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“Claire’s Camera” Star Isabelle Huppert on the Unpredictable Magic of Hong Sang-soo

The unexpectedly perfect pairing of actress Isabelle Huppert and director Hong Sang-soo makes for cinematic gold once again in their latest collaboration, Claire’s Camera, whose run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center continues to be held over. Huppert (whom Melissa Anderson profiled for the Voice in 2016) has always been game for treading unfamiliar territory in her bold acting endeavors, and she here eases into the role of the charming foreigner, even as she sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the mostly-Korean cast (as she did in Hong’s 2012 In Another Country). She’s the outsider yet again, though she’s technically on home territory in the France-set Claire’s Camera. Hong, meanwhile, is the South Korean heir to the influence of chatty French directors like Éric Rohmer, and is also beloved by the crowd at the Cannes Film Festival, which is where the breezy yet profound new film takes place. Like much of Hong’s recent work, Claire’s Camera traces an older director’s affair with a younger woman (played by Hong’s muse, Kim Min-hee). Huppert’s Claire walks around Cannes with a Polaroid camera, taking photos of strangers, an act her character views as life-changing. Huppert spoke to the Voice about appearing in another of Hong’s quick-turnaround masterpieces, the meaningful misnomer of the title, and, possibly, acting in Korean next.

I last saw you in Mrs. Hyde, so it was fun to see you playing a teacher again in Claire’s Camera — and wearing a similar outfit, even.

Yeah, absolutely.

You don’t set things on fire in this one, though!

No, no, that’s for sure.

I would love to hear what the whole shooting process was like during the Cannes Film Festival.

Hong usually works in very few days. This is really something that he’s used to. So we shot the movie in six or seven days. We were slightly off the main street where all the people are gathered. So, it’s very exciting, because we can hear the festival, mainly because we talk about the festival, and, you know, I [have that line], “Oh, this is my first time to the festival.”

A lot of people laugh at that.

Right. You would think it would be, like, my 25th time at Cannes. And so, everybody laughs in France, too. We see a film company presenting a movie, and we understand that all the Korean people involved in the story were there for the festival, but in fact, we never see the festival. Also I find it so magical that at some point you can even mistake the Cannes beach for a Korean beach. It’s very gray, not really what you expect from the Mediterranean Sea. And it’s very small, like a Korean seashore. I did another Hong film previously, In Another Country, which we shot in Korea, and the beach where I walk during that film is very much alike, similar to the beach in Cannes. My home country is really a magician because it brings a little bit of Korea in Cannes — not only spiritually, but also geographically and aesthetically!

Even if you’re shooting in your own country, you’re still sort of a foreigner in the movie, like you were in In Another Country. What does that context bring out in your character?

Absolutely. Well, I think she’s more like a mix between a deus ex machina figure and a fairy. She organized meetings and got people back together. It’s really a metaphor for me about moviemaking. But at the same time, it’s about the power of images. I mean, this is something that runs around the theme, but that is clearly stated at some point when she says, in order to change people, you have to watch them really, really carefully, and this is, in a way, what you expect from moviemaking. You know, just to watch people, and try to make them better, or understand them by paying attention to them. In the film, I work with cameras. And of course it’s not a movie camera, it’s a photo camera. But in French, there’s a misunderstanding, and I think it’s intentional. In English, “camera” can be a photo camera or a movie camera. But in French, “caméra” is only for a movie camera. And I’m sure that Hong is smart enough to have understood that there was a slight confusion between the words, because, in fact, I’m not using a movie camera, but just a photo camera. But since I’m sure he knows that, we present Claire in the position of the filmmaker in the film, so it doesn’t really matter that there was a little misunderstanding about the word.

Wow, I didn’t realize that! That’s such a great way to think about your character, because Hong loves to play around with time, rewinding time and such, and you are the character who does that. Do you have a similar philosophy about photography as your character — about how it changes a person?

I don’t think it’s really changed people, no I don’t. But yes, because at some point if I take your picture, you are not the same person anymore. I mean, it’s a very mysterious line. You make them feel better, because that’s about human connections and relationships, you know? So, if I watch, yes, see, I’m not the same person anymore. Just because I paid a little attention to you.

How was it working on this movie in such a short amount of time, given Hong’s notorious script changes?

There is no script with Hong. There is no script at all. He just likes to feel…. And so, you don’t basically really know what the movie is about. He would only give you a little bit of information. For instance, he told me that I would be a teacher. Then, day by day, he would give you the scene, and he writes the scene each evening, and the next day you would receive the scene. Then it’s a lot of work because nothing is improvised. It’s very much written and it’s really his dialogue, so each morning you’d learn the lines.

What’s the story behind the song Kim Min-hee sings to your character? It’s so funny.

Oh, that’s so funny, that’s so sweet, yes, I know…. [singing] One, one, one. Two, two, two. Three, three, three. Four, four, four. So funny. But I have no idea. It might be something they just made up. I think that this movie is so charming, and so funny, and so light, and so deep, and so moving. Like that scene where I tell her I’m a recent widow; my companion just passed away. That’s really very moving.

A lot of people tend to read autobiographical things into Hong’s movies.

I think that in all his movies, there is a lot of autobiographical material. But all of them are kind of twisted. And even if it’s autobiographical material, it’s not sometimes completely obvious, and it’s not a literal self, about himself. But to some degree, yes, it is sometimes quite autobiographical. It’s Michelangelo Antonioni who said, “all movies are autobiographical.” I like this quote. It might be very true.

“This movie is so charming, and so funny, and so light,” Isabelle Huppert says of Hong Sang-soo’s Cannes-set film.

The man who plays the director also looks so much like Hong.

Oh, my God, he looks exactly like him, I know.

People often compare Hong to Éric Rohmer. Do you find that fair?

Yes, especially on that movie, because that movie’s a clear reference to Claire’s Knee. So yes, in the sense that it’s very verbal. On the other hand, I think he’s also different from Rohmer. Hong is poetic in a different way. I mean, it’s certainly a compliment to him, because I can tell why people refer to his moviemaking as a Rohmerian way of doing it.

I thought the title could be a Rohmer reference and also an homage to Claire Denis.

Yes, sure, possibly, because I know that Claire is a very good friend.

You’ve worked with many amazing directors. What sets apart Hong from the others you’ve collaborated with?

He’s very special. No one in the world makes little masterpieces like him in such a short time. It’s unique. The way he makes films, I can’t think of anybody else that they can be compared to. I think even in his own country, he is also very different. South Korea has all sorts of brilliant filmmakers such as Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, but Hong is so different from anyone else. Completely singular.

Have you picked up any Korean from him?

No. No. Annyeonghaseyo, I think that’s the only word I know. That’s hello, bonjour. I should learn. In the first film, it was the subject of the film that I was a total stranger, a foreigner, being literally submerged in the Korean world. It was the heart of the film that I wasn’t supposed to understand what they were saying.

I was going to say, in your next Hong film, you could just speak only in Korean.

Yup, absolutely. Maybe I should suggest it.

Do you have a personal favorite Hong movie, besides the ones that you’ve appeared in?

I love Woman Is the Future of a Man. And Right Now, Wrong Then.

Do you have any plans to work with Hong again?

Not in the near future, but with this film he called me a month before and said, “Do you want to come and shoot a movie in five days?” And I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ll do it.” It was my last day doing a play in Paris, and the next morning I flew to Cannes and started shooting while presenting Paul Verhoeven’s Elle at the festival. He’s very unpredictable; he could call me anytime. If he calls me and I can do it, I certainly will.

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The Magic of Isabelle Huppert Powers Hong Sang-soo’s “Claire’s Camera”

Short and modest even by director Hong Sang-soo’s standards, the 69-minute Claire’s Camera unfolds as a whimsical little riff on trust, infidelity, and the reality-altering magnetism of Isabelle Huppert. And yet, while it’s certainly the most effervescent of the three pictures the prolific Korean filmmaker premiered on the festival circuit in 2017 — the first was On the Beach at Night Alone, which opened theatrically in the U.S last November; then The Day After, coming to theaters this May — there are wells of real sadness and even anger in this film.

Set in Cannes (which, big surprise, is also where it premiered), Claire’s Camera opens with a trio of scenes depicting the firing of a young woman, Man-hee (Kim Min-hee), from her job at a Korean film sales company. This is more narrative drama than Hong usually provides, but he makes sure to disorient us temporally. First, we see Man-hee at the office, as her boss, Nam Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee), asks if she’d like to take a break and get some coffee with her. As the two women leave, we jump a few days forward in time and see Man-hee telling a co-worker about how she then proceeded to get fired by Nam; then we double back to see the dreadful coffee date itself. Each exchange unfolds in Hong’s typically understated but chatty style: a casual conversation, usually presented in a relatively wide two-shot, taking in the characters’ subtle shifts in body language.

As usual, most of Hong’s film is built around such two- and three-person exchanges, and each conversation has a slightly off-balance dynamic. More often than not, one character tries their damnedest to be carefree — even funny — while the other wears a mask of gravity and concern. Ironically, it’s usually the person trying to make light of things who’s the one being hurt: When her boss grimly tells her she’s being let go, Man-hee plays it calm and cheery, even taking a selfie with the woman to mark the end of their long working relationship. Meanwhile, Nam couches her dismissal of Man-hee in the bullshit language of consensual separation. “Let’s stop working together…and if you don’t mind, let’s not wait until we get back to Seoul,” she tells her, as if they’re somehow equal partners in this exchange — conveniently ignoring the reality that by rendering Man-hee jobless in the middle of France, the older woman has left her mostly penniless and unable to return home to Korea. Hong has always been a master at capturing telling emotional details, but perhaps his real artistry lies in his ability to show how we cover up those details: His cinema is one of conveying that which is unseen and unheard but deeply felt.

Man-hee’s dismissal has been triggered by her brief affair with So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), an acclaimed Korean filmmaker whose latest film is screening at Cannes. The twist is that Nam has also been sleeping with Director So for years now, and considers Man-hee’s actions a betrayal. Never mind that Man-hee didn’t know about their involvement, and that the real betrayer here is Director So himself, who confesses that, like all good male Hong protagonists, he’s a mess when he’s drunk; alas, as a filmmaker on the verge of greater international recognition, he’s too important for Nam to get rid of so easily.

Into the picture walks Claire (played by guess who), a French high school teacher and amateur photographer on vacation in Cannes, who snaps the distraught Man-Hee’s picture on the beach and then meets Director So at a local café. Unassuming to an almost hilarious degree, Claire has an uncanny ability to draw truths out of people, and to take unguarded, surprisingly revealing portraits of them. She believes that the camera has the power to change things; “If I take a photo of you, you’re not the same person anymore,” she tells Director So. Later, she reiterates the point to Man-hee: “The only way to change things is to look at everything really slowly.” What exactly she means by any of this is left tantalizingly unclear.

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Even though Claire’s Camera consists of seemingly simple, unfussy exchanges between the same three characters in different arrangements — Claire with Director So; Claire with Man-hee; Claire with Director So and Nam; Man-hee with Director So; and so on — what emerges eventually is not so direct: a playful meditation on the transformative nature of art. Bound to a schedule of premieres and various demands on his time, Director So — who bears more than a passing resemblance to director Hong himself, he of the Cannes premieres and the much-publicized affair with his actress Kim Min-hee — has been sucked into a world of expectation, transaction, and incipient celebrity. Late in the film, So stands on a balcony, uncomfortable and awkward in a tuxedo (mandatory dress for evening galas at Cannes), and chastises Man-hee for wearing jean shorts. “No matter how people see you, just live as yourself,” he barks at her, but it’s hard not to think that he’s secretly telling himself off.

Meanwhile, Claire, the amateur free spirit, can float around and snap images of whatever she likes. And the film suggests — in its own unadorned, unassuming way — that there is a kind of magic in her camera, that through her anonymous yet personal art she is still able to change the very nature of reality. Does she possess a power that Hong Sang-soo, the internationally acclaimed artist who now does the film festival circuit year round with his work, fear he himself may be on the verge of losing? For all its airy lightness and apparent simplicity, it’s hard not to watch Claire’s Camera and sense beneath its placid surfaces the fretful voice of a filmmaker who longs to return to the elements of his art.

Claire’s Camera
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cinema Guild
Opens March 9, Film Society of Lincoln Center