The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The Bling Ring is plucked from something that really happened, though unless you’re deeply attuned to 24-hour news cycles it’s unlikely it made its way into your scope of awareness. It’s not a quiz show scandal or a political kerfuffle, and it isn’t even really much of a story, more of a curious, odd, somewhat telling exploit: a group of fashion-conscious, privileged, savvy L.A. teenagers, two in particular, made a habit of entering celebrities’ homes and stealing stuff. These were celebrities teetering on that wealthy thin line between glamour and sleaze, in particular Lindsay Lohan and repeat-victim Paris Hilton. There are many ways to interpret the idea of making a film of this incident — it could be a vicious lampoon of celebrity worship and the wider culture, and of the supposedly vapid lives led by millennials; it could be a Reefer Madness-style cautionary story with histrionic tones, as apparently was a previous telefilm covering the matter.

Instead, writer-director Sofia Coppola turns this into something really unique, and somewhat indescribable. It shares some of its tone-poem traits with her other films; it doesn’t leave her territory of blank stares and unspoken emotion, or of an ethereal sense of weightless beauty. Even in the garish florescence of Los Angeles, Coppola can’t help making a film that looks stunning and captures eerily well the electricity of a city, especially at night. This is accomplished with the help of Harris Savides, whose last film this tragically turned out to be — but as visually strong as The Bling Ring is, its essence is in the remarkable approach Coppola takes to the five teenagers in the Ring, all of whose names were changed for the film.

Rather than demonize or wholly support the actions of her two leading characters, Rachel (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard), Coppola takes the position of a true satirist — she simply humanizes them, and presents them as a group of rowdy naive kids who are deeply irresponsible and ridiculously privileged, but also clearly smart and, frankly, adventurous and fun. Their crimes are viewed as both as symptom of a specific aspect of the city, the world and the time in which they live but much more importantly as an aspect of the meaningless restlessness of youth. The feeling that all of their activities add up to nothing, then are repeated and add up to nothing once again, is part of the design: Like Buzz says in Rebel Without a Cause, “you gotta do somethin’.”

That hardly means Coppola isn’t conscious of the cynical comedy at the heart of her narrative. It’s less interesting that Paris Hilton was robbed because the kids thought she’d be too dumb to lock her door than that Hilton was a proud enough person to let Coppola’s film crew shoot inside her house and reveal the walls covered end to end with photos of herself, the couch decorated with designer pillows adorned by Hilton’s unmistakable visage — and that Coppola expects her audience to sense the irony. Rachel is sticken by the strangeness and humor and somehow rightness of this revelation, but in another scene she engages in the constant taking of selfies at an upscale nightclub. Coppola’s victory is to approach neither celebrity nor adolescent as some sort of “other” but as a fully functioning inhabitant of a private, complicated if not sophisticated world.

Having made Marie Antoinette, Coppola is well aware that young decadence bears no distinct tie to our modern universe. In fact, there are shades of All About Eve here — a tragic variation. The only escape these kids see from their various stifling worlds (which the film is interestingly reticent about exploring in detail) is that into wealth, fame and superficial self-adoration — which, let us quickly add, is viewed as no less human in its manner than semi-closeted, vulnerable Marc’s quiet gain of confidence at the hands of his friendship with Rachel, or Rachel’s own acquisition of a sense of identity from the robberies, or of most of the kids’ tantalizingly thrilling casual and oblivious attitude toward danger and potential violence.

There’s this incredible scene, one of the most brilliant in Coppola’s career thus far, in which Chloe (Claire Julien) toys with Marc’s nervousness about a loaded handgun they find. She waves it around in his face and belittles him over it, immediately picking up on the power it gives her, and getting a sensual rush from it. It’s terrifying, heart-stopping — and as beautifully nihilistic as something from Breathless or A Clockwork Orange, a pure rush of unchecked impulse. And then you get it: for these children, the entire world is now a playground. They walk wherever they choose, play with whatever they choose, manipulate whomever they choose. We can wag our fingers over it or we can admit that there is an almost magic power and intensity to this breath of the glittered obnoxious. Whether the kids are wandering down the street parading their nice clothes and handbags or crashing cars belting out lyrics (the phenomenally loud, legitimately edgy soundtrack boasting Azaelia Banks, M.I.A. and Sleigh Bells is practically a work of art and a portrait of a time in itself), all that separates them from any mildly troublemaking rabble-rouser is their boldness and calculation. I certainly believe in this vision of teen hedonism more than, say, George Lucas’. It’s by design, presumably, that as repulsed as you are by the shallowness of this world, you want to be in the car singing along with them.

Coppola is my favorite director working and as usual, she does this just the way I hoped it would be done — with unmitigated hero worship flipped around into a third act that feels like straight comic comeuppance but is in some ways just a further act of manipulation by kids who want it all, who believe in an inalienable right to total Twitter-age self aggrandizement. And why shouldn’t they, in the end? On some level, they win this game, quite deservedly, even when the film makes fun of them (taking direct inspiration from the reality show featuring Alexis Neiers, the basis for Emma Watson’s character, and her mom, the basis for Leslie Mann’s spot-on comic impersonation): the uncluttered single-mindedness of their passions and inner lives have the grace and elegance of a Phil Spector or Alex Chilton or Martin Gore song. That’s unapologetic, glorious teen-ness, to which Coppola does not condescend. She senses its liberation and limitation in equal measure.

Besides, you don’t have to look very deep to realize that the Ring is more similar to than different from their victims, or that they are victims too. What Hilton and Lohan share is a common perception that they are famous for no particular reason. I don’t happen to really agree; fashion is a legitmate industry whatever your criticisms of it may be, and one doesn’t reach Hilton’s status without some business savvy, even if her family name is an obvious basis for much of her place in the world. Lohan is skilled enough as an actress to have some fans in that capacity. But both of them have also spent time in prison, have “screwed up” on the world stage, and have had their adolescent dirty laundry aired in a very public sphere. Neither represents any kind of a new phenomenon, and both are to some extent victimized by the misogyny of the entertainment business itself.

But the more philosophical source, it seems, of Rachel’s fawning of Lohan’s style and sensibility is that they are essentially on the same plane, as is comically pointed out in an amusing closing interview sequence with Watson. Coppola does get well-earned points from the simple vapidity of a lot of this (the “vision boards” sequence with Mann, lifted verbatim from Pretty Wild, being an obvious highlight) but there’s no mistaking how impossible the film finds it to lord the denizens of the celebrity-schmooze culture as “good guys” and the conniving children of the Bling Ring as “bad ones.” It can’t even look down on those whose prime motivation is status or fame (it obviously reserves a special place for Marc, who despite his extreme tone-deafness just wants to fit in, something that has evidently not come easily to him) because, of course, they are not achieving it in a terribly different order than did their idols.

Mostly, Coppola again captures a feeling, if a less aching one than in her last three films, and the catharsis of youth, of adrenaline, of abandon — the film is magnificently absorbing to watch, and deeply rewarding of repeat viewings. (As with her previous films, as soon as it’s over I long to see it again.) The actors define their characters, largely through fluid performing that feels like improvisation but probably isn’t. It’s dangerous that you both dread and long for the cops showing up, right? We all gawk at them gawking at the gawkers ’cause now we’re all both Jimmy Stewart and Raymond Burr in Rear Window and our popcorn-chomp yearning is for every bit of this story to play out — like Tom Verlaine sang long ago, “I love disaster, and I love what comes after.” So Coppola is juggling us expertly without a direct conflict or a whiz-bang narrative at all: in almost surreal fashion, she makes us dread what’s to come when Marc obliquely asks if Rachel would ever rob him; she makes us want to see them all put in their place, she makes us weep for the nothingness of it all in that great fuck-you closing moment (the film ends with a character plugging her goddamn website), and she makes us revel in the overexposed glitz of upper-echelon L.A. like we were the teenagers. We really feel that promise, that sense of infinity, and when the drab gray doors close on us, we feel that too. But is it really that different from anyone’s growing-up rude awakening? The film doesn’t come out and say no, but I think it whispers it.

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