A genuine sense of change and progression from the more serious-minded, self-critical films that preceded it.
The seemingly endless mutability of Hong Sang-soo’s spartan filmmaking continues to be one of the marvels of contemporary filmmaking. Claire’s Camera, one of three features to float around film festivals throughout 2017, is on its surface one of the director’s lightest, most fleeting works. A comedy of travel and translation akin to similarly simple films like Hill of Freedom and In Another Country, it barely stretches to feature length as it revolves around the fallout of production company staffer Manhee’s (Kim Min-hee) affair with company boss and noted director So (Jung Jin-young). Yet as part of a loose trilogy charting Kim’s own affair with Hong, it approaches the topic from yet another angle from the excoriating self-criticism of On a Beach at Night Alone or the metatextual group therapy of The Day After. Here instead is a comedy of errors, one in which having to address gossip not only domestically but abroad leads to carefully worded translations whose alterations of meaning and honesty open paths of revision that reach out into reality itself.
Hong doesn’t bother hiding his self-reference here, placing a poster for his own Yourself and Yours in an opening shot as Man-hee works in a film production office before being interrupted by her boss, Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee), who asks her to come with her. The tone is initially pleasant, but when Man-hee responds that she needs to finish up some work first, Yang-hye becomes uncomfortable, and even though her back is to the camera you can see the way she slackens with uncertainty. Her hesitation becomes clear when the two head out for tea and Yanghye fires her assistant, refusing to specify a reason but instead rhapsodizing about the importance of honesty and insisting that the baffled Man-hee knows what she did. Only later in the film’s obliquely ordered timeline does it become clear that Manhee had a one-night stand with the company’s resident director, So, and that this is the reason for her termination.
That non-linear approach complicates what might otherwise have been a straightforward reckoning with the fallout of jealousy and recrimination of Man-hee’s affair. Much of these time skips occur around Claire (Isabelle Huppert), an amateur photographer who wanders around the Cannes setting. We first see her meeting So at a café, and they strike up a conversation that ultimately leads her to join him in a meeting with Yanghye, where they discover she had earlier met Manhee. “I’ve never seen her like that,” Yanghye says softly of photos the audience cannot see, referring to a bright, attractive quality so at odds with the morose person last seen being canned. The film regularly jumps around to fill in the gaps proposed by such time skips, reflecting the messier aspects of everyone’s emotional states and creating minor intrigue at what has yet to be seen.
Hong’s formal properties have always been understated, and he long ago learned how to infuse his ostensibly flat, simple compositions with a level of complexity indebted to the painting of Paul Cézanne. His use of color here is especially beautiful, relying on the salt-faded tones of seafront buildings to give the film a slight pinkish hue complemented by the light brown of sand. The film regularly cuts away from and returns to the inside of a bar where So and Yanghye drunkenly hash out his one-night stand, their own romantic past and their current professional partnership, and the contrast of dark red lighting with the green of multiplying soju bottles is particularly striking, especially when considered against the pale glow of the aquarium that fills the background space between them. Hong is less reliant on zooms here than he has been in recent movies, yet he uses them here to add to the sense of destabilization caused by the time leaps; when Manhee is fired, for example, her shock and Yanghye’s coldness are momentarily diverted when the camera pans down to track Manhee excitedly noticing a dog. Even static compositions attest to disorder, as in the broken symmetry of the shot of Claire and So sitting on either side of a café door before So gets up and comes over to her table.
These subtle forms of chaos finds Hong approaching the subject of his affair with arguably the most daring aesthetic experiment of his career, purely sublimating the confusion and emotional fallout into slight scrambles of timeline and blocking. He gets great mileage out of Huppert as a comic agent, with Claire’s ignorance of the Korean characters and their situation resulting in hilariously uncomfortable requests for clarification, including an agonizing bit where Claire Googles So as he sits with her, sheepishly pointing to the search results and saying, “That’s me.”
Yet Claire also offers a detached, relatively objective perspective, one whose inquisitiveness and lack of judgment can help smooth out the rawer emotions between aggrieved parties. She also comes to act as a kind of director, musing on the way that photographs will always capture a different person than the genuine article that continues to exist in the world, feeding into a belief she holds that “the only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly.” Claire’s Camera stares yet again into the event that has shaped Hong’s cinema for the last few years, and comparatively it does offer a genuine sense of change and progression from the more serious-minded, self-critical films that preceded it.