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Stephanie Zacharek and David Fear Discuss Sofia Coppola's 'The Bling Ring'

By David Fear, Eric Kohn and Stephanie Zacharek | Indiewire June 13, 2013 at 12:43PM

In week's installment of our Critical Consensus column, Time Out New York's David Fear trades e-mails with The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek about "The Bling Ring," which opens tomorrow.
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The Bling Ring
Welcome to Critical Consensus, a bi-weekly column in which two critics from our Criticwire Network discuss a new release with Indiewire critic Eric Kohn. This week, Time Out New York's David Fear trades e-mails with The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek about "The Bling Ring," which opens tomorrow.

First off, Stephanie: Sofia Coppola tends to divide critics, but your reactions to her films provide an interesting starting point, since you've been kind to all of them except "The Bling Ring." At Cannes, you wrote that the movie was "the first of her pictures I actively disliked," attributing much of your disappointment to the characters' lack of likability. Yet of all the alienating young people populating the director's oeuvre, couldn't you make the case that the kids at the focus of "Bling Ring" are the most innocent, naive of the bunch? And doesn't that make you pity them more? And just to go one step further: How essential is it to you that a film make its characters appealing? Of course, there are plenty of unlikable characters at the center of movies these days -- at least the ones produced outside of Hollywood.

STEPHANIE ZACHAREK: Even though Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite living directors, I get very little feeling coming off The Bling Ring -- although, Eric, I certainly don't think Coppola has disdain for her characters, and I never said as much. I don't care for the movie or for Coppola's approach, but she's not a filmmaker who'd take on a project if she felt disdain for the characters. (Leave that to Alexander Payne.) She has too much compassion for that. As for the idea of unlikable characters: There's been some debate about that recently in the literary-fiction world, but I barely pay any attention to it. I'm not sure what a "likable" character is, and I never worry about it, when I'm reading or watching a movie. Some characters just tear at your heart, and yet they're awful people -- how do you get through a Thomas Hardy or D.H. Lawrence novel, for instance, without having to deal with multiple conflicting ideas of a character?

But I don't think Coppola knows how she feels about these characters. She has a degree of visible sympathy for Marc, Israel Broussard's character, who's clearly pretty lost and finds a sense of identity with Katie Chang's Rebecca and her gang. And of course she picks up on the idea that these kids are so celebrity-obsessed that they believe some of that star power will rub off if they don the actual celebrity raiments, which is inherently sad. But beyond that, I don't think the movie is saying much, and I don't think these characters are particularly well drawn. I certainly didn't feel that way about "Somewhere," or even "Marie Antoinette," which lots of people hated because to them, it was just a movie about a spoiled princess. But I see a person there -- misguided but also vulnerable. In "The Bling Ring," I just see a lot of kids flipping though magazines and saying, "Oooo, I love that, it's Chanel!" without really having any aesthetic sense or judgment, a sense of craftsmanship or of an object's inherent worth. And say what you want about Marie Antoinette as Coppola saw her -- she may have been materialistic, but she also sought to surround herself with beauty. Yearning for beauty is very different from feeling that you simply must have those Christian Louboutins with the big platform in front. Which are just butt-ugly, by the way.

Part of why I feel nothing for "The Bling Ring" is that I get no aesthetic pleasure from it. I don't like looking at that ugly stuff, those glitzy necklaces, those designer garments that just look sort of limp and tacky. This isn't me being an anti-materialist Marxist. Heaven forfend! Clothes, shoes, jewelry -- I love it all, in the movies and in real life. But I don't understand, and don't connect with, the desire those kids feel for that awful-looking stuff. Much worse than that is that I feel Coppola is, uncharacteristically, anesthetized and distanced from her characters. I just read an interview with her somewhere where she said that she didn't want to pass judgment on the characters -- that she wanted the audience to decide for themselves how they feel about these kids. And that's the worst thing an artist can do, particularly one like Coppola, who has such delicate, tensile gifts as a filmmaker. This isn't journalism, and even if it were, a skillful writer would clue us in to her point of view. Then again, I don't think Coppola is satirizing these kids, either -- I've been reading some reviews praising her for that, or saying that at last she's apologizing for having had a rich-kid upbringing, which seems very weird to me. I do think she's making fun of these kids, but in a very gentle way. In that sense -- the gentleness of approach -- this is a Sofia Coppola movie. Just not the one I wanted to see.

David, how would you say "Bling Ring" compares to Coppola's previous film, "Somewhere," which you derided for its "boo-hoo fixation on the aimless and privileged"? One could argue that the new movie, rather than falling into the same trap, is actually a commentary on that very same fixation. What say you?

Venice '10 | Masterful "Souls" and Hollow "Somewhere" Greet the Lido
A scene from Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere."

DAVID FEAR: My problem with "Somewhere" isn't that it's fixated on the lifestyle its Chateau Marmont-dwelling hero leads so much as the way it keeps beating you over the head with how empty said lifestyle is; all that money and those Ferraris and so much V.I.P. treatment…they won't buy you happiness, people! I don't doubt that Coppola, having grown up watching her dad negotiate the ins and outs of show business and having beaucoup creative-type celebrity friends, has insight on the perils and tolls of such high-altitude Hell-Ay living. I just find its mode of attack, or exploration, graceless and obvious; remove the sublime Elle Fanning moments, and the whole thing would feel like a feature-length version of the "Lip my stocking!" scene from "Lost in Translation."

Coppola herself declared that The Bling Ring was a natural follow-up to "Somewhere" (thematically if not tonally), saying at the Cannes press conference that the earlier film was about "wanting to achieve celebrity and what happens when you get there...[this is] the same thought on another level." The differences between the two, however, are like the differences between those Louboutins the new film's "Rififi"-ish rugrats covet and your typical Canal St knockoffs. "The Bling Ring" isn't about celebrity so much as celebrity culture, and the way that these Generation TMZ Angelenos have become so wrapped up in this world that a chance to step through the looking glass—legally or otherwise—feels like a God-given right. These youth run wild aren't poor, but they're not brand-name rich, either, and I love how she nails their entitlement in feeling like they should be part of that world. Even better: She captures these iJuvies' evolution from virtually rummaging through celebrity wardrobes via magazine spreads, Internet gossip sites and E! Channel C-list star-porn to actually rummaging through their houses and closets in a way that seems to eschew judgement without letting them off the hook...Stephanie, your phrase "the gentleness of approach" eloquently sums it up. Heavy-handed moments come and go, but there's a balance here that keeps the material(ism) from slipping into tabloid fodder itself while still bringing the trashy appeal.

As for Stephanie's response...you really got no aesthetic pleasure out of this? I'm not talking about basking in the glamor of the goods the way you would with something like The Scarlet Empress, in which Von Sternberg and Dietrich let you feel every fabric and fur Dietrich discards. (The bling may be designer, but it's not about it looking good; it's about taking a piece of celebrity aenima.) I'm talking about the filmmaking: The feral silhouette shot of the kids scampering across the L.A. skyline? That amazing shot of Rebecca and Marc running through that modernist mansion, the sound of coyote howls and cop sirens mingling on the sound track? That slo-mo shot of a young woman walking into school—just in case you somehow forgot you are watching a Sofia Coppola movie? None of that did anything for you?

Next: A few concessions, and more debate about "Somewhere."

This article is related to: Sofia Coppola, The Bling Ring, Somewhere, Marie Antoinette, Reviews, Critical Consensus