The eternal question of whether cinema, and art in general, can make a difference in people’s lives gets a light-hearted affirmative answer in Hong Sang-soo’s breezy 69-minute celebration of the mysterious power of filmmaking, Claire’s Camera.
Three months after the Berlin bow of On the Beach at Night Alone, the prolific South Korean writer-director is showing this film in Cannes as a Special Screening; it is almost a companion piece to his longer competition entry, The Day After. All three films star charismatic Korean actress Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden) as a young woman who suffers the consequences of her lover’s roving eye and fickle affections.
He also re-casts French arthouse queen Isabelle Huppert, who played a triple role in his 2012 In Another Country, as a tourist visiting a small coastal resort — which this time around is Cannes.
Feeling more spontaneous and improvised than ever, this tale of chance encounters at a big film festival is easy on the eye and strewn with humorous gems, as it wryly reflects on the festival business and its denizens. It could be dismissed as a Rohmer-esque, just-for-fun amusement, which may be enough incentive for Huppert and Hong fans, were it not for a deeper reflection on the purpose of cinema running just below the surface.
“The only way to change things is to look at them again very slowly,” pronounces teacher-poet-photographer Claire (Huppert) to her new-found Korean friends. She is clearly Hong’s Prospero, his stand-in as the artist who uses the simplest technical equipment — in Claire’s case, a Polaroid camera — to alter reality.
Although the action is set during the festival, there’s no glamour in sight, no Palais du Cinema or crowds infesting the Croisette. The backstage drama of young film sales agent Manhee (Min-hee) and her female boss Nam Yanghye (played with tailored precision by TV actress Chang Mihee) unfolds on empty back streets and remote beaches. Inviting her model employee for a coffee, Yanghye politely informs the unsuspecting girl that after five years of working together, she doubts her honesty, and fires her on the spot. The scene plays out with absurd Asian formality and culminates in Manhee asking to take a picture together to commemorate her dismissal.
Enter Claire, a mysterious blonde in a jaunty straw hat. Huppert’s comic vein is not tapped often enough, and here she’s relaxed and ironic as the faux-naive tourist. In a cafe, she sociably introduces herself to the Korean filmmaker So (Jung Jinyoung) as a teacher from Paris. “It’s my first time in Cannes,” she says, a line that got a laugh from the (real) Cannes audience, who knows she has won two best actress awards at the festival for Violet Noziere and The Piano Teacher.
Hong goes on lightly pulling the focus in and out on fiction and reality. As self-possessed as a Zen master, Claire strolls around town snapping little Polaroids of everyone she meets. Mysteriously, these snapshots change their lives. “If I take a photo of you, you are not the same person anymore,” she insists to So and Yanghye, who turn out to be long-time lovers. They don’t believe her, but magic is in the air. One of the pictures she has taken is of a beautiful girl on the roof terrace of a building (it’s Min-hee). Later, she runs into her again on the beach and they get acquainted. As the real reason for the girl’s humiliating dismissal from the sales company becomes apparent, Claire’s photos do indeed play a role in righting wrongs. Who knows, they may even wake up a sleeping gray mastiff perennially sprawled across the sidewalk.
Lee Jinkeun’s simple but elegant cinematography gives the film a calm, off-season look. Only some rebellious zoom-ins in the middle of fixed camera long takes are aesthetic speed bumps. Everything is shot on location (no production designer is credited), giving Hong a chance to stop and comment on the strange scenery. Dialogue is a natural mix of French, English and Korean.
Production companies: Jeonwonsa Film Co., Camelia Film
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kim Minhee, Chang Mihee, Jung Jinyoung
Director, screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo
Director of photography: Lee Jinkeun
Editor: Hahm Sungwon
World sales: Finecut
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition special screening)