It may be the most crowded and party-fueled event on the global film calendar, but the Cannes Film Festival can be an oddly solitary, contemplative experience for attendees outside the inner circle — a two-week suspension from real life and relationships, in which the world looks at once a little clearer and stranger through rosé-filled glasses. Hong Sangsoo has been to Cannes enough times to know this, and his lovably slender, semi-sweet character study “Claire’s Camera” deftly captures the festival’s warmly disorienting effect on its stragglers — in this case, two bright, lonely women (Isabelle Huppert and Kim Minhee) who fleetingly bond over their respective limbo states, and whose lives may or may not be subtly redirected by the gaze of a Polaroid camera.
That playful allegory for the restorative powers of cinema lends but a tissue’s worth of extra weight to a gossamer charmer — at just over an hour, a trifle compared to such recent Hong highs as “Right Now, Wrong Then” and “On the Beach at Night Alone,” but a complete work on its own light terms. The presence of Huppert — in a similarly whimsical fish-out-of-water role to the one she played her first Hong collaboration, “In Another Country” — lends this not-quite-disposable “Camera” a little extra marketability. Still, Cannes is really where the film was meant to be seen, and where its heart will remain after its out-of-competition premiere.
Hong has never been one to wear his cinematic loves and influences far off his sleeve, and the very title “Claire’s Camera” is a clear hat-tip to the late Eric Rohmer (the director of, among others, “Claire’s Knee”), whose conversational style and droll sense of reflective melancholy are very much the order of the day here. Characters often most reveal themselves when they’re saying nothing of any particular consequence in Hong’s short, loose script — heavily embellished by English-language improvisation between his two leading ladies. (Having them riff in their non-native tongue lends their exchanges a pleasingly authentic, irregular rhythm.)
“The only way to change things is to look at everything again very slowly,” says Claire (Huppert), a kindly, recently downhearted music teacher cast somewhat adrift in Cannes, where her best friend is premiering a film. (“I’ve never been to Cannes before!” a wide-eyed Huppert enthuses in her introductory scene — an admission so at odds with reality that it drew a hearty laugh from the press-screening audience.) That spirit of rewinding and replaying life was integral to the double-backed narrative of “Right Now, Wrong Then,” and while “Claire’s Camera” is less striking in its non-linear structure, it’s similarly concerned with exploring the alternative outcomes of a simple human scenario — this time via what may or may not be a modest infusion of magical realism.
For Claire believes the camera she carries on her touristic ambling has the power to change the lives of everyone she photographs: “If I take a photo of you, you are not the same person anymore,” she says, without further explanation. Korean film sales assistant Manhee (Kim, of “The Handmaiden” fame) is at enough of an existential impasse to take her at her word: Having been abruptly fired by her boss (Chang Mihee) halfway through the festival for no clear reason, she too is left wandering the less glamorous beaches and backstreets of Cannes in search of her life’s next chapter.
An idle beachside chat between the two women sparks an immediate if ephemeral friendship, as they bond over shared creative passions and Korean food; separately, Claire coincidentally runs into Minhee’s boss and the boozy auteur So Wansoo (Jun Jinyoung, parodying his own director with a gleeful twinkle), who has his own troubled history with Minhee. Wine is shared, words are spilt and pictures are taken — surely Claire’s camera can’t mend things between these three, but perhaps it can place their imperfect lives in focus.
The film itself has all the wispy, gladdening spontaneity of a chance encounter, uncomplicated by grand ideas beyond a few stray musings on the transformative properties of art. It might be in danger of fluttering off the screen if not for the anchoring charisma of its two stars, both clearly enjoying the chance to mellow out after their recent, more grueling onscreen endeavors. Suffice it to say this is to “Elle” what a Skittle is to a steak, but it’s rare treat to see Huppert in this kind of spacy, naive mode.
Having recently bared her soul to deservedly prizewinning effect in Hong’s recent Berlinale premiere “On the Beach at Night Alone,” Kim paints heartache with a softer brush here, with occasional, tart little flecks of irony — as when she immediately responds to losing her job by demanding a selfie with her boss. “It’d be nice to commemorate my firing this way,” she says drily. Whether or not one snap can turn everything around, Hong clearly shares Claire’s belief that there’s never a bad time for a picture.