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Faulty Memories of the Lisbon Sisters: Growing Sideways in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides

The male characters of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides aspire to exhume answers that are seemingly locked within their imprecise memories to explain the tragedy of the Lisbon girls. In her essay, “Growing Sideways,” Kathryn Bond Stockton grapples with many of the ideas surrounding childhood and time that both the boys and Lisbon sisters confront. […]

The male characters of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides aspire to exhume answers that are seemingly locked within their imprecise memories to explain the tragedy of the Lisbon girls. In her essay, “Growing Sideways,” Kathryn Bond Stockton grapples with many of the ideas surrounding childhood and time that both the boys and Lisbon sisters confront. Stockton asserts that all children are queer, and that queer children never grow up, but instead “[grow] sideways” (296). The former claim finds its roots in Stockton’s idea of childhood being entirely distinct from adulthood since, “for the child to be born […], adulthood must be seen as a wholly different state” (296). Children may never grow up in the linear manner, but may only “grow sideways” and broaden their identities within the narrow delineation of the state of childhood. Children thereby embody a “species of strangeness” due to the distinct states of childhood and adulthood. They can only widen in their sideways growth, but they remain “queer” or odd in the way that their elders regard them (Stockton 282). Through their male onlookers, the Lisbon sisters embody the concepts of both “sideways growth” and “strangeness” not only because of their ages, but also as an unfortunate outcome of the manner in which the boys perceive them.

The neighborhood boys of Coppola’s film find themselves stuck ruminating over the short lives of the Lisbon sisters. The youngest of the five girls, Cecilia, attempts to kill herself through slitting her wrists. This event incites a series of tragedies, wherein Cecilia eventually commits suicide and the other sisters follow in an apparent pact (Coppola). One of the teenage boys (representing his friend group as a whole) narrates the film as an adult man and explains their lives based on his memories of the sisters and the evidence he and his friends have amassed. He states that “as teenagers…[they] tried to put the pieces together,” and yet they “still can’t” manage to accomplish this (Virgin Suicides Script). Now, as adults, he and his friends find themselves in an endless cycle of “going over the evidence” of the girls’ in order “to understand [them]” (Virgin Suicides Script). Coppola represents this process through the narration. This device illuminates the idea of estrangement through memory because the narration divides the reflection and exposition from the action that occurs on screen.

Another rift develops through the aging of the narrator: the boys explore the tragedy while it actually happens, but even as they grow into adults they continue to re-evaluate the evidence “whenever [they] run into each other at lunches or parties” (Virgin Suicides Script). Their aging forces them to investigate the girls at a time further and further away from the actual time in which the tragedy took place. Coppola’s choice of an adult male narrator underscores two temporal schisms: the separation between action and description, and the separation from the narrator as he retroactively explores memory. These fractures provide a fixed space in which the girls may “grow sideways” as the boys’ ability to understand their evidence is limited by only being able to revisit the events as the distance in time only increases. The girls evolve as a “species of strangeness” in the liminal space between these two impressions as the distance between them and the narrator broadens and retrospection becomes increasingly vital. Their “queerness” then magnifies as the boys must attempt more vigorously with every subsequent trip into their memories to understand the girls, given the widening divide between them.

After Cecillia’s first suicide attempt, a psychiatrist recommends to her parents that she spend more time with boys her own age in order for her to obtain a “social outlet” (Virgin Suicides Script).  Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, hoping to provide this for Cecilia, host a party for her and the other sisters at their residence. The girls invite the neighborhood boys, including the narrator. Coppola centers the entire scene around the perspective of a party guest (presumably that of the narrator). She interweaves quick shots of the different conversations occurring at the party. This style situates viewers within the distracting nature of parties by never allowing the audience to remain stuck in one area or conversation, which illustrates how the narrator likely perceived the event when he attended as a teenager. Noticeably absent from his view, however, is Cecilia. Coppola only offers audiences glimpses of her sitting alone somberly in the corner, even though the event is in her honor. It is not until the girls and boys crowd around Cecilia and Joe, a local boy with down syndrome, that the narrator refocuses his attention upon her.  She looks clearly upset by the other kids’ mocking Joe, and she asks her mother to “be excused” from the party (Virgin Suicides Script). Cecilia then recedes up the stairwell, metamorphosing into a shadowy figure on the wall, after which she promptly kills herself . Through avoiding fixation upon Cecilia, Coppola emphasizes the faultiness of memory given the limits of attention. Even though Cecilia’s behavior at the party precipitates everything that follows in the film, the narrator barely notices her because he could not foresee what she would do when he actually attended as a young boy. He did not know to observe Cecillia and study her behavior that night, and the narrator can only recognize this in retrospect now that he knows that she would choose to commit suicide. Coppola then deliberately depicts Cecilia fading into the shadows as she advances to her death to illuminate his current obsession as an adult male. Since he neglected to watch Cecilia throughout the event, the narrator imports extra significance into those of Cecillia’s actions that he did observe at the party (as indicated by the intensity of the shadows as she walks upstairs). He subsequently forces that moment to “grow sideways” as an adult in order to justify what he declined to observe in favor of the moments he did witness and can, as a result, excavate meaning from; so, Cecilia’s “queerness” heightens as the narrator can never decode what he did not see. The spectre of those moments continues to haunt him, leaving him to ponder what he and the other boys failed to recognize, positioning Cecilia and her sisters forever within the world of the mysterious and strange.

Coppola continues her play with time and memory through her application of time-lapse photography. These videos, interspersed throughout the film, illustrate the narrator’s recollections of how time passed while the Lisbon sisters lived. For instance, after the parents confine the remaining Lisbon girls to the prison of their home, Coppola portrays its exterior lights turning on and off, weather changes, and the sun rising and setting, which characterizes the passage of time. These shots convey how time moves quickly when the boys cannot pay attention to the girls or interact with them. Time-lapses thereby represent actual lapses within the narrator’s recollection, which he must speed through in order to revisit his fuller memories. This distortion of time forces the girls to “grow sideways” within those moments that the narrator can recall (and therefore add importance to); it also displaces the girls irrevocably for those moments that he cannot recover. This “queers” the sisters as they wander through time in the boys’ memory: clearly at the forefront in some moments and warped or lost in others.

Coppola suggests the subjectivity of memory through her exploration of temporal rifts, attention, and the perversion of time. Through these three facets of memory, the boys find themselves left with gaps and areas of obsession that they must negotiate as adults: the girls “grow sideways” within the limited capacity of these mediations as the men continue to excavate clues from what they know, and justify the inconsequentiality of what they cannot. This cycle depicted in Coppola’s film expands upon Stockton’s notion of “growing sideways” through delegating that growth to the perceiver, rather than the people who cannot grow linearly given their queerness (and deaths, in the case of the Lisbon sisters). The girls expand through the boys’ examination of them within the impressions of memory and time. Nonetheless, since the men will “never find the pieces to put them back together,” the girls embody the ultimate “species of strangeness”: queered through the retroactive scrutiny of adult men who cannot possibly satisfy the voids in their distorted memory, thereby commanding the girls to traverse it forever (Virgin Suicides Script).

 

Works Cited

Coppola, Sofia, dir. The Virgin Suicides. Paramount Pictures, 2000. Digital file.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. “Growing Sideways, or Versions of the Queer Child: The Ghost, the Homosexual, the Freudian, the Innocent, and the Interval of Animal.” Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children, Edited by Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, 2004, pp. 277-317.

“Virgin Suicides Script – Dialogue Transcript.” Drew’s Script-O-Rama. 2020. http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/v/virgin-suicides-script-transcript.html. Accessed October 18 2020.

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