The Films of 2013: The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola has yet to make a film I haven’t liked, and her latest, The Bling Ring—based on a real-life incident in which a group of L.A. teenagers burglarized the homes of local celebrities, making off with over one million dollars in stolen jewelry and clothesis one of her most effortlessly graceful.  Don’t be fooled by the tabloid-flavored subject matter: this is, like Coppola’s previous efforts, an exercise in minimalism in which the pleasures of style and tone trump those of a tightly constructed plot.  And what pleasures!  In her hands (with the help of her cinematographer, the great Harris Savides, who died during the production; he was replaced by Christopher Blauvelt) the gaudiest Hollywood mansions come to look downright spectral.  (See above.)  There’s a quiet loveliness to the scenes in which the intrepid Rebecca (Katie Chang) and her partners-in-crime raid the closets and bedrooms of the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan; even as they resound with the girls’ gasps and giggles, the empty, dimly lit houses feel eerily calm and quiet.  Once again, Coppola has succeeded in perfectly evoking a sense of place.  If The Bling Ring seems like something of a departure for Coppola, her shots of Hilton’s labyrinthine home decked out with images of Hilton’s own face—a Warholian hall of mirrors—should remind us of the Versailles of her Marie Antoinette (2006).  Both films take opulent settings and render them with an otherworldly charge.  It should also be noted that both are primarily concerned with young women caught up almost unconsciously in routines of excessive, scandalous consumption. 

Readers may recall that Marie Antoinette caused a small scandal in its own right, in part because some critics felt that Coppola, in refusing to condemn her title character outright, was letting her off the hook.  The Bling Ring treats its characters with a similar ambivalence.  Coppola’s tone here might best be described as amused: it occasionally trades in rather broad (but funny) humor about zonked SoCal culture (the mother of several of the girls, played with chilling vapidity by Leslie Mann, preaches the tenets of The Secret with a fundamentalist’s zeal), but more often than not it stands at a distance, regarding its characters’ behavior with a fascinated smirk.  We never feel Coppola straining to ramp up the intensity, nor does she resort to any self-righteous pearl-clutching.  We’re not subjected to any tedious moralizing about the evils of celebrity culture or the narcissism of Facebook.  Might this amused stance, this withholding of judgment, this refusal to wag her finger in the faces of her characters, be the reason why some critics are complaining that the film’s attitude toward its subject matter is too ambiguous?  Deeply attuned to its humor and its subtle ironies, yet reluctant to jump to cheap, readymade conclusions, Coppola appears content to sit back and watch it unfold.  I, for one, was more than happy to do the same. 

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