Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Illuminating Backdrop

Director Sophia Coppola doesn't make movies driven so much by plot as they are by mood and suggestion. Nick Coccoma examines in Critics at Large how that quality enhances her latest film.

Mimetic Desire: The Bling Ring

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring
Sofia Coppola’s first movie, The Virgin Suicides (1999), treated a cadre of teenage sisters and their relationship with the material and moral strictures surrounding them. With The Bling Ring she comes full circle in a way, but the detours she’s taken in the intermediary years bring her to a very different vantage point. Once again, a group of adolescent girls (plus one boy) are the main characters; once again, the effect of materiality and culture is the theme. But her take on this material is informed now by her intervening films, Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), and Somewhere (2010). Without those reference points, you could slip and pass off The Bling Ring as a pointless affair. So did the woman next to me in the theater when I saw it, who pronounced it the worst movie she’d ever seen (did she forget the Baz Luhrmann movie playing next door?). But with Coppola’s oeuvre hanging as an illuminating backdrop, The Bling Ring reveals itself as perhaps her most biting, damning portrait of society yet.

The story is so bizarre it can only be true. Over many months in 2008-9, a posse of Los Angeles teens burglarized the mansions of various celebrities and made off with millions of dollars in luxury goods, designer apparel, and cash. Their hijinks led to a Vanity Fair piece, which was the source for Coppola's screenplay. She alters some names but keeps the story intact, introducing us first to Marc, a new student at a school for problem kids. There he falls in with a Korean American girl named Rebecca, who initiates him into the circle of vandalizing Valley girls. What follows can best be described as some strange mix of unconventional high comedy, coming-of-age tale, and quasi-gangster movie, as the cohort pilfer and party their way through Hollywood. The gang want in on the monied entertainment club, and in the process create an exclusive clique of their own.

Coppola’s excavated this terrain before. Both Lost in Translation and Somewhere explore the hollowness of the entertainment industry; they're almost companion films. In the former, Bill Murray plays a fading American actor named Bob Harris, who suffers insomnia while in Tokyo shooting a liquor commercial. He strikes up a relationship with Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), another American staying in his hotel and one who feels the same alienation from the bizarro neon world of the Japanese capital as he. In Somewhere, Stephen Dorff also portrays a screen actor, action star Johnny Marco, with his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) in the Charlotte role. The difference between the two films lies in the tone—Coppola has us laughing in the first, crying in the second. Bob has sad eyes and drooping cheeks, but Murray injects his trademark humor as the medicine Bob gives himself and Charlotte to boost their spirits. Armed with his spontaneity and wit, the pair prances through the karaoke bars and discos of the city. Johnny doesn’t have the humor factor going for him; his career’s ostensibly at its peak, but in truth his life’s as empty as a shell. Yet as the romance between Bob and Charlotte serves to free them, Cleo’s innocence and love for her dad offers him salvation. The movie slowly builds to his awakening to his existential despair, fueled by the time he spends with her. When he finally breaks down, it hits you in the gut. “I’m fucking nothing,” he softly cries on the phone. “I’m not a person.”

The Bling Ring
The Bling Ring depicts Hollywood culture yet again, and its members are, in many respects, in an even sadder position than Johnny. Painful as it is, he at least comes to consciousness of his ennui and does something about it; the final images see him throw off the shackles of his dead-end life and walk smiling into a sun drenched plain. The kids in Coppola’s current picture don’t even possess the elemental soul powers to know they're fucking nothing. They’re parodies of people, but they don’t seem to care. After all, that’s what celebrities are, isn’t it? And The Bling Ring is yet another hilariously terrifying reminder that a huge segment of America wants to be just like them. What’s most disturbing is the utter simplicity of these kids’ motivation. As Coppola presents them, they’re living proof of anthropologist René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. They want the Prada, Chanel and Gucci because it’s what other people want, famous people. (And this despite the fact that most of their families already have more money than God.) They seem to come prepackaged with these desires; we don’t see any process by which the kids become what they are. And with the slight exception of Marc, none of them displays even the faintest hint of hesitation—the exactitude with which Rebecca, Nicki, Chloe, Sam, and Emily case the joints and carjack Mercedes makes you simultaneously laugh and gasp. Coppola shows depth upon depth of material vacuity.

The fascination with materialism is another theme the director’s shown us in the past. Based on the Jeffrey Eugenides novel of the same name, The Virgin Suicides tells of the existential suffocation and eventual collective suicide of the Lisbon daughters in a leafy 1970s Detroit suburb. Asphyxiation is the idea (as the narrator says of a dinner party at the film’s close), and it’s what the movie says society inflicts on us. Coppola takes in the bric-a-brac of the girls’ rooms: perfumes, jewelry, all the stuff we cram our lives with. Mrs. Lisbon’s Catholicism is part of that same artificial veneer. Symbolized by the tacky religious paraphernalia around the house, it’s a skin-deep moralism that smothers natural desires. Culture, Coppola seems to say, kills. It also smothers the title character of Marie Antoinette, her most ambitious film to date. On the strength of Kirsten Dunst’s performance (which is so subtle and wordless you could almost miss it) Coppola does something I didn’t think possible—she makes the Bourbons objects of sympathy. Marie’s just a sweet, coy girl who wants to live a normal human life. But she finds herself caught in the decadence and dandied inhumanity of Versailles, with the weight of monarchical succession and internecine European politics foisted on her naïve shoulders. In addition, she finds herself wedded to a polite but boring and utterly sexless king; Louis XVI reads a history of clocks in bed, and he (finally) does the deed just as mechanically. Faced with these circumstances, Marie does what anyone would likely do—indulge in the many other pleasures of the court. Cakes, dresses, champagne—the images of the Bourbon excess overwhelm the senses. But it’s rendered harmless because Marie knows it’s all absurd. “This is ridiculous,” she exclaims during her preposterous daily dressing ritual. “Your Highness,” comes the haughty reply, “this is Versailles.” Since we identify with Marie throughout the movie, her self-awareness allows us guilt-free vicarious enjoyment of all she possesses.

The Bling Ring’s handling of that vicarious indulgence is actually more insidious even as it’s more straightforward. Unlike Marie, the teens take these material things with the utmost seriousness and have no desire for genuine relationships. They don’t even have the vocabulary to describe that desire. Coppola’s camera shares in their worship of glitz and glamor, but her emotional perspective doesn’t. Visually, we’re cued to enjoy the hundreds of pairs of Paris Hilton’s shoes and the thudding LA club scene. The images are glossy and gorgeous in that doctored magazine way—the movie looks like, well, a Vanity Fair project. The kids’ police mug shots are like a Vogue cover shoot; when Rebecca applies Lindsay Lohan’s lipstick, she shimmers in slow motion in the frame like a model. Coppola films the Ring’s court arraignment likeProject Runway.

Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette (2006)
But the whole time your mind is rebelling against these images because Coppola makes you aware of their utter vapidity. These characters lack any depth, and it works because that’s the point. The real kids they’re based on totally buy into the cult of celebrity and the narcissistic reality television culture that goes with it. Coppola shows you the insanity of a world in which people fall on their face so publicly and then turn even their bad girl/boy behavior into egomaniacal redemption stories for the press. Nicki is the apotheosis of this cult of the self, played to delicious perfection by Emma Watson. Her performance is at once tongue-in-cheek and shot straight from the hip; she’s so intelligent in her ditzy portrayal that you can almost hear her saying, “Can you believe this girl?” What you do hear from her mouth are lines that boggle the cerebral apparatus. “I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being,” she tells an E! News camera crew outside the courthouse. “God didn’t give me these talents and looks to just sit around being a model or being famous. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.” The only thing more stupefying than these words is the fact that it’s what Alexis Neiers, the flesh-and-blood basis of Nicki’s character, actually said. Watson’s line readings are brilliant.

The movie makes only minor missteps. Coppola injects some narration from Marc and Rebecca as the story progresses, segments of the post facto analysis they offer of their own behavior. But this is more distracting than anything and alienates you from a narrative that already speaks for itself. Marc says at one point that it’s weird to be famous for behavior most people would disagree with. When he continues and says that America’s fascinated with a Bonnie-and-Clyde thing, that line’s gone too far—Coppola doesn’t need him to say this because we’ve thought of the Barrow Gang well before this point. Leslie Mann is miscast as Nicki’s mom, the only casting mistake in the picture. She goes for the halting improv style of one of Judd Apatow's comedies; she needs the vanity and prissiness of a Real Housewives character.

Lost in Translation (2003)
All of Coppola’s movies survey civilization and its discontents. The Virgin Suicides gets at the powerful sexual energies trapped beneath the repressive artificial veneer that makes for culture. Lost in Translation and Somewhere depict the decay that comes from trying to find, in the material world of said culture, an outlet for those and other energies. The loveliest scenes in Marie Antoinette—of the queen retiring to a country retreat with friends for an extended respite—suggest that happiness comes from dropping out of that culture to find a true freedom beneath it. She reads Rousseau in the meadows, gathers eggs from a hen house with her daughter, and watches the sunrise by a pond. The images are bucolic, fertile, pastoral—visual affirmations of the Enlightenment philosopher’s belief that the state of nature is one of simple contentment, not Hobbesian brutishness. The Bling Ring couldn’t be more different. These characters are completely invested in the excess of Hollywood culture and yet suffer no visible discontents whatsoever. For we never really see the actual consequences of such a life—like global poverty, for example—on so-called reality television. Nicki and the gang are laughing all the way to the talk show studio, and we’re all watching. Coppola has laughed at this absurdity with Bob Harris and cried through it with Johnny Marco. She’s laughing now again, but it’s a defensive laugh this time. For the state of nature, as far as this movie goes, is pretty nasty.

- originally published on June 30, 2013 in Critics at Large.

– Nick Coccoma lives and writes in Boston, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theater, philosophy, and religion at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College.

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