The Virgin Suicides: The most 1999 film of 1999 is even more persuasive now than it was on release

Sofia Coppola’s beautiful debut film, restored to 4K quality, returns us to a time when the world had no clue what was coming

Sofia Coppola understands the neighbourhood’s indecent obsession with the sisters and does her best to have us join in
The Virgin Suicides
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Director: Sofia Coppola
Cert: 15A
Starring: James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Hartnett, Scott Glenn, Danny DeVito
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins

In one respect, Sofia Coppola’s debut film summons up reminders of John Schlesinger’s take on Far from the Madding Crowd. Both were period pieces. The Hardy adaptation looks back nearly a century. Coppola’s film takes us to suburban Detroit in the mid-1970s. What links them now – no offence intended – is the way they summon up the period in which they were made so much more potently than the period in which they were set. There is no more evocative image of the mid-1960s than Julie Christie staring kohl-eyed, tousled-haired at the space between Terence Stamp’s Carnaby Street sideburns.

And The Virgin Suicides? We must thank Barbenheimer for so alarming distributors that, in the week after its triumph, new releases ran screaming to clear space for this 4K restoration of the most 1999 film of 1999. A party of men ponder the eerie story of five sisters who came to an unfortunate end in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, during the Ford administration. Raised by domineering Catholic parents (the now-dreamy combination of James Woods and Kathleen Turner), the girls take on the quality of unknowable sirens. The mist hardly lifts when Cecilia (Hanna R Hall), one of the sisters, survives a suicide attempt and causes the parents to open up just a little to the surrounding community.

It is a beautiful film that, despite its occasional drifty quality, has, as Stephanie Zacharek wrote on release, a “clear-eyed precision” in its selection of images. The film-maker understands the neighbourhood’s indecent obsession with the sisters and does her best to have us join in. Like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, it is half in love with mysterious doom. The Virgin Suicides doesn’t just stand up. It seems even more persuasive than on release.

But, my word, it wafts the scent of 1999 about the place. The film settles on an undecided tone that, there throughout the decade, peaked as the nervy west shuffled towards the millennium. It is based on a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Sofia Coppola herself could, in manner and appearance, hardly be a more convincing avatar of mid-Gen X finally finding purpose. It stars the rising Kirsten Dunst. It has a score by Air, for Pete’s sake. Air! Allow that French band to waft you back to a time when the world, to a greater extent than usual, had not a clue what was coming down the pipe.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist