director Sofia Coppola
The moral of this story: Lock your doors and windows. And don’t leave your house key under your welcome mat.
Adapted from Nancy J. Sales’ Vanity Fair article, The Suspects Wore Louboutins, Sofia Coppola “true crime” film, The Bling Ring is a somewhat scathing take on youth culture of today. These criminals were teens from relatively affluent families whose obsession with fashion and celebrity culture led them to burgle the homes of the rich and famous like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, netting over $3 million clothing, cash, and other goods. Their victims were scouted on Google and were accessed most often through an open door or window.
The teens as depicted in Coppola’s film as shallow, callow, pop culture-obsessed kids who don’t earn much sympathy or empathy. Their soullessness is no more evident than in the character portrayed by Emma Watson, who without missing a beat upon arrest, is parlaying her notoriety into celebrity status with the help of attorneys and spin doctors. With her mother, a former Playboy playmate, homeschooling them, they worship at the foot of gods like Angelina Jolie, seeking ideals from the surfaces of cultural icons and transient pop stars.
Coppola affords them little depth. Marc Hall plays Israel, the lone male of the gang. His repentance sounds a little more sincere and his reasoning nearly has a heart. But he’s also self-deluded and concerned only with looks and style.
To Coppola’s credit, much of the most damning dialogue comes from the actual people’s mouths, things that were literally said. How can you draw a picture too differently than from its base reality?
It’s interesting, though, because in thinking about a movie like Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1994), which was another film about teen criminals based on some real events. Van Sant though finds identification with the naive, unsophisticated kids, even in a crime of much more gravity (murder). It’s a strange thing how little empathy is afforded the kids of The Bling Ring. Maybe they genuinely don’t deserve it.
Coppola’s film operates at a semi-meta level. Paris Hilton, whose home was burgled multiple time by the crew, plays itself in the film. Hilton let Coppola and team use the actual location for shooting, an act of either sly irony or more likely just mindless self-awareness. The house features numerous rooms of furniture that include throw pillows with Hilton’s face emblazoned on it. The walls are covered in images of her as well. It’s oddly one of the most compelling aspects of the film.
Because in reality, these kids aren’t really so different from the young, troubled idols that they ransack. They go to the same bars and clubs, they get DUIs, they go to jail together. These kids just didn’t have insane amounts of cash to spend on expensive clothes and aren’t names that are followed by TMZ and the people who follow TMZ.
Coppola opens the film with a shot of the kids jumping a fence onto the property of one of the victims. The shot is static, like a surveillance image, though within the frame, we can see the surveillance camera poised in similar angle. Other shots are surveillance images. It’s ultimately the surveillance image that got the kids caught. And that they bragged all about their exploits.
There is a definite parallel to be found between The Bling Ring and Harmony Korine’s 2012 film Spring Breakers. They both feature gangs of four teen girls on crime sprees, girls who are obsessed with pop culture, partying, and are shallower than an epidermis. Korine’s film is utterly fictional and the crimes are worse (the cinematography is amazing), but his attitude towards his teens is equally dismissive and critical. The girls know what they did, what they did was wrong, and any repentance is simply because that is what is expected of them, not genuine.
Coming from two directors of the same generation, each seems a particular comment on “the kids of today”. They don’t identify with them, these soul-challenged hedonists.
Both films feature noted child actors playing at being bad girls. Korine had Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez partying near-naked, taking drugs, having sex, flouting their images as pure young actresses with big teen followings. Coppola has Watson, a far better actress, whose role is less purely a career exorcism, but also appears taking drugs and showing a lot more skin than she ever did in the Harry Potter films.
There is probably even more to dig into in this comparison and I’m far from the first to be drawn to it.
Ultimately, Coppola’s film is also equally unsuccessful, though on different terms from Korine’s. She’s not making a near exploitation film. She’s making a cultural critique couched as a “black comedy”.
It’s easy to see why this story is so intriguing. It’s a got a whole “Pop Will Eat Itself” actuality at its core. And maybe these kids were so empty that they truly reflect the void culture with which they were obsessed. But one way or another, even if this is a discussion of surfaces of culture, there is a multitude of facets reflecting each other near endlessly, at least offering a “sense” of depth. But not even that is truly sounded out.