue in their collection of memories and relics, which have obsessed them all their lives. Neither version supplies an answer.
The film has also been criticised for portraying girls merely as idealised objects of masculine desire. It is never as crude as that - the boys are immature and awkward compared to the Lisbons, but the girls themselves - although unreachable - are not flawless goddesses. They are at times just as gauche as their lovers, making them less like tragic heroines. This, and the knowledge that they are lost, makes them as intriguing to the audience as to the boys. You have only a short time in which to make sense of them and just like the boys, you find it impossible.
Some have found fault with the way in which the boys are indistinguishable in the film - not even the narrator is portrayed separately - as opposed to their individual (if slight) character development in the book. Although this lessens some characters, they tend to be the ones who were not part of the group (Paul Baldino, for instance). Making them a collective which shares everything and suffers together serves to highlight their obsession (which is their only point of interest; as much a failing as it is effective) and consequently the individual characters of the girls- but also their essential group relationship.
Consequently, The Virgin Suicides is a tragic but irreverently comic story which doesn't make for light entertainment. Don't read, or watch it, if you are not prepared to be slightly obsessed yourself for a few days afterwards. The story does not lack a sense of completion - there are no loose ends, you will leave satisfied - but you will discover the need to supply either your own happier ending or an alternative set of theories. Discarding the usual 'rites of passage' formula for something moving and unattainable, this is an unusual story which provokes sadness, empathy and unease.
Links to Further Information
The Official Virgin Suicides Site with story, pictures, cast list etc.
Air's Official Site with information about the soundtrack.
Numerous fan pages are also available, some of which offer interesting personal interpretations and/or theories.