One of the great discoveries of this year’s New York Film Festival is Who’s Camus Anyway, a captivatingly detailed ode to community and the movies; it’s the rare Altmanesque tapestry that deserves mention in the same sentence as great films like Short Cuts and The Player. The film’s stunning opener—a long shot that surveys the campus surrounding an arts school where a group of film students are about to shoot a project that echoes the essence of Albert Camus’s The Stranger—even makes reference to the infamous long shot that opens The Player, and though it’s scarcely a technical wonder, it still takes your breath way. With this one visionary shot, director Mitsuo Yanagimachi introduces every character in this film for film lovers, charting the rituals of school life and offering glimpses of the personal dramas that will unveil throughout the story.
On the surface, the film is something of a totem to the insular experience of film school, and much of its virtuosity and hilarity is how remarkably it coveys the complicated ways individuals interact with one another within such a setting. This is a film that demands to be filtered through and looked at in relation to our very personal relationship with movies, and as such it’s impossible for me not to see a reflection of my own experiences at film school in the story’s narrative, from these characters’ obsessive love for movies to their shared ritual of making images and watching them flicker across the screen. This is a remarkable narrative of intertwined dramas, and the ease with which Yanagimachi leaves one character and latches onto another is truly something to behold. But Who’s Camus Anyway doesn’t simply reflect our love for the movies, it responds to it as well.
Yanagimachi addresses the way people live through movies—the way they see life as an imitation of art, and not the other way around. As Matsukawa (Shuji Kashiwabara) anxiously prepares his movie, his girlfriend Yukari (Hinano Yoshikawa) monitors his every move, pestering him about their looming marriage, threatening to kill him if he catches him with another woman, and asking to put his sperm in storage (he agrees to the latter, but only on the condition that she gives him money for software he needs to edit his film). She may be nuts, but she isn’t seen as a real person by Matsukawa’s crewmates so much as a facsimile of Isabelle Adjani’s crazed character from Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. Likewise, the frustrated professor Nakajo (Hirotaro Honda), a former filmmaker who’s fascination with a pretty young woman not only stirs memory’s floodgates but seems to trigger a midlife crisis, is seen as a mirror reflection of Dirk Bogarde’s character from Visconti’s Death in Venice.
Who’s Camus Anyway recognizes the danger of living vicariously through performance, like an actor so gripped by the emotional toll of a role that they risk losing all sense of reality, which is what happens to Ikeda (Hideo Nakaizumi) when his Meursault-like character in Matsukawa’s film begins to torture him. The Stranger is of great significance to Yanagimachi, who brilliantly reflects the existentialist philosophies of Camus’s famous novel in a stunning swirl of meta violence. What it all means I won’t pretend to know, but if Yanagimachi’s characters are anything like Meursault in the sense that they gauge reality only by what they can experience physically, then the surreal bloodshed that closes the film—which echoes the ending of Argento’s Deep Red—could be seen as an emphatic expression of our self-important movie dreams and the deeper truths they disguise.