In the opening moments of Hong Sang-soo’s “Claire’s Camera“, a film sales assistant named Manhee (Kim Min-hee) is fired during a work trip at the Cannes Film Festival. The reasoning for her dismissal is a lack of trust, as her boss claims that she lacks honesty. As we follow her subsequent aimless drifting through this seaside city, the notion of truth becomes a primary concern for the film, which commits steadfastly to understated realism.
Indeed, if you aware of the background of the film and its characters, it’s impossible to ignore the film’s real-world similarities. After all, “Claire’s Camera” premiered in 2017 at the same film festival that provides its setting. It also features among its cast, a Korean director who is also premiering a film there. But lavish red carpet affairs and exclusive screenings are never shown in the film however. Instead, Hong Sang-soo takes us on a leisurely stroll with Manhee and Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a school teacher on vacation. As these strangers meet in a chance encounter, they make connections and memories away from the glitz and glamour.
As it turns out, Cannes is a quiet town despite the buzz of the festival. Resembling similarly tourist-friendly seaside locales, the backdrop is a familiar array of quaint streets, charming cafes and tranquil beachfronts. Indeed, there is little to signify that some of the biggest names in world cinema are being feted just around the corner.
Manhee and Claire’s frolic through Cannes is decidedly low-key, as “Claire’s Camera” follows little more than an outline of a plot. The film thus becomes an unorthodox star vehicle, relying on the magnetism of Kim Min-hee and Isabelle Huppert to captivate the audience. But while the pair are effortlessly compelling, the script unfortunately asks little of them. Amid banal conversations and awkward silences, the only tension comes from the fallout of an unseen affair that adds further metatextual meaning and much needed conflict.
Smartly, Sang-soo seems aware of the thinness of his screenplay, keeping the running time short at just over an hour. As such, he is able to succinctly put across his message about the revelatory power of photography, as explained briefly – and somewhat dubiously – by the camera-wielding Claire. Ironically, the cinematography produces no memorable images of its own, while simultaneously drawing undue attention to itself by erratically zooming in and out.
Despite the underwhelming cinematography, “Claire’s Camera” still evokes a soothing serenity through Hong’s light touch and the inherent charms of the locations depicted. Indeed, most of the narrative involves our protagonists simply chatting away and savoring the sunny pleasures of Cannes. If nothing else, “Claire’s Camera” succeeds in providing dreamy escapism. It vicariously transports viewers to an idyllic locale where losing your job might be the best thing that could happen to you.
“Claire’s Camera” is now playing in select theaters.