Death comes suddenly, forcing us to sift through the pieces looking for warning signs or ways we can blame ourselves for not stopping it. That's even more true of suicide - regardless of the notes and messages left behind, the blog posts and letters to loved ones, there's still a mournful enigma surrounding someone's willful exit from existence.
Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides approaches contagious depression and inexplicable suicide from a dreamlike outsider's perspective. Coppola's lens looks through the eyes and hearts and minds of a handful of young boys who romanticize the mysterious Lisbon sisters - there's Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese, their introductions accompanied by girly journalistic scribblings, their existence defined by their unknowability - their deaths defined by the same.
Cecilia, the youngest, is described as "a dreamer, someone out of touch with reality," but perhaps her dreams were all too real. The Lisbon girls are kept like delicate birds, held hostage in a cage of repression by their well-meaning, straight-laced parents, who worship at an outdated altar of social propriety. The only friends the Lisbon girls have are themselves, and as all sisters develop a secret language, so do the Lisbons, who share loaded glances and hopeful giggles that betray their desire for something more than this world could ever give.
Depression is a contagion, and it begins with Cecilia, whose failed suicide attempt gives way to a shockingly successful one, hurling herself from the second story window onto the rigid iron gate protecting her perfect family's perfect home. We can hardly fault the Lisbon parents - they are not aware of the ways in which their strict impositions contribute to the suffocation of their daughters. Cecilia's death disperses into the heavy air of the Lisbon home, the virus of her depression becoming airborne and infecting everyone who inhales it.
But contagion denotes aggression, like a malignant tumor - Cecilia's death is like an imposing wave that breaks just before the moment of impact, washing warmly and gently over the Lisbons and beaching them on an empty shore.
Depression is enigmatic and holds its own special allure, particularly to an outsider who can't possibly understand why or how someone could be so sad. The boys looking in on the girls see a delicate beauty just beyond their grasp; where the psychology of women eludes young men, the inner workings of the Lisbon girls are doubly elusive. We look into their home and wonder what could possibly make them want to escape so badly that they need to die: they have good parents in a normal home where they are well-fed and cared for, but suicide makes the least amount of sense to everyone else but the person who is suffering.
It's not about what the Lisbon girls have; it's about what they don't. Their innate, developing sexuality is repressed, and it makes sense that Cecilia would be the first to go. At the age of 13, she is entering young womanhood and her emotions are more heightened than the others. Her death reminds them of what they're missing, the outlets they don't have.
The more the Lisbons rein their girls in, the more prolific the mystery surrounding the sisters becomes. Lux becomes the youngest in the house, and after being courted seriously by school dreamboat Trip Fontaine, she loses her virginity to him on the football field, only to wake in the morning and find him gone - the dew on the grass reflecting a delicacy that no longer exists. He got what he wanted; Trip pried open the mysterious box and found something typical, cheapening what Lux regarded as special and singular, robbing her of value and sending her down a reactionary path of sexual flings.
To the boys across the street, death comes suddenly to the Lisbon house, and although we view their story from the perspective of these desperate, good-hearted young men, the Lisbon girls did not arrive at their ultimate conclusion without careful consideration. You could hardly call their deaths untimely - they were perfectly timed, the boys invited to witness as the closest thing to best friends and confidantes the girls ever had. The very enforced nature of the boys' distance reinforces their reverence of the girls; to really know them would diminish the mystery and rob the girls of their power.
Self-destruction is as enigmatic and elusive as depression itself, and Coppola's film isn't interested in why or even how, but in those incomprehensible, dreamlike qualities - depression has its own special allure; we are attracted to it because we don't understand it, just as the boys are attracted to the Lisbon girls because they cannot understand them. In this way, the girls are the collective embodiment of depression itself, a living manifestation of that which we will never - but so desperately want to - understand.
By committing suicide they transcend life, and like the deaths of all those who are adored, they hang over the lives of these boys forever. "Everyone dated the demise of our neighborhood from the suicide of the Lisbon girls" - that opening narration becomes incredibly apt in the final act, not just to Coppola's fictional narrative, but the narrative of living itself. We learn to tell time by the passing of those we love, their deaths acting as landmarks along the timeline of our lives.
Grief is inherently selfish, which is why we view the lives and deaths of the Lisbon girls through the eyes of those most affected by it. They had nothing but each other and their own sadness, making their deaths an act of self-preservation rather than destruction.