Heists and high-fashion coalesce in Sofia Coppola's subtle and intricate take on teen boredom and victimless crime.
Try to imagine the protagonists of a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller sitting down to watch Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. It would only take a few frames for them to be quietly weeping under their Homburgs as the painstaking art of safecracking and jewel theft is rendered utterly obsolete. In the heist movies of yore, weeks, months, even years, would’ve been dedicated to prepping — physically and psychologically — for these assiduous, must-win capers. Yet Coppola invites us to a world in which robbery is something you slot in between Frappuccinos. It was a profession. Now it’s a sport.
Based on Nancy Jo Sayles’ juicy Vanity Fair longread entitled 'The Suspects Wore Louboutins', The Bling Ring is a scintillating and snappy true crime saga that descends partly from the tradition of Truman Capote’s 'In Cold Blood', and partly from Kenneth Anger’s tittle-tattle scandal compendium, 'Hollywood Babylon'. Mix in the usual dash of Fellini, some Sex And The City and even a bit of Spring Breakers, and you’re almost there. The film it’s most similar to is Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, particularly in its glassy-eyed view of modern teen disillusionment.
It tells of a group of affluent, hedonistic LA teens who one evening notice that society heiress Paris Hilton is out of town hosting a party. So they find her address online and then proceed to loot her house. They cherry pick the best gear and assuage their (very mild) guilt by reminding themselves that Hilton has far too much swag to notice the odd missing pair of fluffy-cuffs. And besides, she leaves her keys under the doormat, so she’s essentially asking for it.
The film is dedicated to cinematographer Harris Savides who died during production and was replaced by Christopher Blauvelt. Yet Savides’ distinctive visual formulations and exacting experiments with light and framing remain. One particularly impressive set piece chronicles a twilight robbery in a single creeping long shot allowing us to monitor the movements of the characters through the glass and steel façade of this ornamental structure. The film’s most haunting moment arrives via a slo-mo portrait of quasi-psychotic ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) as she gleams blankly into a mirror while modelling a pair of oversized sun-glasses.
Israel Broussard’s Marc is the lone male of the gang, and though it initially appears that he falls into this clique simply as a way to make friends, Coppola connotes his behaviour as being a little fruity. He lies on his bed in neon orange stilettos while spending much of his downtime image-consulting for tramp-stamped harridan Nicki (Emma Watson) and her sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). The performances here are not what you’d call world-beating, but they’re strong enough to carry Coppola’s message of discontent.
What begins as a playful stunt turns into a nasty habit, much like the drugs the gang begin to hoover up as their haul increases exponentially. More people tag along, desperate to confirm the social media boasts of their ever-more á la mode compadres. Their stings are the pinnacle of unprofessional folly and their eventual capture a mere formality. They compare their deeds to those of Bonnie and Clyde, which makes a strange kind of sense: youth rebellion, motiveless crime and the much-vaunted celebrity status that neatly binds everything together.
Much of the first half of the film is spent pondering Coppola’s reason for making a film out of this material, as she offers a summary of all the key motifs, characters and hints at the denouement within the first three minutes. But the longer it goes on, the richer and more untenable it becomes. By the end, there’s the feeling we’ve seen Coppola’s most fully rounded, ambiguous and cautiously empathetic film. The Vanity Fair article was just a jumping-off point for the writer/director’s own quest to discover where juvenile delinquency ends and celebrity begins.
It’s key to the story that the Bling Ring (as they become known) only target celebrities, suggesting that they’re in it as much to bask in the flashbulb lustre of their tabloid heroes as they are for the rabid materialism. But it’s made clear that these nocturnal pursuits are the product of a moral void in these kids’ lives and that they’re choosing to carry out these raids rather than slouching on a bed clicking refresh on Facebook. A full-scale multimedia immersion within the culture of celebrity, Coppola says, is the tragic consequence of the fact that stimulation is cheap and young people simply have nothing else to do.
Yet even though no actual celebrities physically feature beyond pap montages and split-second cameos, this film says as much about their lives as it does its teenybopper assailants. In Somewhere, Marie Antoinette and Lost In Translation, Coppola examined the banality of life where material desire — the idea of working hard towards a goal — had lost all meaning. Here, the celebrity mansions encapsulate the chasm between cost and value, the sparkling merchandise is left for the wily and audacious to hoard. People don’t buy trinkets because they want a trinket, they want to experience the thrill of the transaction. Coppola’s greatest coup here is making it look as if both robbers and victims are guilty of the same lack of discrimination.
And yet the customary Coppola cynicism is delivered by stealth rather than via the usual full-frontal attack. Her films have often zeroed in on characters who are acutely aware of the venality of celebrity culture, but here the characters are utterly and sincerely in thrall to these mythical creatures. Via a clever juggling of contexts in its closing scenes, Coppola manages to frame these events as a strange ouroboros cycle that incisively nails what it means to be famous. That targets such as Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton themselves remain in the headlines due to their own dalliances with lawbreaking is the film’s final great irony.
From the outset, this looks as if Ms Coppola has taken a turn for the slight.
It takes a while to come together, but this is clearly Coppola’s best film.
A film about teenagers, crime, celebrity, LA, the internet and the cinema. These still waters run very deep indeed.