The Virgin Suicides: On Controlling The Narrative
The Virgin Suicides (2000), directed by Sofia Coppola, begs the question: who is in control of the narrative of the five Lisbon sisters? The boys who recount the story of their deaths? Their parents, particularly their mother, who is increasingly overbearing after Cecelia’s death? The girls themselves, through their suicide? The movie implies that, despite the attempts of others to control the narrative of the girls’ lives and later their deaths, the girls themselves ultimately take control, at least of their lives, even if they cannot control how people view their deaths. One scene that stands out strongly as evidence of the girls being in control of their own narrative is when they protect their youngest sister Cecelia’s tree close to the end of the film (1:11:15-1:13:32). This scene foreshadows their decision to ultimately commit suicide.
The sound of this scene largely comes from chainsaws, which in being loud and intimidating immediately puts viewers on edge, poised to fear for the girls’ safety as the anticipation and dread of Cecelia’s tree getting cut down looms. The camera, and by extension the editing, shifts from close-ups of the girls to the conversations of others about the girls’, where the girls’ actions are given narrative without ever consulting them for their intentions. This mirrors the struggle for control over the girl’s lives and the story of their lives.
The mise-en-scene shows the girls are all wearing their nightgowns, which is what Cecelia was wearing when she jumped from her window at the beginning of the film. This foreshadows their decision to commit suicide at the end, mirroring Cecelia’s suicide. When the reporter shows up ready to spin their protection of Cecelia’s tree for her own narrative means, the girls stop protecting it, physically escaping from having their motivations, their narrative, told by someone else, a way of taking back control.
The scene ends with a shot of four trees scheduled for removal, after the Cecelia’s tree has been saved for the time being. These four trees are stand-ins for the four remaining sisters. Cecelia’s tree has been saved, as the girls’ prevent the landscaper from cutting it down, and he leaves the family with the words, “I leave that tree there – then they’ll all be gone by next year.” This image of the remaining trees coupled with the landscaper’s words foreshadows that the four remaining sisters, Lux, Mary, Bonnie, and Therese, will soon follow Cecelia; much like the rest of the trees will follow the first and succumb to disease. Their plan has been set in motion from the time the tree is rescued. By rescuing the tree, they hold on to the past and to their grief. It is Cecelia’s death that ultimately encourages the rest of the sisters to follow her in commiting suicide as the only way out they see to their lives. The scene then transitions to a time lapse of leaves falling off trees with Cecelia’s tree at the edge of the frame, a presence with now more ominous consequences. The tree has been left standing, and with it, its potential to take down the other trees too. Rather than simply preserving the memory of their sister, the tree stands for an idealization of the way she killed herself.
Ultimately, the girls control the narrative of their death and they control their escape. From saving the tree onwards they are orchestrating the ways their bodies will be found by the boys; controlling their deaths in a way they could not control their lives. They are controlling their lives by denying anyone else control over them. They are taking control of their narrative in the only way they feel they have left because every other option, such as running away from home, still leaves them vulnerable to the control of others.
Works Cited:Coppola, Sofia, director. The Virgin Suicides. 2000.