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

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 13, 2013 at 3:01PM

There’s an insidious bias at work, a tacit assumption that women’s art is always about themselves while men can stand outside and objectively comment.
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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." 

This article is related to: The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola


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