Bling Ring: New Culture of Celebrity

Cannes Film Fest 2013 (Certain Regard, opening night)–Though she is 41, Sofia Coppola not only looks and sounds younger, but she continues to show penchant for depicting the lifestyles and subcultures of young American girls (and boys) with a good deal of verve and measure of authenticity.

After making the big-budget, disappointing studio movie, “Marie Antoinette,” and the minor indie “Somewhere,” which divided critics and never found an audience, Coppola is back on terra ferma with “The Bling Ring.” Despite some dramatic shortcomings, this film represents her best work since the Oscar-winning “Lost in Translation,” ten years ago.

Very much a zeitgeist film, “The Bling Ring” is a moral fable and cautionary tale. In its good moments, which are plentiful, the movie suggests what it means to be young, ruthless, technically alert, an most important of all, obsessed with fast achievement of fame and celebrity, even if it calls for using crime and other illegitimate means.

With the right marketing by A24, which will release the film stateside in June 14, commercial prospects are good for a vibrant and timely film (the subject is torn off of headlines news), bound to speak to younger viewers who have grown up into a world defined by the sounds and bites of the new technologies and social media, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and so on.

Though she has made only five films, Coppola is already a recognizable auteur, displaying continuing themes and styles in her work. This themtaic consistency was even manifest in her lush period piece, “Marie Antoinette,” which also dealt with immature teenagers (albeit of royal blood), running around in the corridors of the Versailles searching for identity and meaning.

As is known from the news stories and well-read article in Vanity Fair, the fact-based “Bling Ring” concerns a bunch of high school kids of Calabasas in San Fernando Valley (a suburb of Los Angeles) who, living in a state of limbo as far as societal values are concerned. Occasionally, they go on a spree and invade celebs’ house, stealing considerable amount of items (jewelry, chic wardrobe, designer shoes, among others), later estimated around $3 million in cash. The victims were not major movie stars but media celebs, actors, models, stars of Reality TV shows, such as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge. They live both immoral and amoral lives in a culture known in sociology as alienation and anomie.

The film lacks the intimacy and the insider’s P.O.V. of Coppola’s best film, “Lost in Translation,” which in many ways was highly personal. For “The Bling Ring,” Coppola takes a more detached and impersonal perspective, examining the main protagonists and their values (or lack of) in a more dispassionate yet nonjudgmental way. Sociologist and psychologists will have a field day with this picture, which puts emphasis on the girls’ social backgrounds and conditioning by the surrounding dominant culture. The motivation of the perpetrators is not monetary but celebrity, or rather notoriety; they are obsessed with getting recognition in the fastest, most efficient, least violent way.

The tale is obviously fictionalized, and not just in the names allotted to the characters. But Coppola relies quite heavily on the reportage of Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair feature “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” which featured a photo of the ring member Alexis Neiers holding a Frappuccino.

The leader of the group, Nicki (Emma Watson playing real-life Alexis Neiers), her younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock) and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), live with their eccentric mother (Leslie Mann), who believes in the kind of practical and superficial education one expects from self-help bestsellers such as “The Secret.”

At a remedial high school, Mark (Israel Broussard), a shy, latently gay youngster, befriends another strange girl, Rebecca (Katie Chang), who’s Asian-American. It doesn’t take long for the two to realize that they share in common a strong interest in the cool and trendy lifestyle of the rich and famous. Upon graduation, Rebecca tells Mark she hopes to attend Los Angeles’ Fashion Institute of Design, “where all the ‘(Beverly) Hills’ girls went.” Mark aims higher, wishing to own his business with his own brand name— preferably without the formal training and years of experience such an enterprise usually takes.

The crime spree begins, when Mark and Rebecca rob the home of a classmate. But soon, joining forces with Nicki, Sam and other accomplices, the group becomes more aggressively ambitious.

When the heists occurred, Paris Hilton lived on my street (in the Hollywood Hills), and I always knew from the waiting paparazzi when she is about to come or go. Thus, it’s utterly credible that the wild bunch of burglars could rely on media accounts, such as satellite photos from Google Earth TMZ, and so on, about the best ways and the best times to strike.

The real-life Paris Hilton appears in a cameo in the film, and she has also allowed Coppola to shoot inside her lavishly decorated home, including her art work and the numerous closets, cluttered with Prada frocks, Miu Miu, Blahnik heels, Birkin bags, and Alexander McQueen sunglasses.

Hotel heiress Hilton is the only one whose house is intruded more than once. Raids on other, similarly big and lush houses, containing valuables, include those inhabited by Orlando Bloom and Megan Fox.

As scripted, “The Bling Ring” employs a rather straightforward (a tad too conventional by Coppola’s standards, and for my taste), though she violates chronology and doesn’t presents the events in a traditional linear fashion. The text retains some ambiguity in the sense that various characters narrate their subjective versions of the “true events.” But ultimately, it’s up to the spectators to decide which characters to follow and who to believe in.

Coppola has always been a more astute director than a sharp writer, and she has always (from the very first picture) been able to create works that are stronger in atmosphere than in narrative. You may recall the melancholy and sadness of “Lost in Translation,” or the elegiac, tragic nature of “The Virgins’ Suicides.”

What struck me after the first viewing is Coppola’s own sense of wonder and bemusement. It’s as if she admits that what she presents is speculative rather definitive version, that she herself doesn’t fully understand the bizarre phenomenon.

It is a well-known fact that most victims don’t report the crimes. Some don’t even realize right away that they have been burglarized. The deviant youngsters don’t try to conceal their identities—in fact, they give the impression that they actually want to get caught by the authorities so that they will get their fifteen minutes (or rather fifteen seconds) in the limelight—in shows like Extra or Access Hollywood.

Always proficient with young and inexperienced performers (Kirstin Dunst, Scarlett Johansson), Coppola has coaxed fresh performances from her cast of newcomers. The only pro is Emma Watson, who deviates from her screen image as established in the “Harry Potter” films, and nails the role (including the accent) in an amazing act of transformation.

Working with her longtime collaborator, the brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides (who died of brain tumor in post-production), and later Christopher Blauvelt, Coppola gets the right look for her saga, which is extremely well crafted. Coppola has acknowledged the immeasurable contribution of Savides to the entire film, and specifically to one break-in, of TV reality star Audrina Partridge’s house, which is done from a distant wide shot.

Production values are enticing across the board, with fluid camera movement and smooth editing, which contribute to the film’s enjoyment. It’s therefore too bad that Coppola’s insights are not deeper, and that she doesn’t take firmer stance on the new, superficial culture of celebrity, one in which the members mimic and model themselves after minor celebrities, such as Paris Hilton, rather than real movie stars, such as Angelina Jolie.

The hip-hop soundtrack includes such cool and popular musicians as Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Big K.R.I.T., which should elevate the picture’s cache among young spectators.

When one of the girls’ dilemmas is what to wear in court, you know that something is basically wrong with their education and families and with our media-obsessed culture, which stresses surfaces and physical appearances. Ironically, if “The Bling Ring” catches fire, it will make the ring members even more (in)famous and recognizable than they ever were before.

Credits:

Running time: 90 MIN.

A24 release
Produced by Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley.
Executive producers, Emilio Diez Barroso, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Rassam, Fred Roos, Mike Zakin.
Directed, written by Sofia Coppola, based on the Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales.
Camera, Harris Savides, Christopher Blauvelt.
Editor, Sarah Flack.
Music supervisor, Brian Reitzell.
Production designer, Anne Ross; set decorators, Sara Parks, Lulu Stewart.
Costume designer, Stacey Battat.
Sound, Susumu Tokunow.
Casting, Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels.

Cast

Marc (Israel Broussard)
Rebecca (Katie Chang)
Nicki (Emma Watson)
Emily (Georgia Rock)
Sam (Taissa Farmiga),