In Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature, the sublime and serene “The Bling Ring,” five children—four princesses and a prince—run in gentle Angeleno night from enchanted castle to enchanted castle, gathering treasure in the form of beads and raiment and gold and currency, spending themselves afterward on endorphins and coke.
But this based-on-fact fairytale is very much like her four earlier fairytales, sharing one keen characteristic. Aloneness: Coppola’s great subject. To be among others and yet so very alone. (Like any proper reader of fairytales as well.) To be a dreamy teenaged girl in “The Virgin Suicides,” a disenchanted actor in “Lost in Translation,” a reluctant royal in “Marie Antoinette,” a dislocated father in “Somewhere.” And “The Bling Ring”: these five privileged suburban kids from Calabasas, from over several hills, who had already gone wrong before they got assigned to a remedial high school where they all meet. Before long, they’re breaking into the homes of celebrities, feckless, heedless, reckless home invaders who think it’s all nothing more than months of late-night joy rides. (The shocking yield was $3 million in schmattas and swag.) Their targets for burglary hopscotch: Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan, as well as reality-TV stars whose names you might have to look up.
The most brazen of the bunch, Rebecca, played by persuasive newcomer Katie Chang, is all cool assurance and unflurried deadpan, from her chill “Hey, new kid” to Mark (Israel Broussard), greeting the only male in their group, to “Don’t trip out, it’s fine” during a break-in, or “You’re good, you’re fine.” There’s not a lick of intonation at her discovery in one house: “It’s a Birkin,” zeroing in on and plucking up a $10,000 purse from a pile of purses. Mark’s utterances are unwittingly gnomic: he explains how he was shifted from his last school with “I had a lot of absences.” No one precisely exclaims: at a celebrity sighting at their favorite club, an apparition in the gleaming light is identified: “Kirsten Dunst.” News on the internet or Facebook is spoken aloud: “Mischa Barton got a DUI,” and later, “Lindsay got another DUI.” It’s like inner voice spoken aloud: a whisper that sounds so loud just because it’s only in your head. Music from the club continues on a close-up of Mark’s face with a slow fade to black, announcing what that sound has become: it’s his heartbeat now.
The hyper member of the crew is Nicki (Emma Watson), whose mother greets her home-schooled children each morning with “Girls, time for your Adderall,” accompanied by wan, witless affirmations. But Nicki, along with being a carefree sociopath in the making, can form sentences like “I want to lead a huge charity organization one day, I want to lead a country, for all I know.” (It may sound like jabs of satire, but the words are drawn from Nancy Sales’ Vanity Fair coverage of the callow criminals that inspired the film.)
“The Bling Ring” opens on isolated sounds. A single cricket. A dog barks in the distance. Or is it a coyote? A helicopter, close, not far, not so close. Before a buzzy song crashes onto the soundtrack, Coppola displays her simple but full, supple sound design. The story’s as much in the hearing as the seeing, as much sensation as sense. Can sound be described as “pointillist?” The recurring impression of the second-generation filmmaker being fixed on the trappings of privilege is quickly and succinctly tweaked when Coppola’s writer-director credit appears over a collage that contains the words “Rich Bitch.”
“I want to go to Paris’,” one girl says, sounding like a character from “Repo Man,” “I want to rob.” Again, no affect: flat fact. These five are inhaling, inhabiting a “lifestyle” without having done a lick to earn it, a self-bestowing, living with a fulsome sense of entitlement. And the filmmaking, in a slim, brisk eighty-seven minutes, remains calm, tranquil even. While Coppola has cited as influences movies like the teens-left-to-their-own-devices “Over the Edge” (1979) and 1980s Los Angeles cautionary tales like “Foxes” and “Valley Girl,” she stays cool, a little distant, the characters exchanging lines like “I hear helicopters”; “We’re in L.A., of course there are helicopters.”
One of the loveliest and most disturbing scenes in a robbery that takes place in a two-story glass box of a home in the Hollywood Hills, with the camera watching from higher up as the delinquents move from room to room, turning lights on and off, tiny figures we cannot hear, but there are helicopters in the distance, a siren a mile away, and yes, that was a coyote over there. There’s a darkened pool in the foreground, and then the guttering gleam of the basin’s lights on the horizon far below beneath a chalk-to-bone-gray night sky. It’s architectural-topographical comedy. But also, in that tranquil, composed scene, the film demonstrates that the world, the city, the culture around them is oblivious. They’re another small, unnoticed activity on the desert floor, not paparazzi bait, but scavengers on the level of that coyote.
The film’s weight can be measured in these elusive, temporal sensations, always slipping away into an aleatory quality not far removed from a filmmaker like Hou Hsiao-hsien in a movie like “Millennium Mambo” or “Goodbye South Goodbye”: so many gorgeous things, places, faces, products. So much music. So many nights spent like cigarettes. Like the characters careering through sensations, cataloging their crimes in increasingly incriminating “selfies,” “The Bling Ring” is unapologetic, headlong immersion.
These children don’t have the anguish of 1950s teenagers, when the idea of teenagers took hold in the culture. These aren’t psychologically anguished rebels without a Birkin bag. They’re past literacy, guilt or even fear. What they say doesn’t rise to satire, although the film is wide-eyed at their emptiness. It’s a captivating fairytale from the id. Coppola cannot help but watch. The reality is of reality TV: image shorn of history, experience, effort. This is what they are, who they think they are, or perhaps, what they think others want to think they are. And it is ever so achingly beautiful, even as we’re serenaded out the door by Frank Ocean singing about “super-rich kids with nothing but fake friends.”
“The Bling Ring” opens Friday.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.