Cannes 2013: The girls have gone wild in 'The Bling Ring,' Sofia Coppola's most provocative film yet

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Image Credit: Merrick Morton

I’m writing my first post here at Cannes while I sit at one of my favorite side-street bistros, digging into a bowl of spaghetti carbonara, which is somehow less fattening than it would be in the U.S., because there are so many less additives in European food. That’s kind of how I feel about Sofia Coppola’s filmmaking: It’s additive-free — a series of simple and direct gazes, purged of the usual syrup and glop, though maybe I should add that it’s deceptively simple, because the way that Coppola now works is to take her refreshingly unhurried, open-eyed, and empathetic camera style (which doesn’t descend from her father’s; I’d say it’s closer to Jonathan Demme meets mumblecore) and apply it to subjects of over-the-top extravagance. She first embraced this mode in Marie Antoinette (2006), and now, in her acerbically witty and arresting fifth feature, The Bling Ring, which premiered this morning at Cannes, she pushes it into the docudrama terrain of an American youth culture gone mad.

The movie, based on Nancy Jo Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” tells the true story of a pack of teenage girls in Los Angeles who broke into the homes of their celebrity idols (like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Rachel Bilson) to steal their clothes, shoes, jewelry, and knickknacks. They wound up taking more than $3 million worth of merchandise, yet in at least one sense the film presents their highly random boutique thievery binges as “victimless” crimes. Figuring out from the Internet which stars are going to be out of town, and what their addresses are, they’re usually able to break in quite easily, climbing over security fences and going through (mostly) unlocked windows and doors, and once inside, what they’re doing, basically, is shopping. They rifle through designer dresses, find roomfuls of necklaces and handbags, and finally get to Valhalla when they enter the sacred chamber where Paris Hilton keeps her shoes (“This is so sick!” “Look at all her Louboutins!” “Her feet are so big!”). Turning creepy-crawling into the ultimate designer sale, they’re like the Manson girls of starstruck consumer-culture depravity.

I don’t know if Coppola shot all these scenes in actual celebrity homes, but it feels as if she did, and that’s part of the film’s lightly scandalous yet never mocking texture, its refusal to satirize. The girls, led by the breathlessly affectless Rebecca (Katie Chang), are presented as a new species of mutant: They care about nothing — nothing! — but fashion, tabloid star gossip, sexy consumer goods, and the way that these things all mash together to a grinding hip-hop party beat. (“It’s a Birkin!” exclaims Rebecca as she removes a white leather handbag from a star’s closet. “Lindsay has this one!”) Coppola knows that these baby-doll label whores, in trying to get close to their idols, and even to “become” them, by coveting what they wear to the point of going into their homes and stealing it are acting out a sociopathic version of the obsessions that now rule too many of us. Morally, they’re bankrupt, yet there’s a strange logic to what they’re up to. It’s the same impulse that gets people to buy celebrity perfumes and designer labels at Target, only here pushed to an uncompromising extreme of upscale desire.

The acting is so authentic that it takes a while to differentiate the girls, and that’s part of the film’s texture, too: its unsensational look at sensational (if trivial) crimes. Katie Chang gives Rebecca a coolly synthetic sensual glow, and Emma Watson, playing Nicki, a real mean girl, does a remarkable job of demonstrating that glassy-eyed insensitivity doesn’t have to be stupid. Wearing a brown shag that transforms her into a look-alike of the young Marilyn Chambers, Watson proves that her willingness to take chances is only growing, and that she’s an actress serious enough to turn a line like “Your butt looks awesome!” into something that reveals character. As the lethal strumpet Chloe, singing along with M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” at the wheel just before she’s struck by another car (that’s not a spoiler — she emerges with barely a scratch), Claire Julien is like a 21st-century Cherie Currie, and Israel Broussard is sympathetic in a dazed way as Rebecca’s boyfriend, Marc, who gets drawn into being the token male of the group. The way he goes along on this joyride to hell makes him, in a certain sense, our token of normality as well. Watching The Bling Ring, the audience is invited to understand the impulses of these child-woman thieves, even as Coppola stands firmly apart from their craziness and sees them for who they are. A lesser filmmaker would have turned them into warped rebels. What Coppola demonstrates is that they’re not so much rebellious as scared, because the inner lives they’re desperately trying to slather in stuff are so amazingly underdeveloped. In the end, of course, the members of the Bling Ring did get caught. Which finally made them, too, into “celebrities.” The movie is a comic ode to how cheap our 15 minutes of fame has become.

* * * *

It’s been raining for two days now in Cannes, with the Riviera sun a sadly distant memory, though the bum weather didn’t rain on the parade of The Great Gatsby, which kicked off the festival last night with full red-carpet fireworks. The opening-night film, especially if it’s already playing in the States, often seems detached from the rest of the festival: a high-profile bubble of PR floating above everything else. Yet the sudden phenomenon of The Great Gatsby is all that anyone’s been talking about here. The film’s $50 million opening weekend has redefined it, making it that rarity, a kind of blockbuster sleeper, not to mention a far sexier player than even the Cannes programmers must have bargained for.

What everyone wants to know is: Can a tale as quintessentially American as The Great Gatsby now conquer Europe? My guess would be yes. And maybe for the same reason that the film is conquering America, even though it has no Iron Men, fast and furious hot rods, or Vulcan ears. The stylistics of Baz Luhrmann, fused not just with the story of The Great Gatsby but with the mystique of The Great Gatsby, has taken this tale of a 1920s man of wealth who is also a human mirage and made it over into a mirage of the 21st-century money culture: glitzy, top-heavy, built like a McMansion in the air. At the press conference, Luhrmann had to dodge a series of “Gotcha!” questions about why the Jewish criminal Meyer Wolfsheim is played by a Bollywood actor (I think the answer is: because Baz Luhrmann loves Bollywood!), but aside from that tempest in a teapot, Luhrmann suddenly seems like the spirit of Cannes incarnate, a global mixmaster touching past and present, old money and new, art-house classicism and whirling, hip-hop-fueled delirium. In many ways, The Great Gatsby is a Merchant-Ivory movie for people who don’t read. But here in Cannes, we still call that cinema. And it will certainly do until the sun comes out.

Owen’s other posts from Cannes:
Cannes 2013: Unhinged sex comes to the art house in ‘Young & Beautiful’ and ‘Stranger by the Lake’
Cannes 2013: ‘The Past,’ the new film by the director of ‘The Separation,’ confirms Asghar Farhadi as a modern master
Cannes 2013: The Coen brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a close-to-the-bone portrait of the early-’60s New York folk scene, but it is also (what else?) a perverse Coen stunt
Cannes 2013: ‘Blood Ties’ is an authentic ’70s-set crime thriller that gives Clive Owen his best role in years
Cannes 2013: ‘Behind the Candelabra,’ starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, is more than a dark Liberace kitschfest. It’s a creepily moving love story


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