Sunday, June 30, 2013

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 topic 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 offThe 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 film 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 a period of 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 (Israel Broussard), a new student at a school for problem kids. There he falls in with a Korean American girl named Rebecca (Katie Chang), 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, social satire, and quasi-gangster movie, as the pack 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. Their robberies are shockingly easy – they stalk their targets on celebrity fan websites, learning which of the who’s-who will be partying out of town. After that, it’s only a matter of taking the key under the mat by the front door and waltzing in.

This is material made for Coppola, as she’s excavated this terrain in all her movies. 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 mood – 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 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, maturity, 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 one night. “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 grassland. 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. Actually, they’re not even that – 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. No, these kids are at an even further remove: they’re imitations of parodies, but they don’t seem to care. What’s most disturbing is the utter simplicity of their 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.) Their vast intuitive knowledge of brand names startles – they know more about fashion lines than basic geography. They seem to come prepackaged with these desires; we don’t see any process by which they 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 lift Mercedes makes you simultaneously laugh and gasp. Coppola shows depth upon depth of material vacuity – its intoxicating hold on people oblivious of their own disenchantment.

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 nearly does in 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 (Jason Schwartzman) 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 immersion in Baroque excess overwhelms 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 (she pans over boxes of clothes and watches like aerial shots of wilderness vistas), but her emotional perspective doesn’t. Visually, we’re seduced to enjoy the hundreds of pairs of Paris Hilton’s shoes and the thudding LA club scene. The film pulses with energy, the electric, amped-up editing mimicking pop music videos in all their techno titillation. 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 evoke a Vogue cover shoot; when Rebecca applies Lindsay Lohan’s lipstick in the mirror, she shimmers slow motion in the frame model-like. Coppola films the Ring’s court arraignment in the style of Project Runway. This is the true result of our glorious American capitalist enterprise: the commodification of consumers to the hilt. And the thing is, you like. You love it. You inhale the erotic charge suffusing it all, and it’s damn fun. But the whole time your mind is rebelling against this sensory stimulation because Coppola also makes you aware of its utter vapidity. These characters lack any depth, and it works because that’s the point. The desire you project toward the screen has nothing human to hold on to, so it bounces off the images like rain beading on a windshield. You’re left with nothing but sand slipping through your fingers – the decayed remains of possessions that only ever possess us. Over and over, Coppola sets a fine rug for you to enjoy and synchronously yanks it out.

Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette (2006)
In the meantime, the real kids the characters are 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. There’s an acute, devilish intelligence to her ditzy portrayal; you can see her putting on Nicki, who herself puts on the phony pity-party face we know so well from celebrity confessionals. These levels of self-awareness converge like a triple-layer cake. 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. It attempts to offer character motivation, but you don’t buy it for a second because Coppola’s showed you that the usual excuses – “I wanted to fit in,” “Society made me who I am,”– are bullshit. These kids know exactly what they‘re doing and go for it. It’s the desire to be bad, to have crap, simply for it’s own sake. And that motivation (or un-motivation) is the most disturbing. Marc observes 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 make this connection because we’ve thought of the Barrow Gang well before. Leslie Mann is miscast as Nicki’s mother, the only such mistake in the picture. She goes for the halting improv style of one of Judd Apatow's comedies; her character instead needs the vanity and prissiness of a Real Housewives mom. That aside, the cast is on the money. Coppola steps back and creates space for Watson, Chang, Broussard, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga (sister of Vera), and Georgia Rock to strut bling, grind poles, snort coke, and fling out more wild physicality. She gives them the freedom to do their best at embodying their worst, and you can tell they’re having a sinfully good time.

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 altogether to find a truer 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 see the actual consequences of such a life – like global poverty, for example – on so-called reality television.) They’re the Lisbon sisters unleashed and unhinged. Nicki and the gang are laughing all the way to the talk show studio, and we’re all watching. Coppola’s laughed, too, at this absurdity – laughed at it with Bob Harris and cried through it with Johnny Marco. She’s laughing now again, but it’s a defensive one this time. For the state of nature, as far as this movie sees, is pretty nasty.

– 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.


  1. "they’re living proof of anthropologist René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire"

    I'm a big fan of Girard. I've never heard him mentioned outside of religious circles. I think he deserves a much wider audience, so I glad you brought him up. Religion aside he has a great understanding of human nature.

    Je m'appelle
    Le Fou

  2. Nic,

    Fascinating piece. I come to similar conclusions in this creative essay that works well in conversation with yours: I'm also glad to see people actually reaching for the nihilistic heart of The Bling Ring rather than just writing it off as mediocre.