x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Chain reaction: what The Bling Ring tells us about modern celebrity culture

We chat with Sofia Coppola about her new film The Bling Ring.

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring. Photo by Moviestore / Rex Features
Emma Watson in The Bling Ring. Photo by Moviestore / Rex Features

Back in 2009, a story broke that summed up the celebrity-soaked world we now live in. For nine months, five Los Angeles teenagers had been tracking their idols on social networking sites to see when they were out of town – then burgling their homes. Victims ranged from Paul Oakenfold to Paris Hilton, with more than US$3 million (Dh11m) of luxury goods and cash stolen.

According to Sofia Coppola – the 42-year-old Oscar-winning (Lost in Translation) writer-director whose new film The Bling Ring documents this crime spree – it was never about the money.

“I think it’s about middle-class suburban kids wanting to be part of this life they think is glamorous, which is being promoted in our culture today,” she says. “They talked about being a celebrity, having status brands and not really about doing some work [to achieve that].”

Ironically, the Bling Ring-ers got exactly the notoriety they wanted. Their activities catalogued in a Vanity Fair article The Suspects Wore Louboutins, the sisters Alexis and Gabby Neiers also saw their arrest and trial chronicled in the reality show Pretty Wild. When Alexis was sent to jail, she even cooled her heels in a cell adjacent to one occupied by Lindsay Lohan, one of the Bling Ring’s victims.

While Coppola met Nick Prugo, the only male member of the gang, “I’m not so concerned about those five kids,” she says. More important “was this idea of where our culture is going” – fuelled by the rise of reality television and the internet – and “how this instant information might be affecting young people”. Celebrity is also a theme pertinent to Coppola, from the 18th-century French queen in 2006’s Marie Antoinette to Stephen Dorff’s unravelling actor in 2010’s Somewhere.

This fascination is hardly surprising, given she’s the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, the titanic director of The Godfather; cousin of Nicolas Cage; and ex-wife of filmmaker Spike Jonze. But Coppola is more like an amused observer of LA’s celebrity-crazed culture, living as she does in Paris with her musician husband Thomas Mars and their two daughters. “I think everything in moderation; I participate in some [of this world] – I don’t want it to be all of my life.”

Largely casting unknowns (with the exception of Emma Watson) as the Bling Ring gang, Coppola nevertheless used her sway in Hollywood to flesh out the film with some genuine stars. Kirsten Dunst, from Coppola’s 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides, can be glimpsed in one scene, as can Paris Hilton, a real-life victim of the Bling Ring gang, who even let the production use her garish Hollywood Hills mansion.

“She told me it was upsetting for her to see all those people in her house,” says Coppola of the socialite. So upsetting that Hilton accompanied Coppola and her cast to the French Riviera, where the film opened the Un Certain Regard strand of the Cannes Film Festival this May. As much as the fame-hungry Hilton may be a victim, you might argue that she is part of the problem: famous for the sake of it and an unhealthy role model for those Bling Ring-ers.


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