Stepping on Symbols: Staircases and Symbolism in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
17 March 2013
Symbolically, a staircase often holds significant meaning. In dream analysis, staircases often suggest a journey. If one ascends the stairs that journey is probably positive, hopeful, or purposeful; however, if one descends the stairs that journey might be negative, confusing, or depressing. Moreover, the type of staircase is also important to its symbolic meaning. A traditional staircase is straightforward and suggests an uncomplicated route. Conversely, a spiral, twisted staircase may suggest mystery and disorientation. Lastly, staircases can also be looked at as a link. Literally, a staircase connects two floors. Figuratively, and more vaguely, a staircase is simply a passageway which can unite any two things, places, ideas, or states of being.
Staircases are a frequently used symbol in art, specifically cinema. Narrative film has used the symbolic staircase from its birth, and some of the most famous film scenes are set around or on a set of stairs. Gone with the Wind, for example, captures an iconic movie moment on a staircase, when Rhett Butler restrains Scarlet O’Hara and carries her up Tara’s grand staircase. Alfred Hitchcock frequently used staircases in his films, Vertigo in particular, to build tension and add complication. More overtly, Robert Soidmak’s memorable The Spiral Staircase, starring Dorothy McGuire, is centered on a richly symbolic set of twisted stairs. Even contemporary films, like James Cameron’s Titanic, set significant cinematic moments on or around staircases to enhance a scene’s meaning with this widely used and easily usable symbol.
Clearly understanding the possible value of such a symbol, Sofia Coppola uses a visually striking staircase in her cinematic debut, The Virgin Suicides, and unpacking the possible symbolism in that staircase contributes subtle and significant meaning to her film. The Virgin Suicides is an adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’s 1995 novel of the same title. Set in upper-middle class Detroit in the mid-1970s, the film is a collective reflection of the boys who grew-up in the same neighborhood as the five ethereal Lisbon sisters who all committed suicide. The boys constantly relive the year these five sisters took their lives, remembering how mysterious yet fascinating the Lisbon sisters were: Cecelia (Hanna Hall), Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Bonnie (Chelse Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook), and Therese (Leslie Hayman). First, Cecelia, the youngest, attempted suicide but failed. Shortly after, however, she tried again and succeeded by jumping out her window and impaling herself on the Lisbon’s wrought iron fencing. After that, Mrs. Lisbon’s (Kathleen Turner) overprotective nature intensified and, in the following months, she barely let her four remaining daughters out of the house. Eventually, Mr. Lisbon (James Woods), who is a bit goofy and inattentive, convinced his wife to let his daughters go to a school dance. But, when rebellious Lux stayed out all night with her boyfriend, Tripp (Josh Hartnett), Mrs. Lisbon took her daughters out of school and forced them into isolation, as a way to both punish and (from her mindset) protect her daughters. After weeks of their seclusion and growing despair the girls end their lives, leaving the neighborhood boys who loved them confused and forever shaken by their seemingly senseless actions.
The Lisbon’s staircase is centrally located in their home and is, arguably, the most note-worthy feature of the film’s setting. The staircase is not spiral or traditional; uniquely, it curves toward the top. Therefore, a person is going either up or down the staircase cannot see what he or she will arrive at. Using popular dream analysis and understanding a staircase to symbolize a journey, the Lisbon staircase represents a puzzling and uncertain journey, and on this journey the destination is out of sight and, perhaps, unknown or unreachable.
Moreover, the staircase adds irony to this film, which is already adequately laced with elements of black comedy. Continuing to see the staircase as a symbol for a journey, Coppola juxtaposes travel with being trapped. The girls are not actually on a journey; the girls are trapped in a house, and that is, seemingly, a large part of their problems. Staircases bring one to another place, but there is no other place the girls are allowed to go. This massive staircase right in the middle of the house is representative of everything the girls are restricted from experiencing. The staircase may not be as overtly sarcastic as the asphyxiation party in the film’s conclusion, but it is along the same cynically humorous and ironic line.
Interestingly, Coppola never captures the girls ascending the stairs. However, she does capture a boy walk up the Lisbon’s staircase. Toward the beginning of the film, a boy joins the family for dinner. When he asks to use the bathroom Mrs. Lisbon directs him to the upstairs restroom because the first-floor bathroom is not working properly. Slowly, the boy ascends the stairs and finds himself in what seems like a new world, a dreamlike place. At the top landing, the boy enters Cecelia’s room, which is dimly lit, full of art and decoration, and with shapes and cut outs dangling from the ceiling. There is a surreal quality to this upstairs, which is easily noticed when juxtaposed with the drab and conventional décor of the first-floor where the boy just came from. Even the bathroom, which overflows with femininity (perfumes, lotions, tampons, etc), is a very unusual place in comparison with the rest of the Lisbon home. The boy’s brief visit upstairs is the first time the audience sees the girls’ world, and the way Coppola shows it, through an outsider snooping around in this bizarre new space, helps viewers begin to understand how unique the girls are, and also how isolated. Shortly after his arrival to this surreal place, the boy bolts back down the stairs and out of the house for good.
Just after Cecelia’s death another outsider visits the Lisbon home, Father Moody (Scott Glenn). He, too, ascends the staircase, rather fearfully looking up to see where his twisting journey is taking him. As he walks up, five, immortalized drawings, one for each of the girls, hang on the wall beside the staircase. Although four of the five girls are alive and resting upstairs, the portraits on the wall foreshadow the girls’ deaths, which the audience already knows will happen. Also, and as with the boy, Father Moody enters a surreal world at the top of the stairs, an eerie and unruly dream world inhabited by the four remaining sisters. From his reaction to them, huddled up together on the floor, he is perplexed and appears to suddenly feel he has intruded in their world. Like the boy, he returns downstairs quickly and leaves the house never to return, reversing his journey entirely.
Although Coppola does not show the girls ascend the staircase, she does show them descend the staircase, and that is when they go to their school dance. The girls come down the stairs joyfully; they are excited about the dance, but more so the freedom they are being granted to go out for the night. Yet, reflecting back on dream analysis and the staircase as a symbol, descending stairs is typically foreboding. Descending stairs is symbolic of uncertainty and hopelessness. Again, irony surrounds Coppola’s use of the Lisbon staircase because the girls’ excitement when coming down the stairs foreshadows their demise, even though they themselves are not aware of what is to come. Moreover, the structure of the staircase is also relevant here. The staircase is a journey, but the curvature of that staircase means the girls begin to walk down the stairs unaware of where their journey will end; they had no way of knowing their night out at the dance would ultimately lead to such instance seclusion that they would all end their own lives.
In a later scene Lux descends the staircase alone, following her mother to the first floor. She is being punished for not coming home the night of the dance and now, visibly upset, must burn all her records in the family’s fireplace. This is the last time any of the girls are seen descending the stairs, and this time the overtly depressing tone is not at all ironic, but still undoubtedly symbolic, as it foreshadows the inevitable deaths of these sisters. Lugging the box of records like shackles, Lux continues on her journey, lower and lower into her despair.
Coppola’s use of symbolism, specifically through the Lisbon’s staircase, adds a layer of complexity to The Virgin Suicides. The curving shape of the stairs she uses suggests mysterious and uncertain journeys; the girls are on one journey, and the boys who cannot forget them are on a separate but equally hopeless journey. The outsiders who dare ascend the stairs allow the audience to peek into the girls’ surreal world that is strange and rather unexplainable, as the stairs link what is real and what is surreal in The Virgin Suicides. Moreover, the girls’ decent down the stairs reflects their complicated, confusing, and, at times, ironic circumstance, but clearly communicates their dire state. The staircase is a strong, complicated visual symbol in Coppola’s films that subtly builds meaning into what the narrator himself admits to be an unresolved and unsolvable story.