Tuesday 19 February 2019

Streaming Delights - Claire's Camera by Hong Sang-soo

First in our new Streaming Delights series, the delightful Claire's Camera that has not been realised in cinemas in the UK so far and is very unlikely to ever be so there's a rare chance to watch it on Mubi UK this month.

When we found out that prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo was making a film during the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 (while presenting The Handmaiden), and with Isabelle Huppert again as well as Kim Min-hee (The Handmaiden and every recent Sang-soo film), our collective cinephile heart beat faster. Knowing him however, we realised it was not going to be a straightforward film about the festival, indeed it emerged that he had barely used any of the festival events as a background for his film, and instead shot in the side streets of the city.

As expected, the film found itself in Cannes the following year. While the film festival is not directly represented on screen, and none of its glamour and signifiers are in evidence, its presence is felt, especially its influence on its visitors. Isabelle Huppert plays Claire, a teacher and photographer, whose first line "It's my first time in Cannes", uttered with just the right balance of knowing inflexion, drew chuckles from the (Cannes) audience I saw it with. Not being officially part of the festival, and in town to support a friend, she is free to wander around the fringes of the event, always carrying her camera with her.

Elsewhere in town, Manhee, who works for a film company finds herself abruptly sacked by her difficult boss (for motives we understand later on), and free to wander around in town. A chance encounter between the two women sees the beginning of a friendship.

Hong Sang-soo has always worn his influences on his sleeve, mainly, Éric Rohmer, and Claire's Camera is no exception, even the title sounds like a Rohmer-esque title. This might sound like an experiment that came to the director almost randomly during the festival, yet, and despite the short shoot, there is a lot more depth to the film that might appear, as it often the case with this films.

His usual themes are present, the long musings about life, the melancholy, the affection of an older, creative man for a younger, pretty woman but, despite what some who see him as a very male-centric director might argue, the theme of female friendship feels new yet so wonderfully and accurately portrayed. There is no naivety to it though, and amusingly, the very first encounter between the two women at a party, seen later on in flashbacks and that neither seem to remember, was not a friendly one! Similarly, there is some female rivalry between Manhee and her older boss.

The director excels at capturing characters at the crossroads of their lives, a times with changes looming yet one that they seem to live in suspended animation (and, having been to Cannes since 1992, I can tell you the festival always feels like you are in a bubble where time and the rest of the world do not exist!). As such, the passing friendship between the two women feel even more valuable, because of its spontaneous and, most likely given their far apart home towns, short-lived. Again the director beautifully captures the pleasing beauty of a chance encounter when travelling, of people you meet randomly and feel comfortable with, even though (and perhaps because of?) the knowledge you might never see them again. It is particularly interesting how roles between Hong Sang-soo and Isabelle Huppert are reversed since their previous collaboration, In Another Country. He is now the visitor, casting his unique eye on a foreign country, and she is in her home country, even though, he has still cast her as a visitor.

Claire's Camera might be a "small" film, but a gem all the same.

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