It is a film about random café encounters in Cannes, partly made possible by a random café encounter in Cannes. Architect Shahira Fahmy happened to tell Hong Sang-soo about her acting ambitions when they struck up a conversation in a café during the Cannes Film Festival. A few hours later, she was shooting a scene with Isabelle Huppert. It wasn’t a hugely consequential scene, but it is still a good start. It is also very Hong Sang-soo. Indeed, a chance encounter of that nature would not be out of place in the film in question, Hong’s Claire’s Camera (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Camera could be considered the third film in the awkward trilogy of films helmed by Hong and starring Kim Min-hee, addressing unfaithfulness and released after news of their affair went public. This is the best of the three. The explicit reference to Eric Rohmer (director of Claire’s Knee) is no accident. Camera is very Rohmeresque. His characters wander incessantly, but this is a Hong film, so they also drink, especially, So Hansoo, the Hong-esque director.
Jeon Manhee is about to be fired by her boss, producer-sales agent Nam Yanghye, soon after their arrival in Cannes, because she ill-advisedly let So sleep with her. So isn’t just talent they are handling. He is also Nam’s lover—or at least he was. He intends to break it off once their French guest at lunch takes her leave. That would be Claire, a charming music teacher, who also writes poetry and compulsively takes pictures. She came down from Paris for the premiere of her friend’s film (played by Fahmy), but while strolling through town, she makes the chance acquaintances of both Jeon and So, who are quite struck by the coincidence when they see the photographic evidence of Claire’s encounters.
At a mere sixty-nine minutes, Camera feels light and brief, but there are some heady themes lurking under the surface and some heavy emotions bubbling over. While there is little of Hong’s previous narrative gamesmanship, he rather subtly and slyly proves Claire’s vaguely postmodern contention that the act of taking someone’s picture changes them. This is definitely true in the case of Jeon and So.
Claire is a nice change of pace for Huppert (reuniting with Hong after In Another Country), but she still commands the screen utterly and completely. After watching Camera, everyone should be convinced it would be great fun to café-hop your way across Cannes with her. Kim’s work as Jeon is just as sensitively rendered as her award-winning performance in On the Beach at Night Alone, but she also shows a bit of goofy humor that is wonderfully sweet and endearing. Jung Jin-young’s So is basically an amalgamation of every unpleasant Hong Sang-soo cliché, but Chang Mi-hee is surprisingly human and vulnerable as the ragingly insecure Nam. Plus, there is a big gray dog who steals several scenes, even though he literally sleeps through them.
Claire’s Camera is vintage Hong and a lovely showcase for Huppert and Kim. It just captures that indescribable late-night vibe. Surely, Rohmer would have approved. Very highly recommended, Claire’s Camera opens this Friday (3/9) in New York, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.