I don’t often feel particularly well read but this is the second film I have seen in a year that is based on an article that I already knew. This is great because I am so often told that film magazines don’t count if I want to describe myself as an avid reader.
The first example was Argo and now we have The Bling Ring based on the feature ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutins’ from Vanity Fair’s 2010 Hollywood issue. The article itself is pretty straight forward reporting the real events surrounding a series of LA burglaries. It tells of how a group of teenagers stole approximately three million dollars worth of designer products from the houses of young Hollywood stars.
At the beginning of the feature it briefly relays Alexia Neiers, one of the perpetrator’s, version of events describing how she was an unwilling participant in the crimes and was herself a victim of circumstances. It then goes on to describe what is no doubt a more accurate narrative showing her story to be a carefully worked out yarn designed not only to sidestep blame but also to craft a very specific public persona. Now, three years later, Alexia Neiers is a reality TV star and following the birth of her first child in April is cultivating her image as a celebrity mother. This whole episode was her ticket to the fame she wanted.
The Bling Ring makes these motivations very clear and Emma Watson’s character Nicki clearly shows her careful construction of this public image. Neiers name and dress sense may have changed (commenting on the movie Neiers was keen to point that she would never wear those clothes) but apparently everything else is pretty accurate. This includes some of the incredible statements that come out of her mouth when she is talking to the press. This girl’s obsession is not expensive jewellery and handbags, it is herself.
Emma Watson gives a very good performance and with this and The Perks of a Being a Wallflower is following in the footsteps of other child stars who got it right like Natalie Portman and Jodie Foster. She is clearly making careful choices about which projects to work on and is looking to build her experience and her reputation as an actor rather than a film star.
It is inevitable that having such a high profile twenty something in your film is going to look like stunt casting but that isn’t her fault and I don’t believe for a second it was Coppola’s intention. Her part is perhaps the most noticeable but it is not a lead role. The Bling Ring is a proper ensemble piece and while two of the five members of the gang don’t really get their stories told our Emma is only one part of the trio around which this film is built.
Virtual unknown Katie Chang portrays Rebecca who is the closest thing these felons have to a ringleader. Certainly it is she who instigates the first break ins (if they can be called break ins when they are entering through unlocked doors or accessing keys left under mats). This character is driven by a desire to emulate the celebrities she admires. Hers are not hate crimes, she adores the people she robs. She loves their style and sees a very clear, uncomplicated and easy way in which she can literally wear the same clothes as her idols. She is essentially ‘single white femaling’ these people so frankly they should be glad that all she wanted to do with their shoes was walk in them. Rebecca is the twisted heart of the film. Misguided and pathologically selfish but driven by adoration of others not of herself.
Then there is her disciple, the pathetic puppy dog Marc portrayed by another new face Israel Broussard. At least this guy has some conscience but his weak protestations concerning what they are doing are driven aside by his desire to fit in with the cool kids and their compelling couldn’t care less lifestyle. Each of these three, Marc, Rebecca and Nicki/Alexia show different aspects of a superstar obsessed youth; the wannabe famous, the wannabe pretty and the wannabe cool making this is a proper folk tale for the 21st Century.
Sofia Coppola as a director is clearly very interested by notions of celebrity herself. This is no great surprise when you think about the world she must have grown up in and the friends of her parents she must have spent time with. With the depictions of fame in her films she is like the Vicar’s daughter affectionately railing against organised religion.
Lost in Translation, the film that properly brought her to our attention, gave us a haunting view of stardom and success, what it does to the young, what it can lead to in the old and how it affects those who live around it. These themes were also explored in her most recent film Somewhere. Her most high profile release, Marie Antoinette was criticised for centring more on the vacuous lifestyle of the French queen and less on the politics of the time but this was the whole point. It showed how the public’s fascination and condemnation of those living large in the public eye was not something that originated with the advent of worldwide media and reality TV. The thing is though, Sofia Coppola has never been scathing or critical of this world and similarly she passes no judgement on the celebrity obsessed criminal teens at the centre of her new film.
Like the article that was her inspiration she gives us a pretty straight telling of events and this is a good thing. A less confident director may have felt the need to moralise and this could have easily turned into a cheesy daytime TV docudrama. As it is the audience are left to make their own judgements. Are these kids actually victims of loose or disengaged parenting? Do the obscenely rich LA residents deserve some kind of retribution, their interior designed bastilles justifiably stormed? (It seems Paris Hilton was burgled a good six or eight times before she even noticed. Her valuables were clearly not that valued, much less guarded.)
Unshowy as the storytelling is, there are at least a couple of nice directorial choices. This tale of burglary, party, burglary, party, burglary, grand theft auto, burglary, party could have become quite episodic but Coppola knows how to play things from different angles. One of the break (walk) ins is shown entirely in a long shot of the many windowed house as the teens run from room to room filling bags. Later having seen a few of the kids arrested there is a nice shot of one of the girls sitting having breakfast, slowly realising that those sirens getting closer will not in turn be getting further away.
The film is quite gently paced and pretty low key, taking time for us to get to know the characters and muse on the events. Coppola Jnr once again challenges Tarantino for the title of film maker best at selecting and integrating a soundtrack but you probably need to be a under 25 to properly appreciate this playlist.
I really enjoyed The Bling Ring and like Much Ado About Nothing was a treat to see among the big and loud Summer releases. Pacific Ring was playing in the other screen and from what I understand I was lucky not to hear it. The Bling Ring may not present us with any strong female role models but I do have to commend it for being one of the few films I have seen at the cinema this year that comfortably passes the Bechdel Test*.
Is this one for the kids?
No, it is a 15 certificate and the studios seem to go for a 12A as often as they can these days so anything that gets a higher rating deserves it. Even fellow Hogwarts alumni, Daniel Radcliffe’s horror film The Woman in Black got a 12A so clearly this isn’t one for very young teens. Apart from anything else you don’t want them getting ideas.
*The Bechdel Test is simple but a surprising amount of movies fail it shamefully. There are three criteria:
1. Does the film have two named female characters in it?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Is that conversation about something other than men?