Thu. July 18
Looking Into the Abyss: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring
Sofia Coppola is no stranger to celebrity. Her father is Francis Ford Coppola. She landed her first acting gig as the baby Michael Corleone baptizes (as godfather) in, yes, The Godfather. Her acting career never took off, but she found her vocation as a writer and director.
Celebrity has been a central theme of her art. The Virgin Suicides explores celebrity as legend: a group of neighborhood boys struggle to figure out why the five, beautiful Lisbon sisters commit suicide. Marie Antoinette explored the fame of royalty. Somewhere depicts the struggles of the newly famous actor; Lost in Translation, the aging celebrity. Coppola’s latest movie, The Bling Ring, offers a glimpse into the lives of celebrity from the standpoint of kids obsessed with it.
Based on actual events and, specifically, a Vanity Fair article chronicling them, The Bling Ring follows a group of fame obsessed-teenagers who break into to celebrity houses and hang out (and steal stuff, although that’s secondary). Thanks to sites like TMZ and Google, the teenagers are able to research when celebrities are away and then rifle through their (unlocked and empty) homes.
Some have criticized Coppola for the non-judgmental tone of The Bling Ring. But Coppola’s virtue as a director is that she shows, not tells.
And, in The Bling Ring, she shows vacuous narcissism.
The ring members lack depth. They don’t have jobs. None take school seriously: the bling ring founders, Rebecca and Marc, meet at an alternative school after they’d been kicked out of previous institutions. (Rebecca’s mother makes a living preparing teens for college—physician, heal thyself.) Nicki and Sam, later additions to the gang, are homeschooled, and celebrities are the center of the curriculum. In their new age version on the one-room schoolhouse, Nicki’s mother uses an Angelina Jolie collage to teach about confidence and philanthropy. For the ring, there’s a dearth, or perhaps a warping, of ambition: they just want to be famous, whatever the cost, and without any concern about what they would be famous for.
The Bling Ring isn’t dialogue rich because the kids have little to say. Much of the dialogue is taken from the Vanity Fair interviews with ring members. When the thieves speak, it’s nothing short of verbal diarrhea: take Nicki (based on the “fame monster” Alexis Neiers): “I’m a firm believer in Karma, and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being.”
The kids are close to celebrities: their parents are tangentially related to showbiz (Marc goes to movie premieres with his dad); the kids party at the same clubs and shop at the same boutiques as celebrities do. Ultimately, though, the teenagers don’t really care about the celebrities. They care about themselves. Their own self-love drives the celebrity obsession and subsequent criminal activity. They break into celebrity homes to pretend to live large, and brag about it to their high school peers. When the ring members go out to party, they don’t photograph the celebrity patrons or even each other. They take selfies: the kids are their own paparazzi.
But Coppola shows more than kids aping celebrity life. She reveals the empty lives of celebrities themselves. The celebrities have things: clothes, bags, shoes, watches, art, liquor, photos of themselves (though, curiously, few books). With each visit, the kids steal a bag or a suitcase, stuff some clothes and a few pairs of shoes in it, grab whatever cash is visible, hang out for a bit, and then depart. In both real life and the movie, the victimized celebrities had so much stuff that at first they didn’t realized anything was missing. Months passed (and multiple break in occurred) before Paris Hilton noticed anything was stolen. It was only after the kids stole something of sentimental (and, to be fair, over $2 million in monetary value) that Hilton realized she was a victim.
The homes themselves are shallow. Repeated bling-ring victim, Paris Hilton allowed Coppola to use her home as a filming location. Paris is her own decor theme. Her walls are lined with magazine covers bearing her likeness. Pillows bear her image. The nightclub room—yes, she has a nightclub room—is a shrine unto herself. Her home’s only subtlety is the key ring with an Eiffel tower, which the kids find under the doormat. (Many other celebrity homes were unlocked: the bling ring enters The Hills star Audrina Patridge’s home through an unlocked sliding door.) Hilton held back tears at The Bling Ring’s Cannes film festival showing. But Hilton got over her emotions, and allowed film crews into her crime-scene closet
The Bling Ring is a glimpse into celebrity life through the lens of people obsessed with it. At the root of celebrity and celebrity obsession is narcissism. That is what leads Paris Hilton to put her face on a throw pillow, and that is what drives the kids to seek fame no matter the legality.
The ring members have vacant, quiet, and, frankly, boring lives. But so do the celebrities Coppola features. There is no life of the mind evident; no great books (or even lesser books); no church; no family; no community; no friends—at least not true friends based on something other than pure banality.
But are we guilty of the same? After all, why is there a market for paparazzi photos? Who buys People and visits TMZ? Do we long to possess a one-of-a-kind Dior dress or the fabulous vacation home in Tuscany? Are we tempted think the legal equivalent of a shopping trip through Paris Hilton’s closet will make our lives complete? By seeing the shallowness of celebrity and celebrity obsession, Coppola makes us rethink our own obsessions—whether or not they lead us into Paris Hilton’s closet.