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From right, actors Emma Watson, Claire Julien, director Sofia Coppola and actor Taissa Fariga pose for photographers during a photo call for the film The Bling Ring in Cannes on May 16, 2013. (François Mori/AP)
From right, actors Emma Watson, Claire Julien, director Sofia Coppola and actor Taissa Fariga pose for photographers during a photo call for the film The Bling Ring in Cannes on May 16, 2013. (François Mori/AP)

Sofia Coppola’s artful Bling Ring gives us teen celebrity obsession with a twist Add to ...

“You scare me,” says the mother to her daughter in François Ozon’s new film, Young & Beautiful. If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing more unnerving than a teenaged girl with anti-social instincts and the means to express them. The Cannes Film Festival saw two such films on Thursday, one cool, classic and French, the other as contemporary and deliberately superficial as a Hollywood spray tan.

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Ozon’s Young & Beautiful is the study of a slender 17-year-old schoolgirl, Chloe (Marine Vacth), who – unbeknownst to her affectionate if clueless parents – buys an extra cellphone and sets up her own escort site. Without either sexual pleasure or financial need, she arranges paid assignations with older men in fancy hotels as a kind of game. Filmgoers with an eye to history may recognize the film as a junior version of the once-shocking 1967 Luis Bunuel film Belle de Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve as an icily elegant bourgeois wife with a secret erotic life as a call girl.

Though Young & Beautiful may push a few moral panic buttons, the typically playful Ozon is decidedly contemporary, moving beyond the surface titillation of click-and-buy culture for a coming-of-age drama about the power and dangers of keeping secrets.

The film makes for an intriguing companion to Sofia Coppola’s Hollywood teen criminal film, The Bling Ring. That Coppola’s film is about celebrity will be no surprise to followers of her career. The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola (she appeared as a child in all three Godfather movies), cousin of Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, and sister of writer Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom), she tends to draw from her personal experience of life inside the fishbowl. With The Bling Ring, she takes the perspective of those staring in from the outside, in an artful, unexpectedly compassionate look at the impact of junk culture.

On Thursday, after the film was warmly received as the opener to the Un Certain Regard selection, the soft-spoken Coppola said she’s never really followed the tabloid and Internet side of pop culture (she doesn’t have a Facebook account), so she hadn’t noticed the stories about a rash of home burglaries in 2008 and 2009 against stars like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Megan Fox. Later, on a flight, she read Nancy Jo Sales’s 2010 Vanity Fair feature, The Suspects Wore Louboutins, about a group of Los Angeles teens who burgled their idols’ homes, stole their clothes and jewellery and spent their money at the same clubs where the stars hung out.

“When I read the article, I thought it sounded like a movie and so I checked [who had] the rights. The more I talked to the journalist and read the transcripts, I thought the whole thing was so fascinating and so contemporary and said so much about our culture today.”

The Bling Ring, she says, follows her 2010 film Somewhere and “this idea of wanting to achieve celebrity and what happens when you get there. This is the development of that same thought on another level. You’re seeing it more and more emphasized in our culture.”

The idea was “to try to show the story from their perspective, in the collage style of social media…. It’s a story that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago.”

Paris Hilton, one of the burglary victims (she appears in a nightclub cameo), showed Coppola security tapes of the actual robbery and gave her the run of her home, along with a department-store worth of clothes and throw pillows bearing the star’s image. The burglars assumed, correctly, that Hilton was the kind of person who would leave a key under her doormat.

“She has,” said Coppola of Hilton, “a good sense of humour.”

The five perpetrators, four girls and one fashion-forward boy (played by Emma Watson as bling-ringleader Nicki, and a young cast that also features Taissa Farmiga, Katie Chang, Claire Julien and Israel Broussard), went on “shopping” trips, and were both canny and dumb. (Coppola joked, “They were 16 and perhaps their brains hadn’t formed completely yet.”) They tracked the celebrities’ schedules via Google and gossip sites, and cased the homes with Google Street View. Then they posted self-incriminating pictures of their trophies on Facebook.

Three of the real girls even starred in a 2010 reality show, Pretty Wild, which chronicled their fledgling attempts at celebrityhood and their criminal trials. Alexis Neiers (the basis of Watson’s character) ended up in an adjacent jail cell to one of her victims, Lohan, in an L.A. detention centre. She appears to have not been cured of celebrity worship. Last week, she tweeted “@EmWatson Break a leg in Cannes!… And no hard feelings about making fun of me. ;)”

Watson, the former Harry Potter star, says she prepared for her part by watching The Hills and Keeping Up With the Kardashians to “understand the psychology” of her bling- and celebrity-obsessed character. Her assessment of reality television is diplomatic:

“It’s a different kind of story-telling. I think there are celebs who create a brand and create a business and a whole life out of other people’s interests, and there are people who don’t – who have a craft and a trade. It’s a very different kind of acting. I think as long as people know the difference, it’s okay.”

None of the cast consulted with their real-life counterparts (Coppola was insistent on not “giving them any more fame than they already had”), though 18-year-old Claire Julien, the daughter of Christopher Nolan’s favourite cinematographer, Wally Pfister, recalls she had briefly met one of the girls before she was cast in the role and later recognized her on television from her tattoo.

“There are lots of those girls like that around L.A. You see them all the time.”

Julien also offered an insight into the current relationship between social media and celebrity:

“You can’t just wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh well. That was last night.’ It’s on Twitter and Facebook. What our generation is dealing with, which no generation has dealt with before, is this kind of digital memoir of everything you’ve done. It’s out there for the public to see, whether you’re a celebrity or not.”

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