Sofia Coppola has always been concerned by the lifestyles of the wealthy, casting a casual eye over the disaffected and disaffecting world in which the upper classes live. Her movies – Marie Antonette, and Lost in Translation – tend to focus on the semi-absurdity of wealth and fame, often using money and status as a means of exploring the nonsense and transience of life; these things just happen, and they don’t matter. As a director, Coppola could be considered a kind of post-modern materialistic-realist, an idea strengthened in her most recent movie, 2013’s The Bling Ring, a satirical but measured look into the casual disinterest of the ultra wealthy, the impact of celebrity culture on teens, and the rise of the self in the digital media age. The material suits Coppola perfectly, and The Bling Ring stands as one of the most clear-cut cinematic insights into modern culture of the last few years; it’s a film about the early 2010s, and an interesting one to watch.The plot of the The Bling Ring sounds too good to be true, but of course, the movie is based on a series of infamous Hollywood Hills robberies which occurred throughout 2011. We follow newcomer Marc Hall (Israel Broussard), a medicated and unfocused individual as he starts school in Calabasas and meets sassy Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang). The two become friends for no real reason, and one night, begin breaking into cars searching for money and drugs. This escalates, as the two break into an absent friend’s home, and further, as they begin breaking into the houses of the rich and famous – Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan. Friends Nicki (Emma Watson) Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Chloe (Claire Julien) get involved.Coppola’s direction is distant and mirrors the state of her characters; what’s most striking about The Bling Ring is how indifferent and detached it is; from the director, to the characters, even to the narrative itself. There’s an open easiness to the crime sprees, and a blurred, lack of motivation behind them, which creates a sense of emptiness to all of the events in the movie. Notice how Marc and Rebecca begin breaking into cars with no real purpose, but more importantly, notice how none of the cars they break into are actually locked. This is a movie obsessed with money and status in which money and status are so widely available that they don’t matter at all. Notice how Paris Hilton doesn’t notice the millions being stolen from her house. How Nicki’s reaction to being arrested isn’t so much fear or worry as ‘get the lawyer!’ and prison isn’t much of a punishment. Coppola presents a modern day California in a void of emotion, depth, drawing attention to the absurdity of the entire situation. The gun the girls find isn’t a threat for example; there’s a great sense of ennui to the movie, aligning it with a lot of Brett Easton Ellis’s early novels, particularly Less than Zero.
On a technical level, The Bling Ring is a very accomplished movie. The distant nature of the characters is mirrored by the beautiful but detached cinematography – the shot of Marc and Rebecca breaking into a house, which we view in extended wide take from up in the hills, sums up the entire movie in a moment. Notice how the camera follows the cast around, keeping them in frame, shooting them like a person would take a selfie of themselves. Music too, by Kanye West, Azealia Banks and Frank Ocean, implies a party-focused and status heavy lifestyle, and the narrative repetition of break-ins, and parties with heavy drug-use, creates a deadening blur. It helps that the movie is very quotable and very funny too.Some have argued that Coppola glamorises the actions of the characters, and it’s true, the film does present them as stars. But that’s the point – Coppola mimics the self-and-celebrity obsessed style of her characters but keeps an emotional level of distance which means we never connect to them on any real level. Coppola’s style could be considered so detached that the movie could be considered too-easy; a commentary with no judgement, but Coppola – copying real statements word for word and playing up the nonsense of the situation, the emptiness of it all, leans more on the side of satire and it’s hard to watch the movie without picking up on the farcical nature of the whole thing. Yet you get the sense we’re not supposed to judge the criminals so much, as the system which created them. The rise of the internet generating a self-focused culture and making the crimes easier to plan; Nicki’s ridiculous new age mother (a funny Leslie Mann) and her morning prayers, the clubs and magazines and incessant California focus on the celebrity. Rebecca steals, the movie claims, because she wants to be like Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton; her crime spree isn’t motivated so much by greed, but by idolisation, making her break-ins a kind of warped homage or love letter to the celebrities she admires. These kids are trying to be something else, and it’s not as if any of them aren’t wealthy to begin with – it’s the culture of celebrity they desperately want. It says a lot that they do not keep their crimes quiet, and share images of their stolen goods on social media. This is a crime wave for status more than anything, fuelled by Instagram and Facebook. The Bling Ring doesn’t have a plot as such, at least not in the conventional sense – this is a movie existing in the moment, and made up of style and atmosphere. The lack of plot adds to the sense of void in the film, which also, lacks any kind of real resolution. The movie teases out Nicki’s fate (real life counterpart Alexis Neiers became a reality TV star) but ends suddenly providing no real closure. Even prison doesn’t feel like a threat. Again, this is the point, that the characters don’t learn anything from their actions. Nick’s story about Lindsay Lohan in jail (which isn’t a story at all) suggests she’s reached a resolution, but it’s a resolution she’s only decided she’s reached – she believes she’s changed; but that doesn’t mean she has. The crime wave just becomes another means of self-promotion, a media generated means of gaining celebrity status.The cast are excellent. Israel Broussard is fairly subdued and gives an understated performance, which allows him to be our window into this world. Katie Chang, as the ring-leader, has a sassy confidence and flatly-bored attitude which makes her fascinating. The scene in which she is confronted by the police is snake-like, and her ‘What did Lindsay say?’ are deadpan-perfect. The cast are aware they’re working in a satire and all have great timing. Best of all of course, is Emma Watson as Nicki. As first, it seems odd that Watson has this role (why not give her Rebecca?) but it becomes clear that Nicki represents the group best; she’s stupid but smart too, able to play situations, and comically spoilt and ridiculous at the same time; she clearly has no sense of responsibility but possesses an egotistical sense of entitlement. She’s the worst of 2013 summed up in human form, and the character is so broadly wonderful it’s hard to imagine her as a real person – the fact that her ‘I could rule the country’ and ‘it’s all about karma’ speeches actually happened is surprising. Watson gives a great, larger than life performance and what with this and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is quickly proving herself as an actress to keep a post-Potter eye on.Coppola crafts a clever but cold satire commenting on the transient and rather silly nature of celebrity and status obsessed culture. Taken too far one way, The Bling Ring could be judged as a terrible indictment of modern times, but the cool and detached, barely-judgement nature turns the situation into a bizarre comedy. It’s a good movie to sum up the culture of modern times.