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Sofia Coppola’s Crusade Against American Materialism

'The Bling Ring' is her boldest indictment yet of the way we live now

Courtesy of A24 Films

After seeing the 2006 movie that Sofia Coppola based on her biography of Marie Antoinette, Lady Antonia Fraser wrote in her diary, “I adored it, the whole concept, Sofia’s notion of the young girl at a loss in an alien world of hostile glamour.” Fraser could have, in fact, been describing any of Coppola’s five fairy tale­–like films—and a better description would be hard to come by. Those tragic Lisbon sisters, “locked down in maximum security” by their mother in the pop-Gothic The Virgin Suicides (1999), affect their escape from that alien world, if rather Grimm-ly. Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte in Lost in Translation (2003) may as well be letting her hair down from the Park Hyatt Tokyo tower, pining, as she is, for escape from her smoked-glass surroundings into the neon night. And in the neverland of Somewhere (2010), little Elle Fanning tries, adorably, to make a home of a Chateau Marmont suite with Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), her tin man of a movie-star father.

The characters of Coppola’s latest film, The Bling Ring, are, like Marie and Marco, trapped in a world of beautiful baubles, enthralled to decadence, but apparently without the queen or screen-king’s discontent—they love the prison, and want only for the walls to be higher and more bedazzled. The “ring” is a group of continuing-education high schoolers in Agoura Hills, California, led by a singularly narcissistic thief named Rebecca (Katie Chang), who start a wild spree by snatching purses from unlocked cars outside house parties. In a cloud of pot smoke, blitzed on blow and the popping of incessant selfies, the crew immediately escalate to invading the homes of celebrities to plunder Birkin bags, tennis bracelets, and cash money—and intermittently partying to the verses of club bangers that seem to cheer them on in their fame- and Fendi-lust. Theirs is a world of vast tract homes, trophy dogs, and zero repercussions. And, like Coppola’s Madame Deficit, these kids fill their hollow homes with the shiny symbols of wealth, though without acquiring any of its security, and rushing to a debauched escape. They too end up in a hall of mirrors, and then prison, before the mythologizing even begins.

But Coppola’s film, which is based on a Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” that documented actual events in and around Los Angeles during the late-aughts, packs its greatest punch by hewing to reality in our “reality”-obsessed era. This is the TMZ now, in which a perp walk is a runway show, and the Facebook now, where, paradoxically, nothing is really real until it is posted online. Gone is Lost in Translation’s sort of angst, absent is the ennui of Marie Antoinette; here we are in the full bloom of Millennial fatalism. We know how it will end, but cringe all the same, when the characters bellow the hook to M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” (“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well”) while gleefully zooming their car toward destruction. In between administering doses of Adderall, the lone parent to appear in the movie before the police sting (Leslie Mann), preaches the laws of attraction-of-the-like, as laid down in The Secret. And, aside from the comic relief and karmic irony, this “spiritual” aspiration fits neatly with the general covetousness of the characters: for attraction, and “Likes.”

None of the characters actually really aspires to anything—though the outrageously pampered sociopath Nicki (the charming Emma Watson) expresses, hilariously, her desire to be “a leader.” What they do want is to live “the lifestyle,” as one of them calls it. “The lifestyle that everyone wants,” he says, recalling the Kanye West lyric (“This the life that everybody ask for / This a fast life, we are on a crash course / What you think I rap for, to push a fucking Rav-4?) and meaning essentially the same thing the rapper does: wealth, fame, and bling, obvs. This lifestyle is led on the red carpet and in the pages of People magazine, and its players celebrated (or scandalized, though it is hard to tell the difference) for partying, for being beautiful, or even for being beautiful disasters. Nothing, it seems, is deemed too private for public consumption. And, fittingly, no one, at least none whom the ring visits, seems to lock their doors.

The Bling Ring is full of these sort of little feedback loops (characters imitating behavior seen online and then posting the document of it back online; their aspiring to a kind of lifestyle that ultimately dumps their hero Lindsay Lohan in prison right beside Nicki) and it all adds up to naught. In the end—and this is not much of a spoiler alert, I assure you—the characters do end up on TMZ, do get fan pages on Facebook (do, in fact, get a movie made about them), and the greatest tragedy is not that they fail to learn any redeemable lesson, or that the world keeps spinning these people into the public eye—that, even after a prison spell, they are still #winning. The tragedy, really, is their failure to find something worthy of their dedication, something to be dedicated to at all, something that transcends the self.

In every one of Coppola’s movies, she presents personal connection as an antidote for what ails her characters. It could come in the form of family (Somewhere, The Virgin Suicides), or as love (Marie Antoinette), or whatever it was that Charlotte and and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) found together in Lost in Translation. But the connection the girls of the Bling Ring seek is different. It is depersonalized, decentralized, scattered about hundreds of points on the Internet. What they seek isn’t love at all but a mass of attention. What they need is validation for their feeling of entitlement.

From the opening credits the characters know that they belong among the firmament, and it is with a kind of Clueless grace that they accept the just ownership of the bling commensurate with their station. These are kids who want for nothing, at least materially, and want—demand, expect, and then take—only more materials. Their targeting of celebrities, of course, is not coincidental. The rich and famous are the royalty to whom the ring are aspirational courtiers. And their thieving has less to do with transgression—or even the near-carnal, commemorative collecting of the now-dead Lisbon girls’ possessions by the neighborhood boys—but driven by entitlement and a feeling of connection with Paris and Lindsay and the rest of their victims—“icons,” as the celebrities are often called, giving the entire pursuit of “the lifestyle” a chilling, devotional cast.

In portraying these high priestesses, the film is merciless. The Real Housewives of late Rome may have lived in such self-venerating opulence. Every surface, it seems, of Paris Hilton’s house in The Bling Ring (which was indeed filmed in Hilton’s real house), is painted, plastered, or upholstered with her portrait. This is the Vatican of the Ring’s materio-narcissism, to which they return over and over before the owner ever even notices anything missing, and they continually gasp in admiration at the quantity of Hilton’s “stuff.” They fall upon the jewelry, on the stuffed closets and the room of shoes in a religious ardor, taking giddy Eucharist, only slightly checked by adolescent nonchalance.

But these are low-hanging fruit on the most noisome vine. To savage these characters and the cult of celebrity in a polemic would be as compelling as tearing into a grounded piñata with a machete. Coppola’s is, instead, a far more sly and compassionate angle, nearly meshing with the characters’ points of view—though shaded here and there with unavoidable ironic distance for the choice comedic bits, as when one character, Marc (Israel Broussard), tells the writer for Vanity Fair that he never thought of himself as being “A-lister-good-looking.” And if this makes it somewhat moving to see Marc later in his County Blues (well, actually Oranges), that makes the film’s accomplishment even more marvelous. But this is not a fable where the virtuous characters profit in correlation to their virtuousness and the wicked meet their comeuppance; this is our SMH reality, where they all end up on E!

And if The Bling Ring rarely dips into deeper character study—perhaps because these characters themselves lack the requisite depth—and thus lacks the strumming emotional poignancy of her earlier work, it affords Coppola slack to cast a wider net and stage her boldest social commentary. It is, even more than Marie, Coppola’s most direct indictment of our hollow modern materialism—among the best that American cinema has given us—and her latest evisceration of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, which she began, caustically, in Lost in Translation and expanded on with Somewhere. Coppola is nearly in Coen-brother country here, knitting together comedy, tension, and absurdity in a story about hapless criminals on a rampage. But her treatment of present-day kids of privilege, moving effortlessly within their vernacular as they celebrate their cache, as they bicker and boast, feels uniquely hers, done with that lightness of movement and the same intimacy with which we dropped in on the Lisbon girls, or Charlotte, or Marie and her entourage.

“Everyone loved us,” Marc says just before the Ring’s fall, squirreling away his haul in a garage. “We had all of these beautiful, gorgeous things.” There is no wink here, none of the meta-jokiness with which Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers seduced and taunted us about avarice and debauchery. If the Louboutins in The Bling Ring are shown with the same fetishistic gloss as the characters see them, Coppola is almost daring you to feel similarly covetousness and not be sickened. This film is the anti-Gatsby: There is no green light anywhere in sight. The Bling Ring is Nick Carraway trying to be a part of the parties, and stealing all those beautiful shirts himself to pretend he is Gatsby.

It is a bitter, if beautiful, pill Coppola delivers—but whether we will take it, along with our Adderall and our selfies, is another matter. At the end of The Bling Ring we may wonder if there is indeed any other world besides this one of hostile glamour. Or maybe we will just lock our doors.