After 10 years away from the cameras, helmer Mitsuo Yanagimachi makes a tepid return with “Who’s Camus, Anyway?” Not devoid of charm, and with the added bonus for cineastes of plenty of opportunities to play “spot the film reference,” pic tries an Altmanesque trans-genre approach but it fails to coalesce into anything more than pleasant. Obviously a highly personal film, shot on the same campus where helmer teaches and covering students making their first movie, pic may fly at home thanks to popular young cast, but overseas arthouse play will be limited.
Opening renders explicit homage to famed long shots from “Touch of Evil” to “Russian Ark,” using a handheld camera to follow students beginning preparations for their film assignment: “The Bored Murderer.”
The students have five days to go before the camera rolls, and they’re still struggling to get funds, actors, props, etc. Naoki (Shuji Kashiwabara) is the slick director, trying to concentrate but continually dogged by besotted g.f. Yukari (Hinano Yoshikawa).
Around campus Yukari is known as Adele, after Truffaut’s obsessive character Adele H. The other nickname commonly used at school is Aschenbach, bestowed on sad-eyed Professor Nakajo (Hirotaro Honda), who’s obviously standing in for Yanagimachi himself. Nakajo is obsessed with a young female student (here played by the beautiful Meisa Kuroki).
Assistant director Kiyoko (Ai Maeda) is the person most willing to explore both the meanings in their assigned script and in her own life. Struggling to understand the motivation behind the senseless killing in their film, she’s studying up on Camus’ “The Stranger” and trying to help lead Ikeda (Hideo Nakaizumi) grasp the murderous student’s thought processes.
After years as a teacher, Yanagimachi is obviously still energized by students encountering the lineage of ideas, hence the Camus references (and also reflected in a brief discussion of the longevity of kabuki vs. cinema). He’s especially good at capturing the kids’ excitement at discovering the world of film, with students passionately exchanging their new-found knowledge.
But there’s an amorphous quality to the whole as Yanagimachi attempts to combine too much, uncomfortably shuttling between the professor’s “Death in Venice” emulation and the students’ jumbled love lives. A final blurring of real and fiction (with an especially good Nakaizumi) is well done, but feels like a stranded coda.
Aside from the numerous visual and verbal quotations forming an entire intro to a film course, pic is soaked in playful musical allusions as well, nicely worked in, if a little heavy handed.