Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera is set during the Cannes Film Festival, where it was shot in 2016. Apart from the dialogue, one might not be able to tell that this narrative is set against the most famous film festival in the world. Hong’s Cannes is a nearly unpopulated European beach town, in which characters have room and time to wander and contemplate. We see no movie stars or paparazzi, and none of the hugger-mugger of global film finance. Instead, Hong follows a film director, a few film salespeople, and a tourist as they stumble through a romantic and melancholic comedy of errors.
The film has a loose, open, sun-blasted gorgeousness. Hong savors the sand of the beach and the stones of the streets, as well as the interplay of light on mugs and glasses. A large gray dog lays near two women, Nam Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) and Jeon Man-hee (Kim Min-hee), as they sip coffee outside while the former dismisses the latter from her job. Processing her firing, Man-hee strolls over and pets the dog, celebrating its ruffled elegance. This sort of detail—mysterious, joyous, and sad—is the fruit of Hong’s obsessive devotion to mining a similar situation with the same aesthetic over and over again. He refines and discovers, parsing figurative sand for fine stones. The dog will continue to surface in the narrative, serving as a kind of weathered signpost, and as evidence of the stability that gently mocks the characters from afar.
The film’s scenes are short and punchy, with dialogue that has a musical and comical sense of repetition. Yang-hye’s firing of Man-hee is intensely strange—and would, in America, make for a compelling wrongful termination lawsuit. Yang-hye says something about Man-hee’s “good-heartedness” only to counter with the observation that she no longer believes in Man-hee’s honesty. Yang-hye bounces back and forth between the two distinctions, giving the scene a sing-song effect that’s intensified by Man-hee’s bafflement and repeated efforts to gain clarity over her dismissal. At this point in Claire’s Camera, we have no idea that these women are in film sales or are at Cannes, as Hong drops us into this situation with pointedly little exposition. Some scenes are structured as flashbacks, while others double back on themselves, with symbols, such as the dog, to reorient us at pivotal junctures.
The mixture of the controlled and the (seemingly) casual is the hallmark of Hong’s mastery. Claire’s Camera is as tightly wound as any drawing-room comedy, yet it may be mistaken for a series of sketches that were made on the fly by friends and collaborators. This film alternatingly builds and releases tension, springing galvanizing sequences that appear to arise out of nowhere, in between eating and polite chitchat. When Claire (Isabelle Huppert), an amateur photographer, shows Man-hee a picture that inadvertently clarifies Yang-hye’s motivations for firing her, Kim allows a dark and fleeting cloud to form over Man-hee’s face that suggests smugness, contempt, and even satisfaction at learning the depths of her former boss’s insecurities. This moment allows us to consider how little we actually know of Man-hee, interrogating how willingly we reduce women to signifiers of our own needs.
Such reduction is unforgiveable as well as insidiously tempting. Kim is among the most beautiful women in cinema, and her collaborations with Hong suggest a struggle—for men as well as women—to reconcile the intoxicating allures of charisma and appearance with a consideration of humanity. Kim’s performance in Claire’s Camera is composed of a series of subtle physical gestures that contrast repose with defense, suggesting the former—for a woman—to be forever freighted with the latter. Man-hee is ravishing when lounging out on a rock on the beach in elegant gray slacks, but in this moment she’s also being pestered by Claire, who has a way of being in the wrong place at the most annoying time. Man-hee appears to be at her most comfortable when wearing a pair of cutoff shorts at a party, but her ex-lover, So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young), springs on her and berates Man-hee for the revealing clothes, in a burst of shocking emotional violence.
Claire’s Camera is governed by a narrative circle that suggests relief as well as entrapment: Man-hee starts out at the office her employers are renting in France and ends up there as well, fighting to be allowed to do a menial task in peace. Over the course of 69 painstakingly precise minutes, Hong reveals or alludes to the full spectrum of emotions illuminating the souls of a handful of characters, three of whom dream of being artists, fearing that they’re going to be relegated to the roles of tourists and objects for those who get to be artists. As such, this robust comedy might also be considered a tragedy.