Cannes Review: Sofia Coppola flips the celebrity mirror in taut, smart ‘The Bling Ring’

CANNES – “For a moment, a band of thieves in ripped-up jeans got to rule the world.” In all likelihood, pop princess Taylor Swift wasn’t thinking of the Bling Ring when she penned these lyrics to “Long Live,” a sweetly non-specific 2010 ode to that fleeting invincibility that any teenager claims at some point between her first kiss and her first crisis of purpose. After all, had Swift been one of the fashion-conscious female stars targeted by this band of thieves in, well, expensive Japanese selvedge denim, her sense of generational self-awe might have been tainted with rueful concern – a line that Sofia Coppola’s brisk, funny, unexpectedly substantial study of a tabloid diversion walks with considerable grace.

The Bling Ring, as you may not have surmised from the film’s coolly oblique marketing, was a group of well-to-do Los Angeles teenagers who, over a 10-month period in 2008 and 2009, managed to steal over $3 million worth of personal property from celebrities including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Megan Fox. How did they do it, you ask? They just walked in: in the way that good things so often come most easily to those who most expect them, the doors to these plastic palaces were left mostly unlocked. 

Even kids this brazenly entitled couldn’t pass this extended prank off as a Robin Hood scheme-robbing the rich to give to your bourgeois self is no one’s idea of heroism, however good it feels-but it did come perilously close to being a victimless crime. Amusingly, Ms. Hilton herself only noticed the burglary after several raids had taken place, by which point seven figures’ worth of jewelry had vanished from her overstocked stash. Shot throughout with a distanced, non-judgmental camera, Coppola’s film doesn’t exactly delight in such detail, but it doesn’t decry it either: dispassionately subversive and quietly modern, “The Bling Ring” may well be a morality tale with no moral. 

Some would argue that this is well-worn territory for Coppola, an unapologetically silver-spoon-fed filmmaker who has charted the ennui and corruption of celebrity culture in every film she’s made since her 1999 debut “The Virgin Suicides” – which at least bookends “The Bling Ring” as a study in warped adolescent self-actualization. But to lazily rehash already skimpy jabs at Coppola for her privileged tunnel vision would be to miss her new film’s significant shift in perspective. After three films about those firmly ensconced in the ivory tower – the Chateau Marmont in one incarnation, the Palace of Versailles in another – Coppola is, for the first time, on the outside looking in. 

Celebrities are not humanized in “The Bling Ring”; they’re objectified and finally commodified in a manner that equally strips them of their intrigue, their gilded refuges surveyed with post-”MTV Cribs” irony, and reduced unwittingly to self-image supermarkets for our young protagonists. (Not for nothing is Paris Hilton’s much-vaunted “cameo” a tossed-off long shot of her in conversation across a crowded room – no one’s interested in actually hearing her speak.) 

What’s gratifyingly fresh about the film is Coppola’s refusal to sentimentalize the kids’ crimes as a form of starry-eyed celebrity desire, which would be the easiest and most self-flattering stance for a celebrity filmmaker to take. The girls don’t steal Paris Hilton’s Louboutins to feel like Paris Hilton, whom at least some of them hold in blatant contempt; they steal them because they’re nice shoes, and readily available at that. Ringleader Rebecca (played with dry confidence by promising newcomer Katie Chang) at one point wheedles her sexually ambiguous sidekick Marc (Israel Broussard) into another spree with the invitation, “Let’s go to Paris”; by the end, her pleas have changed to, “I need some Chanel.” 

Never one to resist the allure of a designer label herself, Coppola is at least partly sympathetic to such material concerns: in an era where celebrity can be founded on personal achievements as tenuous as those of a Kardashian or a Hilton, their self-enhancing possessions do, rightly or (probably) wrongly, carry genuine currency. Taking them away theoretically shortens the gap between haves and have-nots, or at least it would if the haves didn’t have so damn much; we’re still nowhere near noble territory, but the film’s politics get more fractiously sophisticated the longer you consider them. 

All that, and it’s kind of a blast, too. The Ring members-faintly fictionalized in Coppola’s script, which also brings the action to the present day-exude the nasty charisma of a constructed-reality TV ensemble, only with tarter, smarter dialogue on their side. Playing gleefully against type, Emma Watson is a particular standout as Nicki, a toxic piece of work whose dull go-along attitude masks an astonishing capacity for self-promotion when crunch time comes. (“I’m a huge believer in karma,” she tells a Vanity Fair interviewer, without a flicker of irony.) 

Coppola’s first-hand knowledge of reality-shy LA society, meanwhile, lends her script a tickling frisson even when it plucks the lowest-hanging fruit. Said fruit comes chiefly in the form of a hilarious Leslie Mann as Nicki’s daffy mom, who perkily pesters her daughters with morning prayer circles, morning enemas and “vision boards” dedicated to Angelina Jolie. (“What qualities do you admire about Angelina?” she asks brightly. “Her husband?” the girls shoot back without a moment’s hesitation.) If anything, “The Bling Ring” would have you believe that the younger generation’s celebrity worship is more healthily in check than that of their parents. 

I’m sure I won’t be the only critic to suggest that “The Bling Ring” would make a handy double-bill with Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” another sexily constructed film that casually remodels the American Dream via a girls-gone-wild narrative. I suspect, however, that such a pairing would flatter Coppola’s film, which steers more successfully clear of complicity with problematic onscreen escapades. Much of the film’s expensive Top 40 soundtrack is deliberately filtered through tinny speakers. Working with two ace cinematographers in the late Harris Savides (who passed away during production) and his successor Christopher Blauvelt, Coppola cleverly keeps the lighting flat and the compositions practically closed-circuit in their distance, laying bare the characters’ world without ever openly inviting us into it. 

The film’s formal masterstroke-a patiently held long shot of a Beverly Hills mansion with a burglary in progress, lights flicking on and off like neon tiles on a dance floor-is, in its remote precision, reminiscent of Gus van Sant’s finest hours. As, indeed, is much of the film, Coppola’s least romantic and most questioning to date. Sure to be misunderstood by some viewers who take its affectlessness at face value, “The Bling Ring” neither offers nor claims a direct line to the minds of its characters. “We were all young once” used to be the adult’s standard riposte to youthful misbehavior; we’re left wondering whether that’s actually true of these chilly, culturally over-caffeinated children of the century.