The Virgin Suicides
With this debut feature, Sofia Coppola announced her singular vision, which explores the aesthetics of femininity while illuminating the interior lives of young women. A faithful adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s popular first novel, The Virgin Suicides conjures the ineffable melancholy of teenage longing and ennui in its story of the suicides of the five Lisbon sisters, stifled by the rules of their overprotective religious parents—as told through the collective memory of a group of boys who yearn to understand what happened. Evoking its 1970s suburban setting through ethereal cinematography by Ed Lachman and an atmospheric score by Air, the film secured a place for its director in the landscape of American independent cinema and has become a coming-of-age touchstone.
Sofia Coppola’s debut feature The Virgin Suicides makes its way into the Criterion Collection, presented here on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a new 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Criterion’s presentation differs from Paramount’s original DVD in a few ways though I think it is all for the better. Outside of the aspect ratio (which was 1.78:1 on the DVD) the most notable change are the colours, which are a bit more intense here. Coppola incorporates colour filters onto a number of scenes, like blue or green, or oranges on some fantasy segments, and they were evident on the DVD but seem far more obvious here. Even the more naturalistic (though notably warmer) scenes seem more intense. But the colours do look wonderful, with astounding saturation, delivering some bold reds, blues, and greens. Black levels are also incredible, rich and deep without crushing out details in the shadows. The image here looks so much more lively and vivid here.
The level of clarity is also surprising. Close-ups look wonderful but the biggest surprise is found in the long shots, which still allow the tiniest details to come through. The film is fairly grainy but the grain looks completely natural and clean. It’s superbly rendered helping in the sharp, filmic look we get in the end. Though some stylistic choices offer some intentional print damage, or a drop in overall quality (some fantasy moments look more like home movies) there isn’t a blemish to speak of. In all this is an astounding looking presentation that clearly bests Paramount’s DVD.
The 5.1 soundtrack—upgraded here to DTS-HD MA—doesn’t sound all the different in terms of mix but the quality is noticeably better. The film has an ethereal quality to its sound design through its use of sound with the score by Air enhancing that effect. The music and effects move effortlessly between the speakers, dancing around the viewer, and I found some of these effects more distinct here in comparison to the DVD’s track. Dialogue is razor sharp and the 70s music that pops up is dynamic and loud (especially Heart’s “Crazy on You” during the Dunst/Hartnett make-out scene). It’s, at heart, a quiet and reflective film, but it has a surprisingly robust mix here.
Paramount gave the film a modest little special edition (at a time when the studio wasn’t all that concerned about supplements) but Criterion unsurprisingly bests it in this area as well. The big addition is a 26-minute reflective making-of called Revisiting “The Virgin Suicides”, featuring new interviews with director Sofia Coppola, actors Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett, and cinematographer Ed Lachman. Lachman doesn’t get a lot of screen time, his comments limited mostly to his thoughts on Coppola as a director and how they captured the final look, while the rest of the piece is evenly distributed between the other participants. The film interestingly sounds to have come about almost by accident for Coppola, who adapted the book to a screenplay for fun after hearing there was already a film version of the novel in the works. It sounds as though she did it just to see if she could do it, and help visualize how she would adapt the book herself. Despite no interest in becoming a director she ended up sort of falling into the project after the previous efforts to adapt it fell apart. From here she explains the themes she focused on from the novel, shifting its focus a bit, and how she adapted specific visuals from the novel that stuck with her (a half-eaten sandwich on the stairs gets mentioned a few times in the supplements on this release). The two actors talk about their characters, each other (Hartnett admired Dunst’s keen understanding of the film, something he feels he lacked at the time), and recall some humourous moments (Hartnett comments a bit on his wig in the film and even mentions his character’s introduction helped him land his role in Pearl Harbor). It seems a bit short, and it’s a shame that Kathleen Turner and James Woods didn’t/couldn’t participate, but it’s a worthwhile feature.
The novel’s author, Jeffrey Eugenides, next pops up to talk about the adaptation and share his thoughts on it and what it’s like, as an author, to see your work put up on the screen. I get the sense authors usually dislike seeing their work adapted (the changes grate them) though Eugenides realizes the two mediums are different and that differences will happen, especially when it is being filtered through the director; he likens a film adaptation to the “dream” a novel would have. He makes interesting comments on what a film adaptation does for the original source, like how once a film comes out any future readers will more than likely picture the actors in the film as the respective characters in the book, but the film and novel are still very much separate. His influences for the novel come up (not surprisingly the characters in here are based on actual people) and he comments on the film, its differences, and what he admires about it (he was a big fan of Hartnett, whom he feels embodied Trip Fontaine to an incredible degree). Eugenides appears briefly in an archival feature on here, mentioning a few of the same things but I found this a very engaging and perceptive discussion on adaptations from the author’s perspective.
A bit of a surprise is a video discussion with writer and Rookie editor Tavi Gevinson. The film (and the novel) had a huge impact on Gevinson when she first saw it in the eighth grade and then in 2012 she made her own little Fanzine about it (in the day of the internet she felt a physical item, typed up and complete with photos, suit the nostalgic nature of the film). Between reading passages from it, where she cemented a lot of her feelings and thoughts on the film, she talks about the film on an incredibly personal level, how she felt it captured what she was going through and the themes that resonated with here, along with the imagery (that sandwich gets mentioned here as well). I was disappointed initially when the supplements suggested a lack of academic material but this fills in the gap nicely. The feature turned out to be pleasant surprise and probably the best supplement on here, despite the fairly short 13-minute runtime.
Coppola’s 1998 short film Lick the Star also appears. The 14-minute film does work a bit as a lead-up to The Virgin Suicides, the young director seeming to find her voice and to see whether she can actually pull off making a movie. It focuses on a group of girls and a plan to get back (I guess) at the boys in the school, though it uses this fairly dark plot (it involves rat poison) to instead look at the politics and/or resentments that come up in various groups/cliques at school, which leads to the group turning on the “leader.” The film is a bit rough but still assuredly made, containing that same ghostly quality found in The Virgin Suicides, though in black and white. Impressively, outside of some minor mold stains, this has also been thoroughly restored and looks shockingly good here.
The rest of the on-disc supplements are carry-overs from the Paramount DVD. The 23-minute Making of “The Virgin Suicides” is here, which is a better-than-average making-of, made by Sofia Coppola’s mother, Eleanor. James Woods and Kathleen Turner show up here, with Woods obviously enamored by both the film and the young director, and we also get footage of Eugenides and Hartnett talking about Trip. Also here is the music video for Air’s “Playground Love”, directed by Sofia and Ramon Coppola, and it’s the best video I’ve seen about a chewed up piece of gum looking for love (it also fakes behind-the-scene footage of the production). 2 trailers close the disc and the included insert features an excellent essay by Megan Abbott on Coppola’s directorial debut and the adaptation from the book.
Seeing the supplements as originally listed I was a little disappointed Criterion didn’t go all out on this, but the supplements are all good, elevated exponentially by the addition Gevinson’s feature. It’s a pretty solid set of features.
A really wonderful upgrade, sporting a fantastic presentation and an excellent set of features. Highly recommended.