29 July 2013
I have tried for weeks to write this piece. Every time I vacillate between an opening like, “The Bling Ring may not be Sofia Coppola’s best effort, but …” and the more definitive “The Bling Ring is not Sofia Coppola’s best effort.” Let me cut to the chase — I’m caught exactly between those two positions for one reason:
How is it possible that such a female-oriented film ends up with a male protagonist who’s the only sympathetic character in sight? And how is it that I’m still weirdly riveted by this film?
Considering critical attacks on her that appear every time she releases a new film, I’m (unusually) reluctant to offer criticism. I’ve written before about the oddly harsh critical question marks thrown at Coppola, criticisms that seem to waive her track record and accuse her of focusing too exclusively on privileged white people’s ennui. In addition, I’ve never so many critics accuse her of benefiting from nepotism — ignoring that her films have generally earned both critical and commercial success (and the fact that Hollywood is Nepotism Central). Why Coppola and not a conversation about how Jason Reitman and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith’s children are benefiting from nepotism?
I haven’t always loved her films, but they’re invariably interesting and beautifully filmed, and this one is no exception to that rule. But compared to her earlier films, it occasionally manifests a confusion and sloppiness that surprises me, and I think part of that confusion lies in its desire to tell a “female” story with a male protagonist.
Marc (Israel Broussard) is new to the alternative high school in Calabasas, California, and with a few deft shots of Coppola’s camera we sense the many reasons for his unease, as he shuffles inside his shirt to conceal the baby fat. When he begins to develop a friendship with the glamorous Katie (Rebecca Ahn), the unease doesn’t go away — but Coppola likewise makes tiny, elegant little moves to show that Marc has become more comfortable displaying his gayness to his new friend, and ultimately to a wider circle of girls.
Broussard is great in this role as the film’s protagonist. My question is, why do all his female friends have to become such cartoons?
Katie introduces the reluctant Marc to petty theft — breaking into cars in their posh neighborhoods, lifting cash out of the purses of their fellow teens at parties, “borrowing” the Porsche that belongs to a classmate’s parents out of town on an extended trip. She also teaches him about the pleasures money can buy. They go out to pricey clubs, take well-practiced selfies to post on Facebook (as above), get spectacularly high on the drugs they find, and every once in a while they get glimpses of Paris Hilton or one of those other Hollywood stars whose glamorous, materialistic lives they envy.
Throughout, we see Marc’s unease about the stealing; Katie’s experience of it is inscrutable. Does she do it for the thrill? because she feels herself entitled to the money? because she cannot conceive that it’s wrong? because she wants to mimic the image of wealth that celebrities display? Throughout the film, the girls’ motivations and emotions are as obscure as Marc’s are clear to us.
Their stealing becomes more adventurous, springing naturally from their fixations on celebrities. It’s just too easy. Internet gossip sites tell them when, for example, Paris Hilton will be out of town for a gala, and the street address of her house; they simply drive up, find the key under the doormat, walk in and begin “shopping.” No worries if they fill up their backpacks; they can just take use some of Hilton’s many designer bags for more jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, and breathtaking amounts of cash.
Marc takes a pair of pink stilettos. Back in his room at home he locks his door and puts on the shoes. It’s a lovely scene that captures the ambivalence of the stealing — the privacy he needs to enjoy the shoes, the impossibility of his wearing them anywhere. The heaviness of the fact that he has stolen them and that people will find it odd that he wants to wear stilettos.
Bragging about their haul adds more wannabe thieves — all girls — to their raids. Among them are Nicki (Emma Watson), and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) who get homeschooled by their earnest, clueless mother (Leslie Mann) in the self-help delusionalism of The Secret and its trust in “the law of attraction.”
Watson is great in this small role as Nicki. That pretty little mouth of hers is hard as iron, and her dark eyes exude thinly-disguised narcissism — she has nursed at the law of attraction long enough to believe that wanting to be a model/actress will make it happen. Her perfect California accent only adds to that veneer, to our capacity to despise her. Nicki is the perfect embodiment of a culture that privileges celebrity and materialism.
Let me repeat: Watson is scarily good. But as the film moves along she becomes so despicable — such a liar, so deluded, so absurdly willing to spout inane things in front of cameras — that her character sits uneasily alongside the more nuanced portrayals of Marc and, to a lesser extent, Katie. Coppola is ordinarily such a subtle tracer of characters and so generous even to the self-deluded that this feels … ham-fisted.
So what is Coppola saying here? What is the takeaway?
The best thing about this film is recognizing your own conflicting emotions throughout. When the thieves wander through Paris Hilton’s awful home, filled with awful things and tributes to Hilton’s own face (and indeed, these scenes were shot at Hilton’s actual awful home), you find yourself a roiling bundle of conflicting sources of anger: what kind of idiot celebrity hides her key under the mat and/or leaves windows open? clearly the kind of idiot celebrity who deserves to be robbed. Will she even notice that anything’s missing? Why doesn’t she have a security system? At the same time, you get angry at the teenagers — for not getting caught immediately, for their greed, their incredible obliviousness.
In the midst of all that anger, however, you realize all this anger is directed at the female celebrities and the female thieves, while your empathy orients to “poor” Marc.
In the end, Coppola has painted a portrait of an unusually “female” world of celebrities and materialism, but gives us a sympathetic male protagonist through whom to experience it. As a result, no matter the many vivid and inscrutable moments in it, the film upholds those associations between femininity and fripperies (read weakness, effeminacy, anti-intellectualism, unseriousness) that go back to the 18th century. Especially when Nicki uses her bling ring celebrity to become a quasi-celebrity on her own, just as the real-life Nicki, Alexis Neiers (who served as a consultant for the film), became yet one more brainless television personality and reality-show starlet.
The Bling Ring is not Coppola’s best effort. But then again there’s the long, long take of Katie and Marc breaking into yet another house — all filmed as via a long-distance security camera, following them as they move through the house and remove things from drawers. That visual distance and anxiety created by the take — a distance that belies the complicated intimacy we feel for these two, knowing they’re being watched by that camera — is a remarkable achievement and ought to be rewarded with a special kind of cinematographic prize for mini-moments in film. Not her best effort and simplistic when it comes to gender politics, but Coppola’s films are always interesting, and this is no exception. The fact that it took me weeks to write this is yet another testament to her capacity to confound.