Slight, but sweet, Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera runs a mere 69 minutes and sees Isabelle Huppert play the titular divine character, as she visits the French town of Cannes and has a profound effect on the lives of three Korean film industry professionals. Manhee (played by The Handmaiden’s Kim Min-hee) has been fired from her job but returns to Cannes on new business. Her old boss is also in town and is currently dating film director So, whom Manhee has history with. Then, along comes Claire, who spends time separately with both So and the boss, and with Manhee. By showing them photos of each other taken with her Polaroid camera, she helps them to process their parting, before drawing them together to face their pasts once and for all.
Dialogue scenes play out in long takes and give the four central actors a great deal to do, especially when their scenes are in English, a common second language between all of the characters. And these sections certainly play like they’re performed in a second language. They are stilted, with long pauses and simplistic dialogue, as if improvised. As a result, some of the English language dialogue makes the characters seems child-like, but Hong uses this to comment on the petty nature of the Korean’s split. It also means that, when the characters are finally brought back together in Korean language scenes, their performances are immediately imbued with a clarity and power, despite (and ultimately because of) the language barrier with the audience. It’s a clever trick of Hong’s and turns language and comprehension into a key element of the film.
Claire’s Camera celebrates the camera and the process of image making. Photographs are presented as clarifying hindsight, providing an ability to look back and directly compare with one’s current situation. Even so, the cinematography is noticeably rudimentary. Hong regularly uses zooms, which gives the film a documentary-like aesthetic – fiction films usually physically move the camera towards or away from the subject to change the scale of the image (these are known as dolly shots). This helps the film occupy an intriguing middle ground between reality and fiction. The subtlety of the character scenes and the dialogue feels very real and creates great humour from language barriers and cross-cultural clashes. The rapport that develops between the characters is also strong. Claire’s Camera lives and dies on the interest of its characters and their undulating relationships and, by never outstaying their welcome, Hong and his cast are successful in that regard.
Claire’s Camera is out now on limited release in the US.