Based on the 1993 best selling debut novel of the same name by American author Jeffrey Eugenides, the film tells of the lives of five teenage sisters in a middle-class suburb near the outskirts of Detroit during the 1970s. After the youngest sister makes an initial attempt at suicide, her sisters are put under close scrutiny by their parents, eventually being confined to the home, which leads to their increasingly depressive and isolated behavior. Like the novel, the film is told from the perspective of a group of adolescent boys in the neighborhood who are fascinated by the girls.
Shot in 1998 in Toronto, the film was director Sofia Coppola's debut feature. It features an original score by the French electronic band Air. The film premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, and received a limited theatrical release on April 21, 2000 in the United States, later expanding to a wide release in May 2000. It was met with largely positive critical reception, with both the performances and Coppola's direction receiving note. The film marked the beginning of a working relationship between Coppola and star Dunst, whom Coppola would cast as the lead in several films in the following years.
In the suburbs of Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the mid-1970s, a group of neighborhood boys — now grown men — reflect upon their memories of the five Lisbon sisters, ages 13 to 17. Unattainable due to their Catholic and overprotective parents, math teacher Ronald and his homemaker wife, the girls — Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia — are an enigma that fill the boys' conversations and dreams.
During the summer, the youngest sister, Cecilia, slits her wrist in a bathtub, but survives. After her parents allow her sisters to throw a chaperoned basement party intended to make her feel better, she excuses herself and jumps out of her second story bedroom window, dying when she is impaled on an iron fence below. In the wake of her act, the Lisbon parents watch over their four remaining daughters even more closely. This further isolates the family from the community and heightens the air of mystery surrounding the girls; to the neighborhood boys in particular.
At the beginning of the new school year in the fall, Lux forms a secret and short-lived romance with Trip Fontaine, the school heartthrob. Trip comes over one night to the Lisbon residence in hopes of getting closer to Lux and watches television with the family. Trip persuades Mr. Lisbon to allow him to take Lux to the upcoming Homecoming Dance by promising to provide dates for the other sisters. After winning king and queen, Trip persuades Lux to ditch the group and have sex on the football field. Afterwards, Lux falls asleep, and Trip abandons her. At dawn, Lux wakes up alone and has to take a taxi home.
Having broken curfew, Lux and her sisters are punished by a paranoid Mrs. Lisbon by being taken out of school. Unable to leave the house, the sisters contact the boys across the street by using light signals and sharing songs over the phone.
During this time, Lux rebels against her repression and becomes overtly promiscuous, having anonymous sexual encounters on the roof of her house late at night; the neighborhood boys spy from across the street. After weeks of confinement, the sisters leave a note for the boys. When the boys arrive that night, they find Lux alone in the living room, smoking a cigarette. She invites them inside to wait for her sisters, while she goes to start the car.
Curious, the boys wander into the basement after hearing a noise and discover Bonnie's body hanging from the ceiling rafters. Horrified, they rush back upstairs only to stumble across the body of Mary in the kitchen. The boys realize that the girls had all killed themselves in an apparent suicide pact: Bonnie hanged herself; Mary died by putting her head in the gas oven; Therese overdosed on sleeping pills; and Lux died of carbon monoxide poisoning after she left the car engine running in the garage.
Devastated by the suicides, Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon leave the neighborhood. Mr. Lisbon has a friend clean out the house and sell off the family belongings in a yard sale. Whatever didn't sell was put in the trash, including the family photos, which the neighborhood boys collect as mementos. The house is sold to a young couple from the Boston area. The adults in the community go about their lives as if nothing happened. The men acknowledge that they had loved the girls, and that they will never know why the sisters took their lives.
Coppola wrote the script for the film in 1998 after the project was already greenlit at another studio, adapting it from the source novel, of which she was a fan. Another script had already been written by Nick Gomez, but the production company that owned the rights at the time, Muse Productions, were dissatisfied with the script. After the rights to the novel lapsed, Coppola pitched her manuscript to Muse executives Roberta and Chris Hanley, the latter of whom signed on to co-produce. Coppola was inspired to write the film after reading the source novel: "I really didn't know I wanted to be a director until I read The Virgin Suicides and saw so clearly how it had to be done," she said. "I immediately saw the central story as being about what distance and time and memory do to you, and about the extraordinary power of the unfathomable."
Kathleen Turner was the first actor to sign on to the project, playing the Lisbon girls' oppressive mother; Turner had known Coppola after they co-starred together in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). James Woods was cast opposite Turner as the passive father; Woods was given the script by Coppola's father, Francis, and was so impressed by the script and the character's "dark humor" that he agreed to play the role. For the part of Lux, Coppola auditioned numerous actress, but had a "gut choice" of Kirsten Dunst, who was sixteen years old at the time of her casting. Reflecting on the role, Dunst said: "I was nervous. It was my first role that was more of a 'sexy' thing. I was also unsure about how large the role was gonna be, because a lot of it was without dialogue. When I met Sofia, I immediately knew that she would handle it in a delicate way... [she] really bought out the luminous aspect of the girls; she made them like ethereal angels, almost like they weren't really there."
The Virgin Suicides was filmed in 1999 in Toronto, Ontario, standing in for suburban Detroit, Michigan, on a reported budget of USD$6 million. The shoot lasted roughly one month.
Coppola was inspired by photographer Takashi Homma's photos of suburban Japan when choosing the filming locations; "I have always been struck by the beauty of banal details," she said, "and that is what suburban style is all about." The film's occasional use of stills and collages was intended to evoke the "fantasia" of adolescence. Cinematographer Edward Lachman shot the film. Coppola's brother, Roman, was the second-unit director on the film.
In addition to original score composed for the film by Air, the film features songs by 1970s-era performers and five tracks from the 1990s by Sloan. Sofia Coppola wanted to convey the theme of adolescence in the suburbs in the soundtrack. She found that Air shared many of her suburban memories and experiences even though they grew up in a different country. A separate soundtrack album was released featuring music from Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, Boston, Heart, Sloan, The Hollies, Al Green, Gilbert O'Sullivan, 10cc, Styx, and two tracks by Air (one previously recorded; one composed for the film).
Mentioned in the credits (chronologically):
The film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 1999. It was given a limited release in the United States almost a year later on April 21, 2000. The theatrical release would expand to a wide release in May 2000.
The Virgin Suicides received mostly positive reviews from film critics, though some noted the film's discomforting thematic material. It holds a 76% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 95 reviews, with a weighted average of 6.9/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Sofia's successful directorial debut lies in the movie's compelling story and the actors' genuine emotions." On Metacritic, the film holds a rating of 76 out of 100, based on 31 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Jeffrey Eugenides visited the set of the film for three days. He supports the film, but he did offer a few critiques in an interview with "Dazed". Eugenides envisioned the girls as more of an entity than actual people; he believes this idea could have been accomplished by casting different actresses to play the same character with each actress changing depending on whom they are speaking to.
Graham Fuller of The New York Times gave the film a middling review, writing: "Ms. Coppola has made [...] a haunting metaphysical celebration of adolescence with the aura of a myth. Yet, on the surface, there is something wrong with this picture: how can a film in which a quintet of apparently normal girls commit suicide possibly be a celebration, and why would a filmmaker attempt to make it so unless she is uncommonly perverse?" Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times gave the film a positive review, unanimously praising Coppola's direction, the cast, and the production design, but also noted that while the film "is successfully venturesome... you need to know that it's also a real downer." Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, and positively compared it to Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): "[Coppola] has the courage to play it in a minor key," he notes. "She doesn't hammer home ideas and interpretations. She is content with the air of mystery and loss that hangs in the air like bitter poignancy."
Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine noted the film's dreamy, childlike nature, writing: "The narrator speaks of youth as if it existed and still exists in a near-fugue state. In this respect, the film is as much a relevant view of adolescence and male/female relations as it is an act of remembrance. Scenes from the film (first kisses, gossiping about neighbors) are sinewy in nature and seem lifted from the pages of a lost photo album." Critic Richard Crouse called the film "one of those rare occasions when a film surpasses the book it is based on," and included it in his book The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen (2003).
The film was released on VHS and DVD through Paramount Home Video on December 19, 2000.