The Bling Ring & Beyond the Hills

August 10, 2013
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Sofia Coppola says she didn’t grow up in Hollywood and has never been a part of the subculture she anatomises in The Bling Ring. Yet Coppola, who has been in the film industry since birth, may be the perfect director to explore a notorious crime spree in which celebrities’ homes were burglarised by a group of teenagers between October 2008 and August 2009. It’s a story that reveals much about the criminals, the victims, and America’s ‘sick obsession’ with fame.

All the best lines in The Bling Ring are lifted from police transcripts and a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, called ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutins’. There was simply no way to improve on reality – which may have been a creative boon to Coppola, whose last two films were shapeless disasters. The Bling Ring is a much needed return to form.

Although the story feels like satire it cleaves scrupulously to the truth. The lead characters have been given new names but their real identities may be found in the Vanity Fair piece, and in thousands of media reports.

On his first day at India Hills high school, a teenage boy named Marc (israel Broussard) meets Rebecca (Katie Chang), a vivacious Korean-American girl. They swiftly become friends, sharing an interest in clothes and fashion. Companionship is a new sensation for Marc, who has always been a misfit. When Rebecca introduces him to stealing cash and credit cards from unlocked cars he follows where she leads. The next step is to start rummaging in houses when the owners are away.

To satisfy her fashion fetish Rebecca wants to get into the homes of the celebrities from TV, movies and magazines. Paris Hilton is a first choice because the would-be burglars figure she is “dumb” enough to leave the house unlocked. But they underestimated Hilton, who was only dumb enough to leave a key under the door mat.

Paris Hilton’s mansion turns out to be a lurid temple to her own fame, complete with a nightclub room and multiple walk-in wardrobes. It is a designer warehouse for shoes, clothes, sunglasses and jewellery – a Disneyland for those who measure personal status in terms of labels. Hilton allowed Coppola to shoot these scenes in her actual house, so we see pretty much what the thieves saw.

After the robbery comes the party, with the inevitable flaunting and boasting. Soon Rebecca has recruited her friend Chloe (Claire Julien), and the inseparable Nicki and Sam (Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga), who live with Nicki’s mum in a house ruled by new age, positive-thinking spiritual claptrap.

The robberies continue, with victims including Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and Lindsay Lohan. All of them obligingly leave a door or a window open, and nobody seems to have an alarm system. “Going shopping” becomes a nightly orgy, with proceeds in excess of US$3 million. There are multiple visits to chez Hilton and six robberies at Bilson’s house.

After Patridge posts a video from her security camera on the internet and no-one comes forward to identify Marc or Rebecca, the robbers grow more audacious. Not only do they wear their loot to expensive clubs, they stick pictures on websites and sell things at street stalls. It’s a reckless race to the finish, fuelled by drugs and alcohol. When the police move in and they’re caught holding stolen goods, their first impulse is to deny everything.

Marc is first to crack, and the only one to show signs of remorse. For the girls, the arrest is a great opportunity to become celebrities in their own right. The media frenzy feeds off the voyeuristic fantasies of the public, titillated by the thought of invading the private spaces of the rich and famous. The thieves seem like star-struck kids lured into crime by the indulgent lifestyles of celebrities who have so much stuff they hardly noticed anything was missing.

The instant, excessive fame delivered by the American media turns actors and TV stars into icons who are simutaneously idolised and envied. Celebrities earn huge salaries and endorsement deals, and are showered with luxury goods. The fans lust after the loot and the lifestyle, narcissistically believing themselves to be every bit as worthy of these prizes – partly as a result of the rise of so-called ‘reality’ shows. When the stars are made to look fat or ugly on magazine covers, or have their houses burgled by greedy kids, the public luxuriates in Schadenfreude.

This was Nicki’s particular moment to shine. At the time the arrest was being made, she and Sam were already having their lifestyle recorded by a reality TV program. The robberies feed into the show, which Nancy Jo Sales found (to her amazement) to be scripted rather than spontaneous. “I think this situation was attracted into my life,” says a totally scripted Nicki, “because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being.”

If this seems far-fetched coming from a girl whose entire existence revolves around designer labels and clubs, there was more to come: “God didn’t give me these talents and looks to just sit around being a model or being famous. I want to lead a huge charity organisation. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”

From being a mere crook, Nicki is suddenly asserting moral superiority over her rich, decadent victims. The original Nicki, Alexis Neiers, got away with only a few months in prison, which proved to be a great career boost. Only in America? There are countries in which they would have been executed.

To go from The Bling Ring to Beyond the Hills is to get on a plane in affluent L.A. and get off in the wastelands of the Romanian countryside. Goodbye bling and designer clothes, goodbye electricity and running water.

In 2007, director, Cristian Mungiu had a surprising hit with 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days – the story of a girl seeking an abortion in a squalid Romanian city. It was a powerful, depressing movie that showed what a dismal place Romania was during the last days of the Ceausescu regime. Five years later comes Beyond the Hills, a powerful, depressing movie that shows how little has changed.

This time the story is set in a small, provincial community. We meet Alina (Cristina Flutur), a 24-year-old girl making her way home after spending time working in Germany. She wants to link up with her best friend, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), with whom she previously shared a room at the local orphanage.

Voichita is now a nun at an impoverished monastery, run by a charismatic, severely patriarchal priest that everyone calls Papa (Valeriu Andriuta). In the monastery Voichita has found faith and a sense of family life, but to Alina, who has lived and worked abroad, the place feels like a tomb.

Alina’s feelings for Voichita go beyond friendship – she is in love and wants them both to go to Germany. The problem is that life has changed for Voichita, who is now devoted to the Orthodox church. Alina is determined to drag Voichita away, becoming increasingly aggressive and hysterical. When she is subdued and hospitalised it becomes clear she suffers from schizophrenia, although the disease is never mentioned by name.

Because the hospital – like everything else in Romania – is poor and rundown, the doctor asks the nuns to take care of Alina, making sure she gets plenty of rest. It is only a matter of time before her obsessions rise to the surface again, resulting in the same violent behaviour. The priest and nuns interpret Alina’s condition in a predictable manner: she is possessed by the Devil, and has to be exorcised.

Although this film begins in a slow, deliberate way, establishing the daily routine of the monastery, introducing the major characters and themes, the tension inexorably builds as Alina’s instability increases. Part of the pressure is due to the priest’s ongoing struggles to get his church consecrated. He is aware of his Christian responsibility to care for the sick, but cannot afford the scandal of a mad girl interrupting services.

It is a no-win situation, exacerbated by the poverty of the monastery and the community. Because there is no instititution that might care for Alina, the responsibilty falls back on the nuns. Because they are immersed in their faith and see prayer as the answer to every dilemma, they can only view Alina’s condition in terms of sin and redemption. Trying to drive out the Evil One through religious ceremony is the sole emergency treatment at their command.

Mungiu paints a bleak picture of a backward society. At one stage Alina is given a list of sins to study before making confession, just to make sure she leaves nothing out. There are, apparently, 465 official sins. When the nuns have to restrain their patient physically they are unaware of the irony of tying her to boards arranged in cruciform fashion.

They know there is another world beyond the hills – an irredeemably corrupt world in which foreigners have sacrificed the spirtual life for material comforts. To the priest, the nuns and the villagers it is this foreign environment that has put the evil spirits into Alina, not the orphanage – where the girls were photographed by a mysterious Herr Pfaff; or the claustrophobic life of a religious community. If the evil of the outside world is because of its freedom, it seems the only salvation lies in voluntarily submitting to a view of life as an indefinite prison sentence.

 

The Bling Ring, USA, rated MA, 95 mins

Beyond the Hills, Romania/France/Belgium, rated M, 155 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 10, 2013

 

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