CLAIRE’S CAMERA (La caméra de Claire) B+
France South Korea (69 mi) 2017 d: Hong Sang-soo
Described as “The Korean Woody Allen” by Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes Film festival, Hong Sang-soo introduced two films at Cannes in 2017, specifically Parts 2 and 3 of a recent Trilogy centered around the same actress, Kim Min-hee. Earlier, the first part, On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja) (2017), premiered at the Berlin Film Festival where Kim won the award for Best Actress. This is the mid-film, followed by THE DAY AFTER (2017), which is shot in black and white. According to Tony Rayns, a film critic, curator, and historian, “Nobody probes deeper into the ways that men and women misread each other’s feelings than Hong Sang-soo.” A prodigious filmmaker, averaging more than a film a year since 1996, the 57-year old director has earned a reputation for making independent art films in Korea, with little to no commercial interest, where it’s often hard to find screenings of his films. Almost always a delight, Hong, perhaps more than any other filmmaker who ever lived, is synonymous with depicting lead male characters as hapless, shallow, and pathetic figures, most often viewed as scoundrels, drunks, and misogynists, usually cast in the roles of film directors or college professors, stand-ins for the director himself, where his films offer a window into how he views himself, as they are arduously self-observant, yet these men fall victim to their own primal instincts, inevitably sleeping with much younger students or admirers following drunken escapades, viewed as a mistake afterwards, then blaming his reprehensible behavior on getting drunk. But since these characters are “always” seen getting drunk, what is the director really saying? It suggests men in society have the privilege of getting away with moral indiscretions, something woman are not allowed to do in Korea without thorough public rebuke. The director’s extremely public affair with actress Kim Min-hee, age 36, for instance, was a scandal in Korea not for the actions of the married director, who proposed leaving his wife (she has refused to allow him a divorce), but all the criticism was directed at Kim, suggesting she was a marriage breaker. No one expresses the hypocrisy of this double standard better than Hong Sang-soo, though in each of his films, men never seem to learn their lesson, as their scandalously inappropriate behavior continues unabated with little or no consequence.
While this is a slight film, at only 69-minutes, it is infectiously appealing, cleverly written on the fly, reportedly writing the screenplay on the mornings of daily shoots, according to Kim in a Cannes interview from Le Monde, Kim Min-hee à Cannes : « Isabelle Huppert m'a prise sous son aile », shot in only two weeks entirely in and around the neighborhood surrounding the Cannes Film Festival while it was taking place (though there are no noticeable signs), starring the irrepressible Isabelle Huppert, French actress extraordinaire, where there is nothing, simply nothing she can’t do, as this is whimsical comedy, overtly funny, yet more lies under the surface than meets the eye. Ostensibly a Kim Min-hee film, as she is the central character seen throughout, the film examines how others enter and exit her world, showing the effects it has on her life. Opening with a classical musical theme, exactly like his prior film which was set in Germany, this continues Hong’s fascination with European culture and influence. Man-hee (Kim Min-hee) is seen working in the opening sequence as a sales rep for a film production company, yet off to the side we clearly see a visible poster for YOURSELF AND YOURS (2016), an earlier Hong film, which identifies the director’s presence in his own film. Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee), her boss, asks to go out for coffee, meeting at a sidewalk café, where she confesses a certain disappointment in Man-hee, suggesting she judges her character to be “dishonest,” though refusing to identify what made her feel this way. With that, she asks for her immediate resignation, as this is not a sustainable working relationship. Somewhat in the dark over what’s left unsaid, despite repeated requests for what led to this new judgment, Man-hee remains calm throughout, even takes a selfie with her boss prior to leaving, something that that obviously makes her boss feel awkward. In the following scene, Yanghye is standing on the beach with Director So (Jung Jin-young), a middle-aged film director screening his film at Cannes. As ships move in and out of the harbor, with simply beautiful shots of the Mediterranean, they discuss the firing of Man-hee, describing her as a meticulous worker, yet she’s displeased that he would have an affair with such a young girl (who turns out to be the young woman she just fired), suggesting it reflects badly upon him. Attributing nearly all the mistakes he’s made in his life to alcohol, both seem glad to get rid of her, with suggestions that Man-hee was fired simply to get her out of the way.
Enter Isabelle Huppert as Claire, always dressed in canary yellow, wearing a white sun hat, a Parisian music teacher accompanying a friend exhibiting a film at the festival, but out on her own, meeting Director So purely by chance at a sidewalk café, hilariously introducing herself with the infamous line, “It’s my first time in Cannes!” while he introduces himself as a film director, awkwardly pulling out her phone and checking him out on Google, where it’s amusing that the common language between them is English, obviously diminishing their capabilities, only capable of making small talk, yet the lingering pauses in between each spoken expression are priceless. Claire has a sunny disposition, matching the beautiful sun-filled charm of Cannes, where even the title evokes memories of Éric Rohmer, in particular CLAIRE’S KNEE (1970), where she meets people easily exhibiting a natural curiosity, often taking their picture with her polaroid camera, which offers some insight into who they are, something she appreciates, but the collection of photographs also offers evidence of fragmentary moments of her own life as well, signs of people she has met along the way. Somewhat distraught at the turn of earlier events, Man-hee is alone with her thoughts at the beach, running into Claire, who of course wants to take her photograph, developing an immediate friendship, with Man-hee offering to cook her an authentic Korean meal, something Claire acknowledges she’s never had, singing a goofy, positively indescribable song along the way that she wrote about numbers. While the meal is a complete success, though cooked by one of her roommates, who Claire describes as having a “feminine face,” Man-hee is intrigued by one of her photographs, which happens to be with Director So. This strange occurrence establishes an instant connection, particularly when Claire describes the woman he left with, most likely her boss, where she’s finally able to put two and two together and figure out what’s really going on. Having a smoke out the window leaves her in contemplation mode.
The film is a series of breezy encounters, with Claire constantly running into people, becoming a conduit between their lives, where her observant eye becomes a Greek chorus commenting on the various affairs, again running into Director So having an alcohol-fueled meal with Yanghye, again taking a photograph, which draws the curiosity of the director, wondering why she takes pictures. So this time she adds context, suggesting people are never the same after having their picture taken, as that’s a record of who they used to be, suggesting “The only way to change things is to look at them again very slowly.” Incredulous with stubborn disbelief, Director So doesn’t really feel it or understand, a bit bewildered by the concept. What fascinates him, however, is another picture she has taken, an earlier photo of Man-hee, where he and Yanghye tear into her with criticism, claiming she doesn’t look herself, as she has on too much make-up, becoming a pair of gossipy elementary school backstabbers. Clearly Director So has had too much to drink, with Claire actually calling him a “drunk,” but that doesn’t stop him from breaking up with Yanghye, suggesting it’s better for a long term working relationship. While she tries to remind him of what sparked their interest, it doesn’t alter the circumstances. One of the stranger scenes takes place at an evening hotel party, with Man-hee alone wearing shorts overlooking a balcony offering a glimpse of the city, where Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson, also seen in the prior film, excuses himself to refresh their drinks, never to return. Instead Director So shows up in a formal tux, asking what on earth she thinks she’s wearing, working himself into some kind of conservative rage about her suggestive promiscuity, but when she turns the tables, asking about his own behavior, he justifies it because he’s a man. This may be at the heart of the film, which really appears to be about moral deception and dishonesty, as the director is attributing the worst behavior to himself, giving himself a black eye, reeling in self-loathing and contempt. Nonetheless, Man-hee is justifiably upset, as it’s like she received a stern lecture from her father instead of heartfelt comments from a lover. Beautifully shot by Lee Jinkeun, with many long takes of table scenes done in a single shot, capturing the vibrancy and photographic beauty of Cannes, including streets, walkways, stairways, and its nearby beach, while using enhanced artificial nighttime illumination near the end for a prominent stone-built stairway that seems to timelessly transport characters from one place to another, much as the photographs do, offering insight, clarification, even transformative power.