The Bling Ring throws celebrity culture into the spotlight
The motives behind stealing $3 million in clothes and jewelry from the homes of A-list celebrities may seem outrageous and undoubtedly isolated to a distorted world of status obsession, yet the fundamental desire at their base could not be more universal.
That’s the most disturbing implication of The Bling Ring, the mesmerizing story of the fashion-obsessed, frappuccino-toting teenagers behind the most notorious chain of burglaries in the Hollywood Hills. Part addictive reality-show depiction of Valley Girls-Gone-Wild and part meditation on the influence of celebrity culture and consumerism, the flashy film mirrors the most extreme manifestations of the American Dream in contemporary society: the intoxicating idea that we can reinvent ourselves, drawing fame and power from something as basic as putting on someone else’s clothes and becoming a new person.
Directed by Sofia Coppola, no stranger to a life born into fame and fortune herself, The Bling Ring is based on a 2010 Vanity Fair article profiling the real-life “Burglar Bunch,” the most famous of whom is the E! reality star, Alexis Neiers. A classic Valley girl raised on the teachings of “The Secret,” as well as a frequent attendee of VIP Hollywood parties, Neiers is played to a tee by Emma Watson, who captures her amorality and vapid manner of speech with hilarious perfection.
The rest of the gang are portrayed by relative unknowns, Katie Chang the calculating ringleader and Israel Broussard the nervous sidekick that just wants to fit in. (You can read Vox’s Q&A with him here.) As the girls get increasingly reckless in their exploits, bragging to peers about how many times they’d visited Paris Hilton’s house and continuing to rob celebrities from Orlando Bloom to Rachel Bilson even after a security video of them at Audrina Patridge’s house was leaked online, Broussard’s Marc becomes progressively more paranoid. After the arrests and throughout the subsequent trials, he adopts the role of remorseful and reflective informer, open to the media and police. Yet even in these displays of honesty, the underlying desire for exposure is apparent.
Unlike Coppola’s previous films exploring the nature of celebrity, notably Lost in Translation and Somewhere, The Bling Ring is marked by a high-octane energy that echoes the restlessness of the L.A. party lifestyle and the blaring headlines of tabloid culture. Accompanied by a fast-paced, hedonistic soundtrack from the likes of Kanye West and Sleigh Bells, the film offers a kind of cinematic sugar rush that rarely brings you down. As impossible as it is to consider the Prada-wearing protagonists at all likable, then, it is also becomes difficult not to find yourself seduced by their world in all its glittery gaudiness.
Coppola seems to purposely provide no kind of criticism of the gang, instead luring the audience into the Bling Ring’s company in an attempt to understand their motivations. Though she provides space for you to make your own judgment by the end of the film, when the illusion is broken and reality comes crashing down, the director presents her story without a prescriptive angle. It’s a refreshing approach to take, forcing this generational portrait under your skin in ways it otherwise may have not. It also highlights the many gray areas of the tale, whose subjects are not so easily vilified on second glance.
Exploitation feeds into every pore of The Bling Ring’s fabric, blurring the line between victim and victimizer, as well as injecting the film with an undeniable air of irony. As the teenagers rob Lindsay Lohan’s house, she herself is under trial for shoplifting. Paris Hilton makes a cameo in the film and grants Coppola full access to her home as a set, thereby allowing herself publicity merely for being robbed. Moreover, the members of the Bling Ring themselves ultimately gain the very fame they worshipped. Even as Coppola and the actors involved endeavor to distance themselves from that ill-earned celebrity, they too are caught up in the same world of flashbulbs and red carpet fashions. It’s a culture, after all, in which image is everything.