Directed by Hong Sang-soo (2017)
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
There’s a fine line between throwing yourself out there and putting it all on the line for the world to see and accidentally pooping yourself on stage. Both will certainly get a reaction. Both could even be called art. But again, knowing where that line is will be the important part.
Claire’s Camera is barely a movie and mostly resembles a hastily scribbled series of notes about all the cool symbolism the director intended for his film before he realized that a coherent and conscious narrative was going to escape him. In fact, at barely 70 minutes long there were times when I struggled to stay awake. I know everyone likes to rag on Ebert these days but he was undeniably good with coming up with little cinematic “rules” - the relevant one here being “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short.” So at least that running time meant I was still finally able to squeeze in a screening of White Comanche, the infamous William Shatner western that I wish I had been assigned to write about instead of this pile.
Hong Sang-soo is clearly after some kind of meta-narrative here about the way Korean and French cinema play to each other’s native audiences, or perhaps about the nature of cinema as a communication tool being too bogged down in the minutiae of “looking” to ever really get anywhere productive. But as portrayed onscreen, I have to say, after the fifth long shot of two characters just staring at each other for what seemed like eternities I wanted to scream from the top of a mountain like Tony Soprano: “I GET IT!” But, also like Tony….Yeah, I don’t really get it.
For all the hand-wringing the film goes through about art and commerce and interpersonal connections (and lack of connections), and for the way the film plays out over the course of the Cannes Film Festival without ever once actually taking place there, there were plenty of avenues to explore if the director sincerely wanted to get across something about the ways in which the buying and selling of films (and art in general) gets in the way of how we actually want to consume them. Instead, the film is content to build a palindrome of itself. Themes are presented and repeated rather than being reinforced, with the painfully “clever” conceit that an older director in a controlling relationship with his producer (and a one-time fling with a film buyer) is reduced to simple wordplay to create a dumbed down version of the bigger picture at work. Early on it’s mentioned that a woman who makes short films doesn’t feel “mature” enough to make features, while later in the film the older director berates the shorts of the woman he won’t admit he has feelings for, telling her she’s attracting the wrong kind of attention from the men around her. All of this could play out in any number of ways, from the simple and overt misogyny of the film world (and festival circuit) to the ways in which some artists are made to feel less than their more traditionally successful contemporaries. But Claire’s Camera just lets these things hang there, almost daring you to put together for yourself the most basic of connotative tissue, like the movie can’t stop nudging you going “huh? HUH?! Right?!!”
It’s a film with no direction, no momentum, no real reason to keep existing moment to moment. But another thing Ebert taught me was that if you can’t say something nice, you better at least have something interesting to say, and if that’s not even possible, you better be funny. But I’m not even sure I’ve succeeded in any of those respects, so bereft of material was this film on its own terms and as fodder for a rant. So I’ll circle back and try to say three nice things:
1.) Isabelle Huppert didn’t get sexually assaulted in this film.
2.) The scene of Huppert making Jung Jinyoung recite French poetry was charming…even though it was also buried under layers of thick, leaden symbolic rhetoric about how men criticize the women around them for “not knowing” something then getting to privately “not know” things without those women around to see them, yet another theme which the film does absolutely nothing with because the director, so intent on being a “good sport” and making his semi-autobiographical character out to be a silly but likable buffoon, won’t go so far as to actually dig deep into how that kind of narrative and culture - specifically as it applies to the film world - keeps good, hungry artists down so that the men at the top of the pile can keep using everyone else around them as fodder in their cute little quirkfest movies like this one…oh fuck wait, this was supposed to be a nice thing. Okay. One more…
3.) It was still better than Solo.