Many filmmakers begin their career with a rush of productivity and then gradually slow down, but Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, after more than two decades in the business, only seems to be getting more insanely prolific. Claire’s Camera is the second of his three 2017 features to get a U.S. release (following On The Beach At Night Alone, with The Day After still forthcoming; he’s since made another film, Grass, which premiered a few weeks ago in Berlin), and it was reportedly conceived and shot in even more of a hurry than usual. Reliable sources claim that Hong now largely makes up his movies as he goes along, writing each day’s scenes in the morning and then shooting them in the afternoon. The results are as variable as one might expect, but this apparent trifle—it runs a mere 69 minutes, and was designed to take advantage of Isabelle Huppert’s presence at Cannes 2016, where she was promoting Elle—serves as a thoroughly engaging divertissement. That it comes across as more than a little half-assed is part of its unruly charm.
Huppert’s previous collaboration with Hong, In Another Country (2012), brought the French star to South Korea, concocting three separate-yet-similar tales that were all predicated on her being the fish out of water. Claire’s Camera, reversing matters, takes place entirely in France, during the Cannes Film Festival (though Hong, in his typically contrary fashion, never takes his camera anywhere near the Palais, where all the action is). Huppert plays the title character, a teacher who’s in town to support a filmmaker friend; by chance, she runs into a film sales assistant, Man-hee (The Handmaiden’s Kim Min-hee, omnipresent in Hong’s recent work), who’s just been fired for sleeping with the director (Jung Jin-young) of a movie her former company represents. Claire subsequently also meets both the director in question and Man-hee’s ex-boss (Chang Mi-hee), though it’s not clear for a while whether or not she makes the connection. Is she the sunny free spirit she appears to be? Or is she a Machiavellian manipulator amusing herself by playing all three legs of the love triangle she’s stumbled into against each other, feigning innocence all the while?
While the latter scenario would support a longer movie, Hong’s intentions here prove to be more benign. Per the title, Claire wields a camera throughout, snapping pictures of her new acquaintances; while this habit initially comes across as randomly quirky, it eventually evolves into something of an artistic manifesto. Like the little boy in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), who captures images of the backs of people’s heads (“You can’t see it for yourself, so I help you”), Claire performs a sort of photochemical alchemy designed to reveal what can’t otherwise be perceived. A picture of you, after all, is a record of who you used to be, even if it was taken only a few seconds earlier. That extinct individual, Claire theorizes, can be readily abandoned once viewed, allowing the person to move on. Unhappy with a decision you’ve made? Blame the idiot in the photo—another person entirely—and clean up the mess like a new homeowner.
This disarmingly idealistic notion is all the more effective for being conveyed so casually. The spontaneous awkwardness, with actors frequently communicating in English (the native language of nobody in the cast) and clearly having barely rehearsed, works in the film’s favor, forestalling didacticism with tentativeness. Huppert, so often intimidatingly intense, turns in an atypically relaxed performance that radiates sheer amusement—she almost seems to be in the audience, enjoying what’s unfolding, even as she’s onscreen, taking part. And Hong is wise enough not to overextend himself, wrapping things up early via a beautifully rushed ending. Can he pull off three or four such exceedingly minor miracles every 12 to 18 months? Probably not, but churning them out at that rate surely increases the odds that at least one will work out.