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Does Sofia Coppola Have a Problem With Privilege, or Do Her Critics?

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by Sam Adams
June 13, 2013 3:01 PM
25 Comments
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"The Bling Ring."
"The Bling Ring."
With Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" due in theaters this weekend, the perennial debate over the distinction between the director and her characters has again reared its immaculately styled head. Although she's hardly the only filmmaker to come from wealth, Coppola has been uniquely diligent -- or, if you will, obsessive -- in making that privilege the subject of her movies. "The Bling Ring," which features Emma Watson and a cast of largely unknown young actors as pampered teens stealing baubles from the houses of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom et al., addresses the subject more directly than any film she's made. Most, though not all, of these kids are rich, but no matter how much they get, they want more.

Coppola based the film on a real-life case. Although she changed the names of the Bling Ring's bandits, she used transcripts from Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales to inform her fictional characters, and the names of their victims remain unchanged. She even convinced Paris Hilton to let her return to the scene of the crime; the starry-eyed teens rifle through Hilton's actual closets, extracting unseen but unambiguously naughty Polaroids from her safe (who knew Hilton was such a good sport?). Coppola seems intent on blurring the line between fiction and reality, just as her characters, gorged on a steady diet of TMZ and Perez, lose sight of the distinction between their victims' public faces and their private selves (not to mention private property). They refer to Lindsay, Paris, and Audrina with the faux familiarity of a red carpet reporter.

Throughout her career, Coppola has been dogged by references to her privileged upbringing, and a recurring tendency to conflate the director and her protagonists. After likening the luxe-besotted heroine of "Marie Antoinette" to Paris Hilton, the New Yorker's Anthony Lane went on to say:

"On the other hand, I spent long periods of 'Marie Antoinette' under the growing illusion that it was actually made by Paris Hilton... There are hilarious attempts at landscape, but the fountains and parterres of Versailles are grabbed by the camera and pasted into the action, as if the whole thing were being shot on a cell phone and sent to friends."

This kind of bubbling bon mot is Lane's stock in trade, the kind that invariably makes people say, "I love him -- he's so funny." But there's a unique kind of derision that attaches to Coppola, a level of personal affront that never seems to fall on Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach. To be sure, Coppola's not as arch as Stillman or as self-flagellating as Baumbach; she watches her characters from up close rather than at a safe distance, more interested in seeing the world through their eyes than judging it through hers. But even after five features, she's still treated in some corners like an upstart, a spoiled little girl who owes her career to her famous father (Jason Reitman, by contrast, has earned everything he's ever had). Note the recurring theme in "The Bling Ring"'s early reviews:

Don Simpson, Smells Like Screen Spirit:

"As if using cinema as therapy to deal with her own guilt trip for being brought up into Hollywood opulence, writer-director Sofia Coppola once again delivers us into a world of spoiled young people grappling with their warped sense of entitlement."

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:

"These scenes needed a kind of satiric edge that is clearly beyond Coppola's grasp... Perhaps even more here than in her other films, Coppola's attitude toward her subject seems equivocal, uncertain; there is perhaps a smidgen of social commentary, but she seems far too at home in the world she depicts to offer a rewarding critique of it. 

Ryland Aldrich, Twitch:

"Instead of using character development to teach the audience what went wrong with these kids (or, say, generation), Coppola just takes us on a 90-minute vacation into their fun-filled lives of coke-fueled clubbing and slo-mo selfies."

Prairie Miller, Newsblaze:

"The fact that Sofia Coppola ('Marie Antoinette,' 'Lost In Translation') is herself a pampered Hollywood princess -- and has even signed a pricey item for Louis Vuitton's collection, whose fleeced product placements figure all over this movie along with endless others -- may scream conflict of interest from the starting gate... Coppola is socio-economically immersed to such an extent in her subject matter at hand, that it's repeatedly difficult to tell what she's observing as opposed to embracing."

Kaleem Aftab, The Independent:

"Coppola's regular cinematographer Harris Savides (who died shortly after principal photography completed) shoots Hilton's house like it's an episode of MTV’s 'Cribs.'" 

This last criticism is especially baffling, since "The Bling Ring"'s furtive, dimly lit nighttime excursions are the polar opposite of "Cribs"' glossy wallowing. If anything, "The Bling Ring" veers too far in the opposite direction; an early scene in the white-on-white kitchen of Watson's surrogate family is overlit to the point of being washed out, and the stars' treasure troves have the flat, overstuffed look of a clothing store's storage closet (in his review, Time Out New York's Keith Uhlich specifically noted the "consistently sickly pallor" of the images). There's one mesmerizing long take of the Bling Ring burglars making their way through the glass box of Audrina Patridge's Hollywood Hills pad, but the movie doesn't fetishize their loot with anything like the single-minded determination of its characters.

The attacks on Coppola's upper-class upbringing -- by far the rule, rather than the exception, in Hollywood -- resemble nothing so much as the cries of nepotism directed at Lena Dunham, whose success has also long since surpassed whatever leg up she may have had. It's hardly a coincidence that they're both women, or that neither has made any attempt to hide where she came from. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to take issue with Coppola's work, or Dunham's, but there's also an insidious bias at work, a tacit assumption that women's art is always about themselves while men can stand outside and objectively comment: Women feel; men think. That Coppola might be capable of both is apparently more than some critics can swallow.

Read "The Suspects Wore Louboutins," the article that inspired "The Bling Ring." 

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25 Comments

  • caro | June 20, 2013 3:27 PMReply

    my only but essential complaint about THE BLING RING is that there is no point of view (my friend disagreed with me because he thought Sofia Coppola likes the character of the guy in the band)

  • Sasha Stone | June 20, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    They seem to have all missed the point. Jesus Christ.

  • gina fournier | June 19, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    Thank you! Humbly, may I present you with my first Man with Lips award, for excellence in journalism by a biological male, which does not metaphorically rape and leave for dead women by the side of the road. For real. Bravo!

  • Sam Adams | June 20, 2013 11:11 AM

    Just checking.... yep, still there.

  • ginafournier | June 19, 2013 2:49 PM

    ... if you have now or have ever had balls. :)
    Your Comment

  • John | June 17, 2013 10:34 AMReply

    Baumbach has for sure felt a similar attack from critics over the years.

    That Newsblaze pull quote is incredibly misogynistic.

  • Tanya | June 16, 2013 2:31 PMReply

    Part of the resentment of Sofia Coppola is from the sense that, due to her father's position, she jumped the queue. Going from (gee I feel like being a) clothing designer to film director/writer was only possible because of who her father is. Her father produces her films, despite the fact that most of them have lost money. If what she is making of this incredible privilege is tepid commentary on her own lifestyle, then not only did she jump the queue, but she's wasting her chance. There is a reason why genius doesn't come from the priveleged classes: the edge isn't there. And if Coppola is willing to take such largesse, she will have to put up with the extra scrutiny that comes to people who didn't earn what they've been given.

  • Thomas Earlham | June 20, 2013 6:25 PM

    "There is a reason why genius doesn't come from the priveleged classes..."

    This might be the most preposterous things ever to show up in IndieWire comments (which is saying a lot), but it's followed closely by two or three other assertions in the same post.

  • Sam Adams | June 16, 2013 5:42 PM

    Her father produced one of her movies and has an EP credit, which can mean almost anything, on three others. He has no credit on The Bling Ring. As for "genius doesn't come from the privileged classes"—Jesus, where do I start? Work your way down from Visconti.

  • Kevin | June 15, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    Sofia Coppola is more open to criticism not because she's a female director but because four of her five films are just awful, poorly reviewed, and they do no business - yet she keeps getting opportunities to direct. If her last name weren't Coppola, would that be the case? The fact that four of the five also deal with wealthy people and/or the entertainment industry would also indicate that her upbringing is in fact a huge factor in her choices.

  • Thomas Earlham | June 20, 2013 6:29 PM

    I've only seen four of her five films, and I would say that two of those four were extraordinary, one was an impressive (though flawed) debut, and one was an impressively radical (though flawed) experiment. She has wasted nothing of the opportunities given to her.

  • Sam Adams | June 16, 2013 5:45 PM

    Four of of five fresh on Rotten Tomatoes; all five with positive Metacritic scores. If you're going to just speak from bias, you should try not to be so obvious about it.

  • Amanda | June 16, 2013 12:44 PM

    if four out of five of her films are bad, then you have probably only seen one of them, lost in translation, and thus not obligated to make this sort of critique. personally I do understand and see all the criticism directed towards Sofia, but you have missed the point completely. Yes her wealthy, Hollywood life is supposed to
    Be the subject of many of her movies, a sort of self critique. There are many interviews where sofia mentions this theme.

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | June 15, 2013 9:40 AMReply

    Good for you, Sam! But one thing: the kids in "The Bling Ring" are not "rich." The action of the film takes places between Oct 2008 and Aug 09 (that is, at the start of what we now refer to as “The Great Recession”) & while Coppola’s three teens may come from “nice” homes, they are definitely from the 99%. Their wish to ascend into the 1% is pure fantasy. If nothing else, by entering into homes of the really rich, Coppola shows us what "rich" really is & therefore what it is not. But the [mostly male] film critics on RT etc constantly denigrate films by women filmmakers by complaining about the wealth of characters who are, at best, upper middle class (that is still in the 99%). See for example reviews of films like "I Don't Know How She Does It." News flash: Tony Stark is in the 1% for sure, but Kate Reddy? No way! So let's applaud Sofia Coppola for what she has accomplished & not say dumb things that miss the point. (PS to LURKER: I liked "Marie Antoinette" too so it count with me!)

  • Lurker | June 14, 2013 8:27 PMReply

    I liked Marie Antoinette, if that counts for anything.

  • DG Brock | June 14, 2013 5:28 PMReply

    The larger question seems to me to be: why don't critics make these comments on male directors? Many male directors have benefited from nepotism in Hollywood.

  • Ted | June 14, 2013 9:18 AMReply

    I think recognizing an auteurs upbringing can be relevant in understanding their work, but the privilege argument seems to be used against Coppola not in service of analyzing her films, but as a personal attack. Of course Coppola was advantaged by her upbringing, although I think growing up immersed in film culture was more important than her wealth. And considering most critics adored Lost in Translation, a film I had some issues with myself,  she clearly has earned her place in the film world.

     It would be one thing if Coppola was callous towards the poor or endorsed the worst aspects of privilege, but she has never done that. Her previous film, Somewhere, suggests more that a life of privilege sprung free from the responsibilities of everyday experience can be emotionally draining. Let me make a quick comparison between her and Howard Hawks (bear with me). I love Hawks as a director and there is no question he came from a elite background (economically he was more privileged than Coppola). Now take Bringing Up Baby, a charming Grant-Hepburn screwball comedy. That film endorses Hepburn's character's carefree attitude towards life without appreciating she can only live that lifestyle because of her extraordinary wealth. It reflects Hawks almost callous indifference to the lives of the poor in that he advocates a mindset that is only possible because of wealth. It seems likely this view was shaded by his privilege growing up, especially because he was a carefree screw-up who was given everything, including elite schooling, by his wealthy family. Coppola's films have never mounted the kind of class indifference Hawks showed here. Like I said about Somewhere, she seems to think privilege is emotionally emptying rather than something to celebrate. 

    It's true Coppola isn't making the ever popular bourgeoisie satires, but perhaps coming from that world she realizes many of these satires are more like hit jobs than careful analysis. I wasn't a fan of The Bling Ring for a variety of reasons, but she hardily celebrated this world. As far as being "too close" to the characters, I didn't see that as a problem. I think the main issue was that her characters, as are their real life counterparts, are such hyper manifestations of the culture she is trying to critique that it becomes difficult to generalize to broader analysis. These people were living caricatures - how do you bring analysis, or even satire, to caricatures? That is a monumental task that Coppola didn't meet, but that doesn't mean it's because she was privileged growing up. I'll also point out she's a grown woman, not some goofy club kid immersed in this lifestyle. 

    As far as her being a woman, this bias is something that does unfortunately shadow her work.

  • Donald | June 13, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    What this review fails to realize, along with apparently some other commentators, is that maybe, just maybe, her movies just aren't really any good at all.

  • Thomas Earlham | June 20, 2013 6:32 PM

    Pursuant to Justin's comment: Better yet, make your own fuckin' movie and show us what you got.

  • Justin | June 14, 2013 10:03 AM

    If that's the case, do the work and make the argument on critical terms. Don't be lazy and hurl ad hominem attacks.

  • Chris L. | June 13, 2013 5:51 PM

    From last paragraph: "There are plenty of legitimate reasons to take issue with Coppola's work..." But yes, it's too bad Adams hasn't read the Gospel of Donald and saved himself the effort of examining the situation.

  • Tucker | June 13, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    One thing that comes across in those review snippets is the prevailing assumption that Sofia Coppola is supposed to be offering a critique, and specifically a harsh critique, of the film's subjects. But why? I'm not sure if she is obliged to do so. And if the perceived issue is that she cannot offer such a critique because she is too involved in that world herself, then maybe her critique is, in some ways, of herself - perhaps most or all of her films are self-critiques in some way. Is that wrong? I'm not arguing she is a great filmmaker, though I have always liked her films, but an awful lot of critics seem to feel the need to place themselves above the filmmakers when, if we just back up a bit, we can see many critics are merely offering personal opinions about things which they themselves are unable to create. This is not to demean the role of critics, for what they do is important and often very valuable.

    It's also, perhaps, worth noting that the attacks listed above are ad hominem attacks rather than arguments. And some claim they can read Coppola's mind, know the workings of her heart, and see clearly the privileged results of some kind of psychoanalysis of the director. Rather then being a review of the film, they seem to say more about the critics than anything else.

    And then... what's so wrong with nepotism in either the arts or family business? If I were in her father's shoes I would do everything I could to help Sofia's career. I say, make movies with your family and your friends.

  • Andrew | June 13, 2013 3:41 PMReply

    I doubt you'll find consistency to the criticism if you examine other members of the Coppola clan. Sofia seems to be singled out, for some unknown reason. I wonder if there's any variable that might make her unique.

  • Mulvi | June 13, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    Not saying the criticism is valid, but I think a large portion of the criticism directed at Sofia's upbringing is rooted in the massive nepotism among the Coppola family.

  • Thomas Earlham | June 20, 2013 6:36 PM

    Screw this idea of nepotism. They aren't running a brokerage or a golf club. They're artists. They like to work together. That's what we like to do in the arts--work with people with whom we work well.

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