Notable Festivals: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
The inherent superficiality of Hollywood, Los Angeles, and the greater cultural landscape that constitutes “SoCal” has been well-established over the past several decades. The Golden State’s wealth and fascination with celebrity has created a value system based on material goods and the pursuit of fame and leisure in all its forms. Those who move here in their adult years tend to keep a sense of perspective, embracing SoCal’s myriad pleasures at arm’s length. But for those who are born and raised here, these material values can become their entire world– not having the latest BMW coupe or Chanel handbag is, quite literally, a matter of life and death for those more concerned with image over identity (or, more aptly, those who think the two are one in the same). Frankly, I’m deeply anxious at the prospect of bringing up children of my own in this climate, where the biggest barometer of a person’s worth is how many Instagram followers one can accumulate. In this light, a film like director Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature, THE BLING RING (2013)– wherein a group of overprivileged LA teenagers steal from the homes of celebrities and socialites in an attempt to live like them– is my greatest nightmare writ large.
Based on Nancy Jo Sales’ 2011 Vanity Fair article, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins”, Coppola’s script slightly fictionalizes the real-life exploits of the titular Bling Ring during their short-lived reign of terror– or, considering the staggering wealth of their targets, reign of inconvenience. The story takes place in the wealthy suburban enclave of Calabasas, which has gained a reputation for surface glamor and trashy materialism thanks to the small population of reality stars, pop divas, fame chasers, and any number of Kardashians that call its endless rows of gaudy McMansions home. It’s an honest mistake for non-Angelenos to make, but it bears repeated mentioning that Calabasas is not LA– a fact that THE BLING RING’s fresh-faced kleptos are all-too-painfully aware of as they gaze out at LA’s twinkling lights from a distance.
With the exception of Emma Watson and Leslie Mann, Coppola’s cast is composed primarily of unknowns– anchored by newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard. Chang, who had never been in a film before and only scored the role off the strength of her self-tape, plays the crew’s ringleader, Rebecca. Rebecca’s love for fashion combines with a reckless amorality to create a sociopathically nonchalant teenager that effortlessly convinces the introverted new kid, Mark– played with a nuanced sexual ambiguity by Broussard– to rob nearby homes with her. What begins as a way to combat their everyday suburban boredom soon grows into an all-consuming compulsion that ropes in their friends: aloof bad girl Chloe (Claire Julien), playful Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and the frighteningly vapid Nicki, played by Watson in a scene-stealing performance that she watched a disturbing amount of reality television to prepare for. Adults hold little influence over the Bling Ring’s self-contained world of shiny baubles and expensive trinkets, which is not to say that their guidance would even be particularly helpful in the first place. Mann’s Laurie, the only prominent adult in the film, is the kind of parent that would let kids get drunk at her house after prom; a self-styled “Cool Mom” whose utter ineffectiveness as an authority figure is rooted in her devotion to “The Secret” and its snake-oil “religious” message just as much as her obliviousness to what’s going on around her.
As the young criminals grow increasingly bolder in their exploits, they are seduced by the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle they think they’ve become a part of. They may be partying in the same clubs as Paris Hilton and Coppola-regular Kirsten Dunst (each making brief cameos as themselves), but they’ll never truly be in those social circles– no matter how many of Hilton’s shoes they have in their possession. They believe they’ll never have to answer for their crimes, despite conducting their raids on fleeting whims and making no effort to disguise their identity from security cameras. Their perceived invincibility proves the Bling Ring’s ultimate downfall, and it’s only a matter of time until the authorities bust down their doors. Where Coppola’s story really shines is its exploration of the fallout– within a year, these over-privileged suburbanites are back out on the streets and free to continue living their lives as if nothing ever happened. Some, like Watson’s Nicki character, even achieve a twisted semblance of the celebrity they so desperately aspire to, becoming D-list reality TV personalities.
At the risk of glorifying celebrity worship culture and robbery, THE BLING RING doesn’t take a damning view of its teenage subjects; instead, it channels their youthful energy in a bid to show how easy it can be to fall into this behavior in the absence of truly positive role models. Coppola’s films have always boasted a punchy visual aesthetic, but THE BLING RING kicks it into overdrive with a high-energy, low-contrast look that almost resembles an Instagram filter. THE BLING RING’s cinematography within the context of Coppola’s filmography is notable– having been shot on a Red Epic camera, it marks her first feature-length effort in the digital space– but a more important distinction lies in the fact that it also marks the late cinematographer Harris Savides’ final film. Having previously shot Coppola’s 2010 feature SOMEWHERE, Savides succumbed to brain cancer during THE BLING RING’s post-production process in 2012. Coppola dedicates THE BLING RING to Savides, who shares credit with Christopher Blauvelt. Her trademark aesthetic loses nothing in the switch to digital, ably replicating the soft lighting setups, wide compositions and lens flares that have come to shape her signature. With its rosy highlights and gauzy shallow focus, the 1.85:1 digital image possesses a distinct “fashion film” veneer. Coppola makes a distinct visual differentiation between glitzy, colorful LA/Hollywood (here, they’re one in the same), and the bland beige of the San Fernando Valley suburban sprawl. For scenes set in Calabasas, Coppola tends to lock off her camera (or employ controlled dolly movements) while overexposing the image to an almost-blinding degree. Hollywood, by contrast, is rendered in deep wells of shadow and handheld footage that injects a seductive immediacy and energy.
As appropriate for a film about robbing celebrity homes, THE BLING RING’s visual approach places a notable emphasis on architecture– a minor, yet fairly notable, thematic through-line across Coppola’s body of work. From LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003), to MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006), and on through SOMEWHERE, Coppola’s narratives have resembled chamber dramas in their inextricability of story to setting. Put simply, the chosen stage fundamentally informs the nature of Coppola’s storytelling– all three of the above mentioned films dwell on the irony that the endless hallways of Tokyo’s Park Plaza Hotel, the stately, sprawling grounds of Versailles Palace, or the bohemian coziness of LA’s Chateau Marmont can end up feeling confining or constricting. THE BLING RING’s gaudy McMansions don’t quite possess this same energy, but they nevertheless continue Coppola’s sensitive attention to location and her amazing ability to shoot in the actual locales she’s depicting. Just like they did for the aforementioned Park Plaza Hotel and Versailles Palace, Coppola and her producing team (here comprised of brother Roman and Youree Henley) were able to actually shoot in Paris Hilton’s real house– which, funnily enough, resembles a warped, miniature funhouse version of Versailles. It’s unclear whether Paris’ labyrinth of shoes, handbags and throw pillows bearing her face were actually there to begin with, or if they were a product of returning production designer Anne Ross’ imagination, but the infamous socialite’s sanctuary nevertheless represents the pinnacle of everything the Bling Ring aspires to.
Another striking example of Coppola’s attention to architecture with this film is the famous “glass house” shot, which places the camera high up in the Hollywood Hills looking down on reality TV star Audrina Patridge’s ultra-modern residence while Mark and Rebecca rob it blind. The sequence is only ever presented from this observational angle, with the huge plate-grass windows that wrap around the house providing no cover for the small, silhouetted figures as they manically dart from room to room. It’s, quite frankly, a brilliant shot– and one that almost didn’t make the final cut had Savides not convinced Coppola to keep it in (1).
If SOMEWHERE’s pacing was languid and drawn-out, then returning editor Sarah Flack’s approach with THE BLING RING is the total opposite. Like a drunken night out, the film’s edit speeds by in a whirl of light, color, and music, in addition to other stylistic flourishes like slow motion, faux testimonials, and freeze frames. In what was no doubt a veritable nightmare for Sarah’s assistant editor, Coppola’s approach also includes the use of various clips and found footage from a wide spectrum of sources: cable news, ripped YouTube videos, Facebook screengrabs, cellphone photos, and reality TV outtakes. For what amounts to a digital mishmash of resolutions, codecs, and frame rates, Flack and Coppola are able to place it all in a cohesive and thematically-unified manner that reflects the hyperconnected ADD lifestyles of the characters. An original score was composed by Brian Reitzell and Daniel Lopatin (who records under his stage name Oneohtrix Point Never), but the film’s true musical character stems from Coppola’s own eclectic ear. This takes shape as a suite of pop and rap tracks from artists both established and underground. Indie outfit Sleigh Bells’ crashing, disruptive track “Crown On The Ground” opens the film, lending a high-energy youthfulness with a dash of garage punk over closeup shots of designer heels and jewelry. As he did for Coppola’s SOMEWHERE, Phoenix frontman Thomas Mars contributes another track for his wife. Hit singles from MIA and Kanye West seem almost incongruous with Coppola’s established musical tastes, but they hit the nail on the head in her efforts to realistically portray what her characters would be listening to. Most teenagers’ musical palettes don’t evolve beyond what’s on the radio– it was certainly the case for me and essentially everyone else I knew– but the use of rap in particular brilliantly reflects that peculiar tendency of privileged white kids from the suburbs to listen to hip hop and “urban” artists in a bid to feel edgy or cool. In this regard, a character’s repetition of the lyrics “live fast, die young, bad girls do it well” from M.I.A’s single “Bad Girls” zeroes in the allure of this lifestyle while simultaneously demonstrating their youthful ignorance and naïveté to its consequences.
THE BLING RING is Coppola’s fourth consecutive film to grapple with the idea of fame, this time approaching it from the angle of someone on the outside looking in; someone with misconceived aspirations to the lifestyle. In a way, the film serves as the logical endpoint for Coppola’s exploration of this particular milieu. The hallmarks of SoCal celebrity life– luxury goods, velour tracksuits, BMWs, sunglasses, swimming pools, and palm trees– are present at almost every turn, beckoning the characters (and us) with a seductive pull. The plot device of breaking into celebrity mansions also provides Coppola an opportunity to show that these people live on an entirely different plane of existence than us– they leave their expensive material goods in gigantic homes and fancy cars that are left entirely unlocked (or given a flaccid attempt at “protection” by leaving a key under the front doormat), secure in their ill-advised conviction that their homes will not be transgressed by anybody with their own set of wheels and an Internet connection. The crime-free ideals of suburbia lead to this sort of blind, privileged trust, and when these ideals are inevitably violated, it’s admittedly hard to garner much sympathy for them. This notion that, somehow, maybe these celebrities deserved it is crucial to the likeability of Coppola’s brat thieves– in this context, they become narcissistic Robin Hoodies, stealing from the rich to give to themselves.
Despite the stylistic departure from Coppola’s previous work, THE BLING RING’s thematic conceits continue to follow the trajectory of her development as a filmmaker. The film’s high-stakes high school setting and focus on the vapidity of SoCal youth culture echoes the setup of her debut short, LICK THE STAR (1998), thus bringing her artistic growth full circle. Her technical signatures remain present, most notably the car-based backseat traveling shot. An outward-looking shot detailing the cookie cutter McMansions strung along a suburban block recalls a similar shot in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, while its variation– the inward-looking shot that dwells on a character often caught in a moment of deep self-reflection– gets a fun twist by placing it within the context of a bus heading to prison.
All in all, THE BLING RING marks Coppola’s pivot towards a mainstream audience after a series of arthouse chamber dramas, yet she (thankfully) can’t shed her indie sensibilities entirely, resulting in a film where conventional story beats are handled in oblique and inspired ways. After the film’s premiere in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes, upstart specialty distributor A24 snapped it up and gave it a well-strategized rollout that would result in Coppola’s best box office opening in nearly a decade. Eventually earning $19 million in receipts against an $8 million budget, THE BLING RING restored some of Coppola’s lost luster after the disappointing performance of MARIE ANTOINETTE and SOMEWHERE. While her work has been, and continues to be, sharply divisive by its nature, THE BLING RING managed to score generally positive reviews from critics, which combined with its respectable ticket haul makes it a bonafide success from any angle. It may end up as a relatively minor work in her filmography, but it nonetheless marks an important transition in Coppola’s artistic development, whereby she retreats from a self-indulgent style of filmmaking to meet her audience halfway, and is in turn rewarded with a renewed relevance to a new, very different cultural zeitgeist.
THE BLING RING is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Lionsgate.
Executive Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola
Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Roman Coppola, Youree Henley
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Director of Photography: Harris Savides, Christopher Blauvelt
Production Designer: Anne Ross
Edited by: Sarah Flack
Music by; Daniel Lopatin, Brian Reitzell
- IMDB Trivia Page
- Via Wikipedia: Blodgett, Lucy (December 5, 2011). “Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring Film In Development: Report”. The Huffington Post.