06/24/2013 06:34 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

The Best Thing in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring : Perfume

For all its stylish visuals, Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring is most masterful in depicting something you can't see at all: scent. In perhaps the film's most powerful shot, Rebecca, the ringleader of the teenaged thieves, sprays herself with Lindsay Lohan's perfume. Having broken into Lohan's house, Rebecca stands at the mirror (archly kept off-screen) and picks up a large bottle of Lohan's own signature fragrance. In slow motion footage, she tilts up her chin and sprays the fragrance on her neck, right, then left, and then sniffs the stopper. She sniffs the air, too, taking in the scent while she gazes into that mirror. It's as clear a depiction as any of one young woman trying to summon and submit to the identity and personality of another.

And then you see it: a tiny patch of moisture shining on Rebecca's neck. As she turns her head to admire herself in that unseen mirror, the perfume she has sprayed sits on her skin and reflects the light. More than the mirror, the reflection we cannot see, that tiny glint of light on Rebecca's neck conveys everything we need to know about the movie's main character. She is vain, yes, but she has lost her identity in the superficialities of other identities -- in the clothes and shoes and jewelry she pilfers from celebrity homes. She sees not herself in the mirror, but some fantasy self made up of the trophies she uses as a disguise. It's in spraying Lohan's perfume on her neck that Rebecca achieves that complete dissolution of herself into someone else.

We all know the power of a fragrance to evoke a person. Chanel No. 5 takes us back to our mother's embraces before evenings out. A powdery rose summons our grandmother, or a favorite aunt. Still, despite or perhaps because of the power of scent to evoke memories and stories, it is depicted in literature or art rarely and with difficulty. Patrick Süskind comes closest to success with his 1985 novel Perfume, about an 18th-century nose who violently cultivates the scents of young women as ingredients for his highly sought-after perfumes. Süskind uses fragrance as both plot engine and lens (pardon the mixed metaphor) through which the reader takes in the narrative. Our experience of reading the book becomes an experience of tracking a scent. M.J. Rose's recent The Book of Lost Fragrances similarly uses perfume to drive the plot, though it tends to limit its treatment of scent to the perfumes concocted by the protagonist's family -- one of which scents has the ability to send its sniffer into a past life. Perhaps the master of scent-writing is George Orwell, whose The Road to Wigan Pier is remarkable for its emphasis on the noxious odors of working-class England. Still, for Orwell, scent is little more than a marker of class. He registers and represents smells not for the scents themselves but as signals of squalor.

In The Bling Ring, we have neither a writer's description, nor an actual perfumer's smell to tell us what it smells like as Rebecca stands in Lindsay Lohan's bedroom. But we have that bit of reflected light, masterfully introduced into the slow-motion shot. This is no whiff of Chanel No. 5, no Proustian scent-moment taking us back to the past. Coppola uses perfume to convey the way Rebecca is trying to conjure not a memory but an ambition: Rebecca isn't remembering the Lindsay Lohan she knows: she is memorizing the Lohan she wants to become. The image of Rebecca baring her neck to the spray of fragrance would suffice to convey that message. But the sight of that tiny patch of moist perfume, captured before it dries down, shot in the moment that it is leaving its scent on the skin -- that is when Coppola dramatizes scent. Scent's seductiveness, its stealth, its transformative power are all on display. It's a kind of cinematic alchemy: liquid turning to light, offering scent, taking identity, offering up a new self.