In 20 years or so — after we sift through the rubble of three decades of self-help, 15 minutes of free-for-all fame, the Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan monuments to vapid designer-fueled high-living, and camera close-ups to catch it all — we might finally see what the milking of our narcissistic tendencies on social networks has done to our priorities. It’s never been defined as brilliantly as Sofia Coppola does in "The Bling Ring," which opened the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes on Thursday.
While some will always maintain "Lost in Translation" is her best work, "The Bling Ring" represents a far more ambitious movie for this filmmaker. For once, she has stepped outside her comfort zone of portraying the languid wistfulness of disaffected youth in "atmosphere" films about the well-to-do.
The muse and model for Marc Jacobs, a famous director’s daughter who grew up among kids just like those in "The Bling Ring" – the privileged cliques accustomed to being worshiped like gods and indulged like royalty – slices that world wide open, splits it down the middle and exposes the insides with this movie. It’s quite something to see. She does this not by criticizing the gang of teenage Southern California thieves who felt it was almost their birthright to seek out celebrity homes and rob them; nor does she blame the Paris Hiltons of the world outright. She does it by allowing us to observe that almost no one gets away from this thing clean.
Maybe for a while, as they click-clack around in Louboutins tossing $100 bills like toilet tissue, these girls convince themselves that they really are living the high life. They live it because they stole it. Half the time it seems as though they do these things only to flaunt how cool they are on Facebook.
The ring's bling-leader Rebecca (Katie Chang, portraying real-life delinquent Rachel Lee) is the only one of the gang who seems to have a genuine pathological compulsion to steal. The rest of the girls who pillage alongside her just want to look cool and have neat stuff. There is no there there.
The big star of the film is Emma Watson, who plays Nicki, a.k.a. Alexis Neiers, one of the teens who was eventually caught and sentenced to one year in jail. (Neiers would ultimately serve only 30 days. She denied her crimes at the time and continues to deny them on her website to this day.)
Coppola frames the story around Marc (Israel Broussard, a character based on the one male member of the so-called Burglar Bunch, Nick Prugo). He is drawn into the world of thievery when he’s sent to a Calabasas high school for kids who can’t do well anywhere else. Plagued by self-loathing, he is ripe for change when the sophisticated and manipulative Rebecca enters his world. For Marc, his friendship with Rebecca meant everything. He seems to have a decent moral compass, and is the only one of the group who's troubled when Rebecca tries to steal Paris Hilton’s dog.
And yet the lifestyle becomes addictive. The teens need to keep the high going, so they have to keep robbing the people they admire most in the world. To steal a piece of their life is to be somehow attached to them, to be part of their world.
The performances plumb various depths, but most find the right level. Only Watson comes off as a bit of a fish out of water, simply too nice and compassionate to be believable as a shallow idiot. Nonetheless, she allows herself to be alternately sexy and sociopathic in her portrayal of one of the girls who inadvertently found more fame than she desired after she was arrested.
“The Bling Ring” is often uncomfortable to watch because the characters are so unlikable. The parents are awful, the teenagers are repulsive, and the celebrities who inspire them are so far removed from reality none of them would ever stop to think about what building an entire career on female penis envy can do to an unsuspecting public.
Maybe the impulse that has propelled so many members of her family to make films can explain Sofia Coppola's fascination with the psychological albatross of inherited ascendancy. She has danced around the edges of exposing how little the high society to which we aspire really means – she did it with fame in “Lost in Translation,” aristocracy in “Marie Antoinette,” and with stardom in “Somewhere.” But with “The Bling Ring” she isn’t dancing around anything anymore.
As spectators, we don’t care how a person gets famous anymore. We only care that they’re important enough to have people take pictures of them. Recently, Amanda Bynes started to have some kind of a public meltdown that amounted to abusive tweets being sent out and photos of herself topless. It did nothing but up her fame cred to the tune of millions more Twitter followers.
This is not to say that we should blame celebrities, or blame Capitalism, or blame the entitlement culture and self-help for a bunch of brats who don’t have boundaries. The blame game will be played later, long after reality shows and designer divas have fallen out of favor. Sofia Coppola has peeled back enough of the phony sheen to allow us one last look before it all crumbles.
Sasha Stone is the editor of AwardsDaily.com. She will be contributing to TheWrap’s coverage of the Cannes Film Festival.
For full Cannes coverage, check the Cannes Report column.