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Claire's Camera
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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't entirely point its camera inward, and so finds a bit of life."
4 stars

Cannes has become so associated with its film festival that just setting a movie there seems to warp perception of it and the people involved; it becomes part of this insular world that means something to filmmakers and influential critics who perhaps don't realize how many people it can leave on the outside. "Claire's Camera" mostly avoids that - it's set in that world and in many ways about it, but not so much so that it loses its basic charm.

Part of that is that it makes the closest thing the film has to a native - Isabelle Huppert's Claire, a Parisian teacher who carries around an instant camera and has come to see a friend's movie at the festival - the most complete tourist among the central group of characters. She's not out of place - Claire can sling the artsy musings as well as anybody who does it for a living - but she's just enough of an outsider to have a little bit of a raised eyebrow at the antics of the film people. It's a fun part for Isabelle Huppert, who is not exactly best known for cheerful, upbeat roles, but plays Claire as something of a much-loved aunt here, often surprised and curious but clearly enjoying the new situations she's finding.

Though Huppert is first-billed, the film spends more time following Jeon Man-hee (Kim Min-hee), who works in film sales and who, between the first and second time the audience sees her, goes from clearly being reluctant to join her boss Nam Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) and director So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young) at a party to having been pressured to quit, though she hangs around rather than go back to Seoul because it's not like Nam is going to pay the fees to change her ticket (not that Nam considers this). What's going on between that trio isn't terribly complicated, but they're a pleasure to watch nonetheless - Kim Min-hee has an easy charm whether working in Korean or English, and she's able to make Man-hee's stumbles in her second language work for the character: It highlights her inexperience in some sports but never marks her as truly ignorant, and it highlights what a likable, gregarious person she is that she keeps trying (and, when she has a wordless moment of understanding, the clarity on her face is twice as effective). Chang Mi-hee has moments when Nam is trying to keep So in line or be his bad cop that echo Lesley Manville's Phantom Thread performance nicely, but with more of a desire for approval in there. Jung jin-young, meanwhile, is perhaps most notable for sort of shifting 45 degrees emotionally at a certain point; he plays the familiar image of a somewhat spoiled artist who seduces when it seduces him and then acts patrician to try and keep young women in line. It's well-done, right down to the layer of charm showing a little wear.

In a way, the movie becomes a bit of an examination of men like So; though the viewer sees little of the festival, one is expected to know enough about it and the French and Korean film culture to know that he's not exactly unusual. Having not seen much of Hong's work, I'm somewhat curious how he fits into that culture, on average, as his film often seems like the sort that sits back and notes sexism and snobbery but often doesn't do much to skewer it. It gets in better hits than some - Man-hee persistently needling Nam to be specific about why she was letting Man-hee go and a later scene that picks up on Nam's use of the word "honesty" to suggest that the use of that word when talking about art is bull more often than not. It's a dance this film's audience has seen a fair amount: An auteur who knows the worlds of film and academia (and where they intersect) better than the world outside it, and as such is fairly coy about puncturing the bubble that has gained him respect.

Fortunately, Hong is less timid than most, and never completely succumbs to that sort of navel-gazing. He's willing to let the new friendship between Claire and Man-hee be a simple thing, and in a sense pure - the language barrier and the setting could lead to them talking in film references, but never does. Hong mostly shoots simply, occasionally calling attention to himself but seldom in a way that hampers things. He plays with flashback structure a bit, acting a bit more heavy-handed as Man-hee relives being fired but jumping back to another moment without fanfare.

It's a combination of simplicity and formal creativity that, along with the festival happening off-screen, targets a certain segment of cinephiles rather precisely, although the film is far friendlier that the Godardian bit of self-reflection it sometimes appears to be. It's a Cannes film in more ways than one, even if it does have appeal beyond that circle.

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originally posted: 04/17/18 23:06:23
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Directed by
  Sang-soo Hong

Written by
  Sang-soo Hong

  Isabelle Huppert
  Shahira Fahmy
  Mi-hee Chang
  Jin-young Jung
  Min-Hee Kim

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