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Poor Little Rich Girls. There Will Be No Judging in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013)


“Empty Hearts. Empty Lives. Empty Homes. Poor Little Rich Girl.”

(from the inter-titles of The Poor Little Rich Girl, a sentimental classic scripted by Frances Marion, directed by Maurice Tourneur in 1917)

Pursued by photographers and reporters, Emma Watson’s character Nicki Moore (based on actual reality TV star Alexis Neiers), turns to the flashlights and microphones to declare: “I am a firm believer in Karma. And I think this situation [i.e. her court appearance for her part in a series of burglaries of celebrities’ homes] is a huge learning lesson for me… to grow and expand as a spiritual human being.” These lines invite a smile, surely a weary and thin one, but in fact, like most of the dialogue in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), they reiterate rather than exaggerate actual declarations made by the real-life teen robbers (either on reality shows, during public appearances or in a series of interviews with journalist Nancy-Jo Sales who wrote the article in Vanity Fair on which the film is based.)

What this statement made me wonder is this: if the indictment and prosecution of the gang was a “huge learning lesson” for the ones involved, could we say the same thing about Coppola’s movie? Can the film similarly be a “huge learning lesson” about our culture’s engrossment in celebrity culture, about its material greed and emotional inertia, about absent parents and wonky moral values, about its shallow and medication-induced state of non-engagement with the world? In an interview with The New York Times Coppola expressed the hope that the film would leave her audience “reflective” and not just starry-eyed by the fast-cut “hip-hop style” and material beauty on the screen. Steering clear of a clear-cut cautionary tale, she added: “I tried not to be judgmental and leave it open for the audience to decide how they feel about all that.”

Coppola’s attendant style is somewhat neutral and observing (mixing more or less chronological but heavily syncopated dramatic action with snippets from flash-forward interviews). Coppola has not yet made an ugly picture and the flatter scenes are interspersed with stunning imagery – like the silhouetted figures of girls with “shopping” bags against the night-time LA-sky, or Katie Chang in slow motion entering her school, or the slow zoom-in on a burglary in a glass house (reminiscent of the opening shot of senior Coppola’s The Conversation [1974]) – accompanied by the blaring, pitch-perfect soundtrack of hip and rousing pop songs. Nevertheless, the film offers very little occasion to either let us witness any of the characters having a strong emotion (the shrill “oh’s and the ah’s” of being in the presence of a Birkin bag or Louboutins exempted, but we can hardly call these complex or layered) or indeed for the audience to experience emotions in response to the events or characters. The film’s overall narrative sparseness and repetitiveness is presented through tiny-framed (in more than one way) characters about whose private lives we learn next to nothing (apart from the clichéd and unbalanced scenes at home with Leslie Mann’s “spiritual” homeschooling mother.)

Two aspects of Coppola’s approach will briefly be addressed here for they have troubled or occupied friendly and unfriendly critics alike: her reluctance to pass judgment as well as her radical choice to make her protagonists (as in Somewhere [2010] and Marie Antoinette [2006]) flat, empty, and frankly unlikeable. (And usually they are privileged and spoiled to boot, which not only adds to their unpleasantness but has also prompted critics to repeatedly focus on Coppola’s biography – her own privilege, fortune, lineage… – in everything she does.) Of course, we all know that being unlikeable has not prevented us from caring or rooting for, or from being fascinated by particular nasty characters (off the top of my head, I am thinking of Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (or the characters of any Alexander Payne movie), Tony Soprano, Scarlet O’Hara, Julie Marsden, George Amberson Minafer…), but an amoral character is generally much harder to swallow than an immoral one (or simply a vain or misguided one), because for the latter the huge learning lesson can indeed prove redemptive whereas for the former a learning lesson is simply not possible. And it seems that the girls and boy from The Bling Ring belong to the former category: they have no morals, nothing to start from, nothing to fall back on and that makes them very hard to feel for; in refusing to assign blame or cause, Coppola leaves us with an additional, even more unforgiving, moral vacuum. Now we have the emptiness, the moral vacuity of the kids, replicated by the film’s own moral murkiness. The movie thus effectively becomes, as one critic from Hitflix cleverly puts it, “a morality tale without a moral,” and what are we to make of that?

A very interesting discussion between Time Out’s David Fear and The Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek (which you can find on indiewire) puts the finger on what critics in general are missing from this film: a clear politics, either explicit or implied; and if not a politics then at least a moral position or a clear engagement from its director. Fear defends the film (which he prefers to Coppola’s previous feature Somewhere) but Zacharek, who has been a defender of Coppola’s oeuvre so far, expresses her disappointment. She notes disapprovingly “Coppola doesn’t know how she feels about these characters.” And here it would seem that Coppola’s not knowing how to feelabout her characters is the same as not taking a moral position, which results in what has been called “pretty empty” filmmaking. Todd McCarthy from the Hollywood Reporter agrees, calling Coppola’s attitude towards her subject “equivocal and uncertain,” while Ryland Aldrich from Twitch notes how Coppola opts for visual candy instead of “teaching the audience what went wrong with these kids” (through character development). Even if such blatant calls for didacticism are not widely shared, Zacharek is still peeved that “the movie isn’t saying much.”

Indeed, apart from the repetitive celebrity mansion hopping, it doesn’t show much either. For example, when Emma Watson’s character tells the press that she is looking forward to her “day in court,” we don’t get to see any of it. Doors close on the court scene and after a jump cut they open again and the suspects’ punishments are communicated to us in a (news coverage) voice-over. I am not saying that the film actually “needed” (or would have benefitted from) a conventional wrap-up and big dramatic scenes full of accusations, moral high grounding or cathartic guilt admissions from the culprits, but Coppola’s unwillingness to show us her version of one of society’s rituals designed to reflect upon and engage with crime and punishment (the “day in court”) comes dangerously close to a refusal to engage with her story at all. And if the director doesn’t “engage or illuminate,” as reviewer Matt Mueller notes, why should we?

Thus I wonder: could a less distant directorial vision (or what Zacharek has called Coppola’s “gentleness of’ approach”), a less dry reportage of meaningful and spot-on but unexplored and critically unframed observations of teenage life have made the movie more “emotionally meaningful” (as Zacharek wishes it would have been)? And how would this have been achieved: perhaps with a little more “conventional” character development – the flatness of character explored less flatly, the protagonists’ backgrounds explored less passingly – or with a series of possible, gently offered, explanations or elucidations of why and how the story happened? Since we are apparently (and perhaps unconsciously) still inclined to attribute moral worth to a strong emotional experience (of any kind), we can suppose it may have for some, at least. Can The Bling Ring mainly have gotten lost in Coppola’s remarkable stylistics (which are safer than personal views), leaving little room for affective engagement from all involved? If, as moral philosophy has offered, the emotions are the precursors to our ethical conscience (and possibly a fundamental backbone to any politics), the movie arguably “flatlines” exactly there.

In a short Bling Ring featurette (to be found here) Coppola states that she was “looking for a different perspective” and that she hoped that although the movie can have the viewer “caught up in the whole teen-bad behavior-side,… in the end, hopefully [he’ll] have something to think about.” While Coppola has proven herself to be an expert at portraying young people growing up “sharing experiences” in every possible way, she does not let us share in her own experience of “all that.” And while I don’t mind doing some thinking for myself, it would have been interesting to find Coppola taking a stance – not providing a learning lesson but claiming a position, sharing her thoughts, and making the story her own.