The Bling Ring is the self-reflexive clusterfuck Sofia Coppola was born to make

Friday May 17th 2013

There’s a lot of fuss made over films that manage to ‘get inside the mind of a criminal’, as though the average cinemagoer might be so unimpeachably ethical that only a storyteller of the highest order could persuade him or her to empathise with a wrong ‘un. Such films cast their audience members as complicit in some act of lawlessness, by aligning them with the perpetrators’ actions, motives and emotions. In Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, that process takes all of 30 seconds, and is so utterly convincing that I’m still not sure whether any of the film’s supposed antiheroes did anything wrong.

As they roam from celebrity home to celebrity home, looting Louboutins and posing for photographs with Paris Hilton’s self-portrait-covered pillow cases, there’s rarely a sense that anything much is at stake. Leader of the pack Rebecca (Emma Watson’s Nicki is more of a comic foil) makes something of a catchphrase out of her frequent reassurance that “everything’s fine”, and most of the time I was inclined to agree with her. After all, the valuables the gang steal go habitually unnoticed by their complacent owners, their celebrity victims have — in many cases — got where they are today by methods scarcely more upstanding, and of course, it’s not stealing when rich, white people do it.

In the minds of the eponymous Ring, breaking into Orlando Bloom’s house and stealing a gold watch is more or less akin to going to a party at his place and taking a photograph of his fridge — it’s a memento, not a cause for legal action. The first name terms they use for the likes of Paris, Demi and Ashton are a glaring clue that there’s no particular division between victim and perpetrator here — both groups exist within the same amorphous Hollywood bubble. So when Marc asks Rebecca, “if I ever became not your friend any more, would you rob me?”, the answer is irrelevant. Some other Rebecca will.

This being a Sofia Coppola film, there are plenty of cameos, but for once they’re all completely justified. When the gang go to an LA club and spot Paris Hilton, shortly before they first investigate her living quarters, we realise that we’re essentially watching a documentary. Sure, Hilton is acting (sort of) and the kids aren’t actually members of the 2008 Hollywood crime syndicate from which the film takes its name, but the dynamic is largely the same. Tomorrow, Israel Broussard, Katie Chang and Claire Julien will be hot properties, and by June they’ll probably wind up back in the same club the scene was shot in, only this time as genuine VIPs. The lines they snort here might be a synthetic substitute, but who’s to say what went down at the film’s Cannes premiere the other night? Coppola must surely be awake to the self-reflexivity of all of this, not to mention the irony of poking fun at Paris Hilton, perhaps the only poster child for nepotism more widely cited than herself.

The late cinematographer Harris Savides locates the film somewhere in the intersection of a Ruben Östlund film and The Sims — all cold distance and static emptiness — but that does little to disguise the fact that this is Coppola’s most brazenly involved film to date, a mess of autobiographical ideas so dense that all pretence of objectivity is soon eradicated. It’s no wonder the bad guys are hard to pick out of a line-up.