by Claire Davidson | November 4, 2021
Sofia Coppola never truly allows any one idea in her filmography to remain dormant. Instead, her oeuvre is always recontextualising previous themes into updated experimentations. If Lost in Translation (2003) is to Somewhere (2010) what The Virgin Suicides (1999) would eventually be to The Beguiled (2017), the sister project to Marie Antoinette (2006) is 2013’s The Bling Ring. Like its predecessor, the film is based on real events, but seen through a mythologized abstract lens; the source material is merely contextualization rather than fact.
The two films are clear in their parallels: Marie Antoinette depicts its titular royal as an emblem of excess, yet one that is unique in its inward-looking depiction of a social network created and maintained by women, made obvious in its famous ‘I Want Candy’ montage. However, where Marie Antoinette depicts insular feminine hypervisibility within the confines of a literal castle, The Bling Ring places this supersaturated scrutiny of young women in a modern setting: 2009. The height of reality television and paparazzi culture, as well as the early days of the burgeoning power of social media. Though the plot of The Bling Ring is cluttered with scenes of frenetic activity, numerous parties offering drugs, dancing, and cacophonous house and electronic dance music that pulsates with a bloodshot energy, unlike Marie Antoinette, the film’s cinematography does not objectify or glorify its participants. Instead, the camera places itself at a distance, more a spectator of the group’s behavior rather than an embellishment of it. As a result, the story’s most exhilarating moments are not amid chaos, but the more introspective segments that reveal why the girls seek this attention.
An adaption of the Nancy Jo Sales article for Vanity Fair, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” about a real-life burglary group with the titular nickname bestowed to it by media coverage, The Bling Ring depicts a cohort of teenagers who, without a real plan or end goal, commit to the hobby of robbing celebrity households and aimlessly taking their possessions. The film’s opening sequence is crucial in highlighting an example of these burglaries, its few lines of dialogue overpowered by the soundtrack inclusion of ‘Crown on the Ground’ by the noise pop duo Sleigh Bells. This musical placement only amplifies the scene’s shameless revelry through its stomping percussion and grinding, clipped-and-distorted guitar riff, invoking the image of a high school cheerleader being drowned out by the triumphant band that accompanies her, the pinnacle of high school royalty having it all. This casual appropriation of the wealth their celebrity idols acquire as displayed in this opening scene is just another day for these kids, a pursuit that is given its value for the envy it prompts in their peers not “brave” enough to make such plans themselves. It is almost as if the teens conduct their crusades of acquiring expensive possessions—and, by extension, an extrapolation of the fame of the celebrities that own them—like a high-end shopping spree, one enhanced by the potential danger of getting caught.
Like the languid and exploratory Somewhere, Los Angeles is depicted as a flashy wasteland of empty vanities. However, instead of wallowing in the depression inherent in such a juxtaposition, the teenagers of The Bling Ring embrace such a location as theirs for the taking. What’s more, the teenagers at the center of the robberies do not even live in Los Angeles proper, but instead the sunny city of Calabasas, where their idle free time is spent romantically embellishing their neighboring city as an ideal. Though Calabasas is certainly not devoid of its own attractions—the Kardashian family stands among some of the area’s most famous residents—the girls remain outsiders looking in on the hurricane’s eye of media indulgence, only dozens of miles away from finding themselves starstruck in Hollywood. Yet, it’s clear that while they don’t quite live in LA, this is not due to a lack of accumulated wealth that would allow them to do so. The most attention given to any family’s individual house is that of Nikki (Emma Watson) and her sisters, a large two-story emblematic of the bulky real estate landscape of California that would be immortalized in HGTV-style reality television in the decade to come. Though the inside of the residence is clearly quite spacious, the details to which the film pays the most attention are the bare off-white walls and uninspired, sparse furniture lining the interior. Their space is not one used for entertainment or community in the house itself, but as a sort of external boast to anyone who might visit or pay attention: that the family owns the house simply because they can, and that, in acquiring such ostensible assets, they are made better than potential onlookers who cannot say the same.
The family is depicted as similarly lacking belief in anything tangible, their only meaningful rituals gradually becoming their worship towards the notions of upward mobility and adjacency to stardom. Her neighbors, too, seem to fixate on the same obsession with maintaining appearances: during the film’s first act, as ringleader Becca (Katie Chang) gradually familiarizes narrator Marc (Israel Broussard) with the mechanisms of her burglaries, they tour a friend of a friend’s house, which is easily broken into. The kitchen and living room of the home are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, inviting an even greater gaze to be cast upon the interior’s sleek, antiseptic modernity, an implicit reminder of the wealth required to obtain such a meticulous appearance.
These houses are not just divorced from warmth and camaraderie, but actively antithetical to the community such a shelter can provide. This reality is made all the more stark when considering that this film takes place only a year after the Great Recession, it becomes clear that the houses displayed in The Bling Ring simply become material representations of money to be passed from one owner to the next. This fetishization is not strictly limited to property, either: the otherwise beautiful landscape of the Californian palm trees that Becca and Marc pass as they cruise through the city is rendered as if sourced via snapshots from a curated Instagram feed. These passing reflections on the world around them become fragments from a life extracted to become statements of aspiration, valuable not because of any intrinsic beauty but because the experiences such natural landscapes symbolize are coveted by those who can’t have them.
As the girls who lead the group pursue more and more heists, their literacy regarding the degrading ways by which female celebrities are viewed by the era’s popular culture is made clear. The film takes place in the wake of tabloid culture’s peak. An era that, despite not being unique in the instantaneous gossip spread like inescapable wildfire, was unique in that it was plastered in newsstands and everyday buildings, locations where celebrity trivialities would likely be the last thing on any consumer’s mind. Yet, with this tangibility came a distinct type of addictive bait akin to the candy often placed adjacent to these magazine racks in a grocery store: once the urge to indulge is introduced, it becomes irresistible. Making this situation worse was the overt misogyny with which many of these stories were framed: many of the women covered were often bashed for consuming drugs, gaining (or, less often, losing) even the slightest amounts of weight, and potentially being irresponsible homewreckers and reprehensible cheaters when divulging into matters of relationships (see: the coverage of Britney Spears’ departure from Justin Timberlake, which blamed her for accusations of cheating despite both the fact that she remained quiet about her sex life and Timberlake’s much more vengeful recollection of the event).
When ringleader Becca (Katie Chang) starts to target celebrity houses instead of her usual petty theft of friends, the first target she selects is none other than Paris Hilton, perhaps the epitome of tabloid-era demand and disdain, as her every antic was viewed by the public at the time as further evidence of her shallow stain on the American public. Her particular persona during the 2000s was framed by the tabloids as one of juvenile socialite frivolity, as represented by her hot pink, frequently bedazzled wardrobe and her reputation for being “famous for being famous” (a mantle that would later be taken on by figures such as—what do you know—the Kardashians). When the girls break into Hilton’s house, initially, this expectation is confirmed, as they are greeted by chair pillows that have a print of Hilton’s face spread across their surfaces. Filmed in Hilton’s actual house, this enormous volume of clothing in her closet is ostensibly presented as further evidence of her particularly juvenile understanding of her own fame, as her wardrobe and the decorations that surround it are often rendered in loud prints and various tacky placements of hot pink.
Yet, if anything, the girls seem to idolize Hilton for how she uses her obscene wealth and status for ‘irresponsible’ purposes; along the same adoration, is their love for Lindsay Lohan, who narrator Marc (Israel Broussard) describes as Becca’s “ultimate fashion icon.” The more time the girls spend in Paris Hilton’s shrine to her own image, the more they find themselves enjoying the experience, they rave over her clothes, jewelry, purses, and shoes, and especially when they decide to take to her nightclub room and attempt to impress each other by taking turns pole dancing. The glint in their eyes, however, comes not from the style with which her home is decorated. It is Hilton’s incredible shoe closet that the girls take an extended amount of time to admire and peruse, an area that reveals that most of her possessions are valuable not because of their fashionable nature, but due to the wealth they represent.
The Bling Ring intentionally paints itself as minor celebrities in their own small radius of fame, getting invited to more parties and more opportunities to do harder drugs as The Bling Ring (both film and the robbery gang) progresses. 2009, the year the Bling Ring committed their crimes, was proclaimed by Business Insider to be “the year the newspaper died,” for the amount of print institutions that closed their doors that year. The teens’ insertion of themselves into an increasingly elusive news cycle of gossip and tabloid drama reads as all the more intentional due to this tension, as they cunningly navigate the news media’s transitional space with just enough secrecy to remain noteworthy without becoming threatening.
The Internet becomes more and more crowded with the information that allows them to rob so covertly even as the girls remain completely unabashed about their burglaries. As they pose for their webcams amidst fast-moving montages of paparazzi photographs that stack atop each other within seconds, they remain well aware that their antics could be forgotten in seconds. Even their environment is shot in desaturated pastels and overlit sterility, giving a youthful but empty gloss to the entire saga, almost as if the film was recorded with a filter from the very first-generation iPhones that would’ve given the girls a portal to such fame. However, it is as celebrities where the teens occupy territory of immortality, their antics wrapped in a bubble of temporary unaccountability that, in being shunned by the press, conversely gives them a sense of admirable notoriety for their schemes from both fellow partygoers and strangers on social media. If Marie Antoinette was, in all its candy-coated, decadent glory, Sofia Coppola’s knowing tribute to the MTV music videos of her comeuppance, The Bling Ring is a recontextualization of that reckoning with feminine fame as Coppola has lived it. The film’s sister project grows her reach in tandem with MTV’s increasingly exploitative extensions of parasocial celebrity relationships, as the network pivoted from passive music videos to more active provocations of its stars’ lives in its transition into the reality television market.
Viewing The Bling Ring retrospectively, the girls’ belief in their own stardom is even more flimsy than it is depicted through the instantaneous nature of the film. The unflattering fashion choices that they so clearly covet have been rendered that much more cringeworthy over time: not close enough to the past to make them relevant to the current moment, but not far away enough from their original era to inspire a nostalgic reaction or a newfound appreciation for their style. Instead, the abundance of faux-furs, bodycon dresses, washed-out color palettes, gaudy usages of sequins and shiny leather, and vaguely ‘bohemian’ patterns are left that much more pathetic in their pursuit, as are the girls’ fantasies of hard-edged rebellion. Still, for the teenagers, costuming themselves in such clothes to construct a façade of power clearly imbues their lives with a fleeting semblance of meaning. Even Marc at one point dons a pair of Paris Hilton’s hot pink high heels, having acquired a means to feeling desirable in such fashion that counteracts the bodily insecurities he reports having felt in the film’s exposition prior to meeting the girls.
That the girls are so clearly convinced of the gravitas of the world they have constructed for themselves is even satirized in the film’s musical cues, which Coppola chose with the help of frequent collaborating music supervisor Brian Reitzell. As the girls strut in slow motion down the Los Angeles streets in their newly acquired possessions, the opening vocal sample of Kanye West’s single ‘POWER’ can be heard at full blast. This isn’t even the only track from West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy used; as Marc and Chloe (Claire Julien) are seen driving through the night, clearly under the influence of cocaine, Chloe is heard belting snippets of ‘All of the Lights.’ In the same scene, she is seen singing along to the hook of M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ right before crashing into another car, after which she appears indignant and resigned while taking a mugshot. That the songs featured are presented as such clear illustrations of the exhilaration with which the teens approach their heists is only amplified in cutting them off. As white, largely wealthy American suburbanites, the girls remain convinced that they’ll never be caught or dethroned, taking for granted the privilege offered in their opulent revelry. The girls’ supposed invincibility is inherent to their motivations for the robberies in the first place.
Similarly to The Virgin Suicides, Marc’s narration illuminates what he still views as a mystery: why the girls pursued such danger while having the means to obtain most of their stolen possessions themselves. Like the social media feeds they use to achieve their ephemeral infamy, Marc becomes a reflection on which the girls project a curated version of their personalities, each representing themselves as extensions of the same savvy, conniving whole. Marc’s comparison of media coverage of the Bling Ring burglaries to that of the pop cultural idolization of Bonnie and Clyde provides a metatextual recognition from Coppola that by canonizing the crimes of these teenagers in film, even when displaying their eventual downfall, the film, too, provides a layer of admiration that feeds into the cyclical nature of its participants’ obsession with fame. The girls’ burglaries become a way for them to maintain control over their image in a world that they know will scrutinize their every move as women, a means to be admired without truly being known.
Of course, as a consequence—and remaining true to life—the Bling Ring is eventually convicted for their robberies, with Becca and Nikki receiving the most charges and a portion of jail time. While Becca mostly resigns herself to the shadows, and Marc fully admits the wrongdoing in his actions, Nikki doubles down on the spectacle. Her real-life counterpart, Alexis Neiers, claimed that the Bling Ring’s leader was a “klepto[manic] freak,” and Nikki’s defense of Becca (or lack thereof) is only barely more restrained: at the beginning of the film’s recap of the events, she is seen giving a monologue that the event was “attracted into [her] life,” and, in an interview at the end of the film, claims that “the truth will come out” when she is finally allowed to give her testimony of the burglaries. She seems to deny that what made her famous even happened in the first place, with her mother encouraging this defense. The film’s final line of dialogue involves Nikki presenting a call-to-action to follow her in an interview: “Anyway, you can follow everything about me and my journey at Nikkimooreforever.com.” With this in mind, the fact that Neiers eventually went on to become a minor television personality on the short-lived E! reality show Pretty Wild is hardly surprising. Nikki’s final words act as the sharpest demonstration that she knows she will be vilified regardless of what she does, so, in order to maintain her sense of control—and infamy—she might as well lean into expectations, if only to extend her grasp a little bit longer.
While the current pop cultural media has been inclined to re-examine its previous scalding treatment of female celebrities, the events portrayed in The Bling Ring took place only a couple years after Britney Spears’ infamous decision to shave her head in the midst of a justifiably enraged meltdown over invasive paparazzi determined to capitalize on her every move. Sofia Coppola herself was often the subject of similar subjugation by the critical press who dissected her filmography, which often painted her pursuits after the Academy Award-winning Lost in Translation as indicative of her shallow, privileged worldview in a nepotistic industry where her father, Francis Ford Coppola, thrived a generation prior to her career. The critical reception to The Bling Ring was similarly middling, with some bemoaning the supposed lack of energy with which the film depicts its central crime sprees.
As a popular reckoning with how the tabloids poisoned popular understandings of young women, with the likes of people such as Megan Fox, Britney Spears, Brittany Murphy, and the aforementioned Lindsay Lohan given reappraisal, The Bling Ring stands as being almost prophetic. Its examination of how women are forced to navigate fame through a culture that seems to frame their suffering as both a source of salivation and humor is, while not overt, still pointed in the audiovisual embellishments of its subtext. What remains the most challenging—and ingenious—aspect of the film is its willingness to display this reality through a prism not of falsely-convicted martyrs, but of genuinely repulsive examples of wealth inequality that the film’s protagonists take for granted, characters that are likable if only for their downfall. Though the film may not operate with the salacious thrill-seeking that its subject matter may suggest, The Bling Ring reveals itself as a film made with just as much shrewd intention as Sofia Coppola’s widely-recognized earlier work The Virgin Suicides, its encapsulation of such a specific era remaining marvelous in its instantly recognizable time period. However, beyond the bombast of the teenagers’ activities, what remains most astute in Coppola’s thesis on their antics is that, in the years that followed, those same individuals couldn’t be picked out of a lineup. According to The Bling Ring, fame needn’t even be a pretense to attempt to obtain such headlines.