Sunday, July 7, 2013

The visual suicide: or, why Sofia Coppola can't get her groove back

The vestal paraphernalia of The Virgin Suicides.

I was disappointed by the failure of Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, which I caught last weekend (don't bother), because like a lot of people, I had viewed her early stuff, movies like The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, as possibly heralding a major new talent.

It's hard to keep that faith these days, however, after her past two misfires, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, and now the nearly-disastrous Bling Ring.  Particularly as Bling seems to throw into higher relief than ever the limits of her sensibility and method, and how this particular auteur seems unable to extend or transcend either one.

Coppola of course has written all her own films; but even though she won the Oscar for Lost in Translation, no one thinks of her as a screenwriter - probably because she rarely writes all that much dialogue. Instead, gaps in communication are the hallmark of her work; rather than emotional exchange, Coppola conjures a kind of floating mood of poetic frustration - and she does it primarily in visual terms.

Indeed, her style and concerns, and the cinematic means she uses to explore them, were set in seeming stone in her very first feature, The Virgin Suicides. Here the mood is one of overt mystery, both emotional and sexual; by the end of the film, all five of the lovely Lisbon sisters are dead - and no one quite knows why (although their cloistered existence looms as a potential cause). Still, the film never points any fingers, and Coppola hardly seems horrified by the girls' isolation; instead, she revels in it, conjuring a luminous feminine spell out of a plethora of suburban, mid-70's details (see image above).

And tellingly, when the Lisbon girls do try to flirt, they don't do it directly - instead, in a charming scene (clip below), they play their favorite 45's over the phone to a group of equally virginal boys who are listening across the street. And thus another constant Coppola trope - disconnected romantic communication - found its first form. These orbiting concerns - a ravishing isolation built around a construct of talismans, and re-inforced by the characters' poignant inability to connect  - would together form the opposed poles of almost all her movies since.

Boys and girls together (but apart) in The Virgin Suicides.

Needless to say, the haunting core of that oeuvre had high resonance in the image-saturated millennium - but with only her second feature, Lost in Translation, Coppola seemed to reach the cinematic apotheosis of her personal obsessions - even if in Translation, she gave her visuals an unexpected twist. Working with all of downtown Tokyo as her canvas, she and cinematographer Lance Acord painted a world in which visual ravishment was not a form of self-invocation, as it was was in The Virgin Suicides, but was instead alienating and false - and almost amounted to a kind of violation. Only when Coppola's lead character/factotum, Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson), found her way to a spare Kyoto shrine was a parallel between inner and outer beauty suddenly distilled; for Coppola, it seemed, loneliness was next to holiness.

The nearly edible excesses of Marie Antoinette
But this haunting trick has proven difficult for the director to repeat - even though Coppola has leaned ever more heavily on visual abundance as her career has progressed (props from Marie Antoinette, at left). Rather like an addict who believes she is only one more hit away from cinematic nirvana, Coppola can't seem to squeeze enough sheer stuff into her movies.  

But what has gone wrong with this approach isn't hard to diagnose.  In Lost in Translation, Coppola's heroine stared in lonely dismay at the seductive assaults of Tokyo. But in Marie Antoinette, her heroine is complicit in her own ravishment - and the kids who make up The Bling Ring are all but hungry for it; indeed they demand it.

And that, it turns out, makes all the difference.

I admit, however, that Marie Antoinette nearly holds the audience through its sheer richness, even though lead Kirsten Dunst never suggests any kind of inner light holding steady (or flickering out) before the forces of appetite. Instead, for Dunst's teen queen, the most lavish artifacts of the ancien régime (and all the historical force lying latent in them, like power in a battery) seem trivial, as trivial as the greatest hits of the 70's. Thus the movie played as a failed critique of the way innocence can be braided with narcissism - it felt like Voltaire crossed with Yoda; but at least it always looked gorgeous.

Alas, you can't even say that much for The Bling Ring, a brief biopic of a band of spoiled L.A. teens who made a short, sad career of ransacking the homes of stars for the coveted accoutrements of the high life: the hottest bags and bangles, and of course the latest Louboutins. For the unfortunate fact is that fashion has abandoned the heights of Parnassus scaled by Madame de Pompadour and her ilk; in our current end times, "style" embraces not elevation but debasement; it's no longer "high," but "low" - albeit ironically, self-consciously low. And thus the beautiful people are no longer beautiful, but only expertly packaged - and their wardrobes get by on shock and transgression, or clever contrasts between cheap modes and rich materials. And this spells trouble for Sofia Coppola; when the kids of Bling crash their version of Versailles - the McMansion of starlet Paris Hilton - they only find trash, not treasure: Hilton, it turns out, has pillows on her sofas embroidered with her own visage, and her living room is organized around a stripper pole.

Of course Coppola's kids think all this gauche stupidity is fabulous, but needless to say we don't - and this disconnect undoes the director's whole M.O. She gives us scene after scene structured like the gorgeous pageants of her early work; the kids rifle through closet after closet of star after star; only this time there's no quiet shrine for Charlotte to find, no luminous secrecy for the Lisbon girls to vanish into.  There's only junk, junk, and more junk (see below).

Stolen booty from The Bling Ring.

You get the impression somehow that Coppola can tell her methods have short-circuited this time; but she doesn't seem to know what to do about it. After all, beyond her visual sense, her cinematic skills are so very slim; and her particular penchant for under-written dialogue does her no favors. Her only hope of conjuring sympathy for her merry pranksters lies in something like back-story, development, and dialogue; but she's unable to deliver any of these, as she's hamstrung by her obsession with silent understandings and lack of direct communication. Thus the details of the kids' home lives remain sketchy, and even their relationships feel vague. What made "Rebecca" such a danger slut? Why is "Nicki" such a snake? What has been lost, and what's at stake? We have no real idea; and Coppola seems unable to fill this void even with a sense of satire (although Emma Watson contributes a deliciously narcissistic turn, and the movie's only full performance, as the two-faced Nicki). The director does get some mileage out of the relatively likable Marc (Israel Broussard), who gets a cute kick out of wearing Paris Hilton's high heels. But even this doesn't amount to much - so when the kids are caught, and begin back-stabbing and betraying each other, we really could hardly care less - partly because we feel only bemused contempt for their "victims"; basically we're just glad the whole godawful mess is finally winding down.

Oh, well!  The resulting film is clearly too thin to justify its 90-minute running time, but Coppola does conjure a few memorable moments; the long shot of the gang penetrating a modernist hacienda in the Hollywood Hills, for instance, is quietly haunting (and helped immeasurably by the sound of coyotes yapping to each other in the dark).  And the kids do look "hot," as Paris Hilton might say, in their stolen duds (below). But they also look generic and sealed - almost laminated, like the tags they've popped.  The clothes give them, and us, nothing that we really want. At least Charlotte and the Lisbon sisters found a reflection of their inner lives in the talismans of their existence; but "bling" lacks any and all such magic; it's as empty as the people who covet it. And it's time that Sofia Coppola began to understand that.

Fabulous trash  - The Bling Ring.

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