Claire's Camera ★★★½


This film was made as a bit of a lark while Hong and Huppert were both in Cannes, and it shows. Claire's Camera opens with two women working in a film sales office, a poster for Yourself and Yours tacked to a door in plain sight. The women -- youger, less experienced Manhee (Kim Min-hee) and her boss, Yanghye (Jang Mi-hie) are about to go for a fateful coffee date in which Yanghye fires Manhee, giving her no real reason. Instead, she makes cryptic statements about trust and honesty, explaining that Manhee is a liability simply because she makes Yanghye uncomfortable, and could she forego the usual post-termination period and clear out immediately?

Shortly thereafter, Claire (Isabelle Huppert) and Korean film director So Wan-soo (Jeong Jin-yeong) meet by chance outside the same cafe and strike up a conversation. He has a film at Cannes; she is a teacher, in town to support a filmmaker friend. In a comic moment, Claire whips out her smartphone and takes an eternity to look So up, confirming that yes, he is a film director -- the sort of embarrassing touch that Hong could have drawn only from personal experience.

There is no repetition or time-shifting, as such, in Claire's Camera, although connections to the past are certainly on the table. On the beach, Claire meets Manhee and struck by her beauty, takes her picture, beginning a conversation. Through Claire's Polaroids, Manhee, So, and Yanghye "connect," without being in the same locale. (We learn that So and Manhee had a drunken tryst, the cause of her abrupt dismissal.)

Claire and her pictures are the tissue that pull the plot together, and in a way she is the Hongian element, the time-shifter, the generator of narrative repetition. She revives the truth of the affair, provokes So to go on a bender, instigates jealousy in Yanghye, all without having any real emotional connection to the triangle. She, like Huppert herself, is chance: Claire is circumstantial, essentially "green lighting" the entire sordid plot.

But Claire is no cipher. While dining with So and Yanghye, she explains that she enjoys photography because the taking of pictures changes the subject photographed. (Huppert the Frenchwoman becomes the mouthpiece for Bazinianism.) So doesn't buy it, but in the scene Claire takes a photo of So and then stares him down, watching him age away from the "decisive moment" of the snapshot. Whereas So believes that he doesn't change -- an idiotic obstinacy characteristic of Hong's men -- "La Chambre Claire" is the very agent of time's arrow. She is moving these sad, stranded individuals along, and they don't even have the decency to thank her.