Sophia Coppola's alternately dreamy and unsettling film about five suburban sisters who all mysteriously kill themselves (the voice-over tells you as much in the first five minutes) casts a witchy spell that lingers like drugstore perfume on a hot day. Beautifully adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides' icily perfect novel (perhaps the best, if not only, work of fiction narrated exclusively in the first-person plural), the 1970s-set film is constructed as the collective memory … mehrof the neighbourhood boys who worshipped the beautiful Lisbon girls, blonde sylph-like teen siblings whose beauty and self-destruction still haunts and perplexes the narrators, now grown men.
Why did they do it? Maybe because their Catholic mother (Kathleen Turner, magnificently clenched) locked them all up when near-youngest daughter Lux (the exquisite Kirsten Dunst) stayed out all night after the prom. Maybe it was due to a kind of pubertal feminine hysteria, set off by the first suicide of the youngest daughter Cecilia. Maybe they were infected by a more general malaise (the film fairly teams with images of dying elm trees, infested lakes and fetid nastiness). Or maybe they will just never know what it's like, in the words of Cecilia, to be a 13-year-old girl.
Coppola has a canny eye for 1970s kitsch and the tawdry, touching magic totems of girlhood (tampons, bright bikinis, half-used make-up) and coaxes terrific deadpan performances both from the younger cast and the veterans. (James Woods as the nerdy Lisbon patriarch is as delightfully cast against type as Turner.) For all the languid gloom, there is great wit in the observation of 1970s decor and playful touches abound: airbrushed flashbacks like vintage Timotei commercials; inserts to reveal Lux has the name of her date magic markered on her knickers; teeth and eyes that sparkle unnaturally with post-production tricks. The soundtrack hits just the right wistful ironic note with a mix of period tunes by Todd Rungren, Gilbert O'Sullivan and the like, complemented by the electronica of French pop band Air (whose standalone efforts for the film are also available on a separate CD. A film as unforgettable as first love. --Leslie Felperin weniger