Claire's Camera

Minor project by auteurs can sometimes serve as keys to their entire body of work. Think of Fellini’s A Director’s Notebook, Godard’s Scenario for Passion or Hal Hartley’s Surviving Desire. Until Claire’s Camera, I could appreciate the wispy pleasures of Hong Sang-soo’s films, the super-light production values, their handcrafted toy-like structure and their endearing improvisational texture, but I couldn’t understand what Hong was getting at as an artist. Running for about 68 minutes—a wonderful runtime for films to have—Claire’s Camera is one more of Hong’s parallel universes, another permutation of his typical character descriptions, dramatic situations and scene compositions. But I think it offers something more and comes close to a statement of intent by this notoriously self-effacing filmmaker: making films is a way to deal with loneliness, to experience catharsis by way of representation.

What allows for this authorial transparency in Claire’s Camera is the presence of the Claire herself, played by a delightful Isabelle Huppert. With her yellow blouse and trench coat, dotted panama hat, little blue handbag and polaroid camera, Claire is an instant screen icon, the kind that makes it to fan art and DVD covers thanks to its unique profile. There’s a perpetually-drunk, philandering fifty-year-old filmmaker character, So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), whose film is playing at Cannes and who is obviously a clone of Hong’s, but he’s not the director’s alter ego here. It’s Claire, obsessed with taking pictures of people, even when they are visibly in distress. She tells So that people are not the same after being photographed. In other words, people are mystified or demystified in their photos; they’re always more or less than what they were, but never the same.

When asked why she takes photos, Claire responds that “the only way to change things is to look at things again very slowly”. Hong’s cinema, too, is about relooking, reexperiencing the same things over and over with the hope of illumination or change. The repetitions and restaging in these films function as a kind of therapy, a dwelling on small details that guilty conscience takes to be the source of big mistakes. There is then a philosophical underpinning to the reverberations of Hong’s universe—a notion of eternal return that is at once cathartic and hopeful. Yourself and Yours, Hong’s previous film which makes its appearance in a half-hidden poster in the first shot here, imagined the revival of a broken relationship through the reiteration of the gestures that birthed the relationship in the first place. The film was made the same year Hong filed for divorce over his affair with actress Kim Min-hee, who plays the part of Man-hee, a film agent once in affair with director So, in Claire’s Camera.

Hong shot the film in Cannes in 2016, a year he wasn’t showing anything at the ongoing festival. A thoroughly anti-touristic filmmaker, Hong nevertheless takes inspiration from the locations he makes films in. The sun-kissed Riviera setting allows him to pay tribute to his French influences in subtle but extraordinary ways. There’s, of course, the reference to Rohmer in the title, the final freeze frame à la The 400 Blows, and Huppert’s profession as a music teacher. It is, however, the spectre of Marguerite Duras that looms large in the film. Director So has Claire read him lines from C’est Tout—a charming image of Huppert speaking French in a Korean film she’s supposed to speak English in. Like the works of Duras, Claire’s Camera seems to unfold in an impossible, perhaps cyclic timeline. Huppert’s Claire is a kind of time master, who is able to meet characters for the first time multiple times. The film shuttles between past and present, but it isn’t certain if these time relations are sacrosanct.

Like in Last Year at Marienbad, we aren’t sure that the characters have met each other earlier, and that they are only pretending otherwise. The same words, shots, sounds and situations float around the film to be picked up later as an echo. Claire’s Camera is so chock-a-block with twin scenes, dialogues and compositions—two scenes of brutal disavowal, two scenes of three people eating, two shots of Man-hee filmed from the back, two zooms of her working at the office, two romantic escalations between So and women and so on—that the viewer can predict the sort of vignettes that will follow. Hong’s film is a low-key exploration of memory and forgetfulness in the vein of Hiroshima mon amour, another film about the encounters of a filmmaker in a land half a world away.

Hong’s is a cinema of two shots. The more the merrier, to be sure, but shots with more than two characters tend to be unstable or turn into drinking binges. One the other hand, shots with one character, such as someone smoking or walking, are always small pauses or intimations for another character to arrive. Hong’s films appear to be acting out in their form, as it were, the fear of being alone. The ideal is two—the number that calls for social drinking, confession or romantic advances. Claire’s Camera contains individual scenes with five of the six pairs possible with his four-character setup. Together with countless similar shots from Hong’s oeuvre, they constitute an exorcism, and an epigrammatic definition of what cinema is: two people talking.

On the Beach at Night Alone

            Made the same year as Claire’s Camera, On the Beach at Night Alone begins with a closeup that becomes a two shot through a reverse zoom. The scene is a café in a western country during winter. Two Korean women (Kim Min-hee and Seo Young-hwa) discuss how beautiful and liveable the city is. We aren’t told which city this is—clues suggest that it’s in Germany—and it’s only referred to as “abroad” when Kim’s character, Young-hee, is back home. A street market is visible at the edge of the frame, but that’s all the glimpse we get. Hong as a filmmaker never allows himself the decadence of a pretty sight. The second part of the film takes place in a supposedly-picturesque, sleepy town in the northern part of South Korea, but the director shows us nothing outside of a nondescript street corner. A hotel room with French windows opening to a beautiful view of the sea is expressly blocked by a window cleaner, whose purpose in the film is just that.

On the Beach forms a narrow diptych with Claire’s Camera: both are set in European countries in opposed times of the year; both feature Kim as a temperamental film professional jilted by a middle-aged filmmaker. But the driving perspective of the narrative is entirely the women’s rather than that of Hong’s alter-ego. Seo plays a wistful woman who has left her husband to move to Europe. Young-hee is spending time with Seo, but her thoughts are with her filmmaker-lover back home. The two women find European men attractive as well as gentle: they play piano for her, they serve her food and, most of all, they don’t question her. The Korean men Hong populates the film with, on the other hand, are just short of vultures. They are presented as presumptuous if not creepy, overbearing and unduly inquisitive. Young-hee tries to start her life anew in both Europe and back home, but is thwarted by Korean men in both cases: the European section ends with a Korean stalker literally carrying her away from a beach.

The uniform and unsubtle manner in which Korean men are caricatured here leads to only one inference: Hong is projecting. Excusing himself by pointing to the failing of all Korean men is no excuse, so he incriminates himself more directly in the inevitable, large dinner scene that forms the film’s climax. Young-hee’s filmmaker-lover is drinking with her and his group of assistants when the discussion shifts to his ongoing film. He talks about his personal approach to filmmaking, prompting Young-hee to wonder if it isn’t boring to talk about oneself all the time. The director’s coterie of yes-men mutters something about the irrelevance of subject matter. Young-hee launches into a righteous outburst questioning the director’s right to make films about his ex-lovers. The filmmaker breaks into tears over his own torment and diffuses the tension of the scene. Hong’s men are usually bumbling, but the serious director here is all the more comical in his seriousness. Hong is clearly in a self-flagellating mode, but his character contours are so soft, the strokes so light that it doesn’t feel exhibitionist in the way Lars von Trier’s recent works do.

While On the Beach fails its male characters, it gives its women characters the space and voice they deserve. Although structured around absent men, the first part of the film is simply images of women eating, walking, talking and shopping together. Young-hee gets to deliver a long tirade on love during a binge and then kiss another woman, Jun-hee (Song Seon-mi), with whom she develops something resembling a romance. And in what counts as a shooting star in Hong’s cinematic sky, she gets a solo shot in which she smokes and sings a song. In the final shot of the film, she wakes up at a beach to thank a man whose feet alone we see. Hong’s cinema has prepared us to expect this to turn into a two shot. But no. Framed against a vast grey sky, Young-hee bows to a void and walks away alone—a reversal of the first segment’s ending and a radical assertion of solitude in a cinematic universe mortified by that thought.

Based on a True Story

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Delphine (Emmanuelle Seigner) has had a success with her new novel, Vienne la nuit, and fans are queuing up to get their copies autographed. They have all been touched deeply by the book and believe that it speaks to their own personal problems. Unnerved by this unsolicited responsibility, and the series of poison letters she receives for having made money out of her family’s story, Delphine retreats into a shell, unable to write anything anymore. She meets the mysterious, charming Elle (Eva Green), her “biggest fan”, who casts a strange spell over her. Elle helps Delphine with her work, sorting her notes and giving her suggestions, and starts occupying an increasingly large place in her life. She disparages Delphine’s ideas and insists that Delphine must not give into the demands of what her editors want but write her great, “hidden book”. Delphine doesn’t resist the takeover and instead sees Elle as a potential subject for her next novel. What ensues is a tug-of-war between Delphine and Elle to unlock each other’s history. That description might make it sound like an arthouse cliché à la Persona, but Polanski’s circular film treats the obvious symbolism directly, without conceit, and steers clear of the lures of psychological interpretation.

Based on a True Story is an adaptation of Delphine de Vigan’s 2015 novel of the same name, reportedly an autobiographical work. A viewer of Polanski’s film can well imagine the extreme self-reflexivity of the book: here’s a novel about an author who withdraws into herself for four years following the success of her latest book. In 2011, Vigan wrote a personal book about her mother’s suicide and it took her four years to come up with Based on a True Story. She is married to the literary journalist François Busnel who, just like his character in the book, was mired in controversy for interviewing Vigan on his own show and who was traveling the USA interviewing authors at the time Vigan wrote this book. Elle (L. in the book) urges Delphine to reject fiction, dive into her memoirs and write about her own life, but Delphine argues that even autobiography needs a perspective and is, in the final analysis, fiction. The solution to Vigan’s problem of perspective is the character of L./Elle, who gives concrete, personal form to Delphine/Vigan’s memories.

Surmounting creator’s block by representing it is not new even to cinema – Fellini did the same thing in 8 ½ – but the special force of Vigan’s material comes from the social commentary it derives out of the situation. Vigan’s/Delphine’s creative paralysis comes from the conflicting demands society makes of her as a woman, an artist and a woman artist. L./Elle is the ideal version of Delphine, always perfectly groomed and dressed, capable of saying no to her editors and publicists, turning up to events she’s signed up for, rejecting the need for male companionship, and even burning down the house with her abusive father. She is a ghost-writer, which means she doesn’t ever have to burden herself with book tours, speeches and signing sessions, and can therefore concentrate on her writing all the time – a luxury that Delphine can only dream of. Delphine, on the other hand, is in a relationship with a famous journalist whose company she increasingly looks forward to. L./Elle’s self-confidence and unapologetic career-focus is in contrast to Delphine’s jealousy over her boyfriend’s courting of American authors and her guilt of ignoring her children. On screen, this pits Green’s impeccable elegance and command of space against Seigner’s maternal clumsiness and vulnerability.

Needless to say, Polanski’s adaptation – the very intention to adapt – unmakes the vertiginous mise en abyme the book constructs with Vigan at the epicentre. Even worse, the story of a middle-aged matron (played by Polanski’s wife) being supplanted by a younger, more beautiful woman introduces an uncritical element of male fantasy into the film, especially bothersome considering the filmmaker’s history. The film nevertheless works as a dramatization of the creative process, reimagines as it does the quotidian artistic dilemma of what to write about and whom to write for as a ghost story. We are not sure who is haunting whom, with Delphine trying to get into Elle’s head to mine material for her book and Elle taking over Delphine’s life to instruct her on what to write. Delphine keeps getting complimented for capturing her reader’s minds so accurately, but it is Delphine’s whose mind-space is constantly conquered by her reader-subjects. The artist writes on the world, but the world writes on the artist too, dissolving the boundary between the two. It’s truly the death of the author.

A few years ago, when I heard Haneke was making a film about the internet, I expected what we got from The White Ribbon and Amour: a declarative statement about the dangers of the digital age and its capacity for abetting evil. But Happy End is more open, more suggestive than the conclusive theses that were Haneke’s previous two films. To be sure, there’s hardly anything spontaneous about the new film and its shot compositions are still very calculated, perverse in their vehement disavowal of violence, but the manner in which information is presented or withheld forces the viewer to actively stitch the pieces together to understand what’s happening. Even when the final picture emerges, one is not entirely sure if all the behavioural details, choice of shots or narrative information have been accounted for, which makes for a summary that’s far from decisive.

Michael Haneke’s Happy End, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is set in Calais in the northern extreme of France and centres on an upper-class white family that owns a public works construction business. The grouchy head of the Laurent family, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) suffers from dementia and wants to kill himself. His doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is married but is having a kinky online affair with another woman. Georges’ daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) heads the business one of whose sites her bumbling son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) manages. Following an accident at the site, in which a worker is seriously injured, their business comes under the risk of government sanction. Meanwhile, Thomas’s daughter Eve (an incredibly precocious Fantine Harduin) from his first marriage is forced to move in with him following her mother’s death. Present in the outer orbit of the Laurents are housekeeper Rachid (Hassam Ghancy), his family and the many refugees of the Calais jungle waiting to get across the channel.

None of these character relations are clear until late into the film. The Laurent family is given to us in shards, as though like pieces of a broken mirror. They appear to be representatives of an old order, the haute bourgeoisie, now crumbling under the weight of political and technological turmoil. Georges the patriarch has lost his mental faculty and thus economic power; he wanders the film looking for ways to die. In an interesting scene, he’s on his wheelchair in an impoverished part of town, having forgotten his way home. Amidst deafening traffic noise, he speaks to a group of male refugees, who don’t understand why he’s willing to give them his watch in exchange for information. Waning under his mother’s supervision, Pierre feels emasculated. Thomas doesn’t really believe in marriage anymore. Eve is out poisoning herself and other people. At the eye of it all is Anne, trying to unsuccessfully hold this European union together.

Numerous instances of digital media feature in the film. Eve records her life with her smart phone and sends the recordings to friends. She watches videos of YouTubers discussing their personal lives. Thomas’s affair takes place entirely on phone, e-mail and social media. This increased publicization of private lives, which Haneke clearly sees as dangerous, is contrasted with the infusion of the public affairs into the Laurents’ private lives. Their business is troubled by strikes in Scotland. The government is grilling Pierre to trace possible negligence as the cause of the accident. At Anne’s all-white engagement, Pierre brings in refugees from the area and creates ruckus. (Not that he’s the voice of the marginalized, he simply uses them as bugbear). The family members love each other, but you sense that it’s the wealth that ultimately holds it together, the stability of the family dependent on the stability of the capitalist social structure they represent. Happy End is Haneke’s vision of post-Brexit Europe.

Dinner For One (1995)
Abbas Kiarostami
France/Iran
1 Min.

 

Abbas Kiarostami’s short for Lumiére and Company (1995), the film made to commemorate a century of cinema, is arguably the best of the 40 odd films in the compilation. The short films were to be made using the earliest camera that the Lumiére siblings had devised and in accordance with three basic rules, aimed at replicating the filming constraints prevalent a hundred years ago – the films could run for more than a minute, they had to be filmed using a static camera and no artificial sound or light could be used. Kiarostami, being the iconoclast he is, breaks one of the rules instantly by making sound a critical part of his film. Titled “Dinner for One”, the short film shows us two eggs being fried on a pan placed over a hot stove. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a woman (voiced by none other than Isabelle Huppert) on the phone urges the person (invisible to us, presumably a man) to pick up the phone and talk to her. She seems to know that he is in the house and, yet, is not willing to pick up the phone. The man, on the other hand, continues to fry the two eggs (a couple?) without paying any heed to the call. Proving once more, as he has so consistently done in his marvelous career, that minimalism actually means maximum utilization of available resources, Kiarostami presents a film that can well be regarded as a crash course in minimalism by one of the greatest exponents of the school. Having us see just a couple of eggs being fried and hear an unanswered phone call, Kiarostami paints a heartbreaking portrait of failed relationships and unrequited love.

La Pianiste (2001) (aka The Piano Teacher)
French
Michael Haneke

“Schubert’s dynamics range from scream to whisper, not loud to soft”
 

The Piano TeacherMichael Haneke‘s disturbing portrayal of an aging music teacher is definitely not for every one. Very graphic in nature and strongly thematic, La Pianiste (2001) attempts to simply document its central characters rather than offering a judgment on their conduct. A truly multi-layered film with characters that can be analyzed for hours.

Erika is a very talented piano teacher who has always been controlled and ruled by her mother’s orders and wishes. This has not only resulted in her social isolation but also has risen a need for upholding her esteem. Thus she is straddled between two mindsets- one of a domineering male who wants to take control of all her actions, the other being a typical female craving for all the love she never had got in her youth. She meets Walther, a young dashing engineering student who loves music. He is quite opposite in character, very clement and conventional. He is attracted to Erika for reasons unknown and enrolls in her class. Erika, too, is attracted to and possessive of Walther. But she does not reveal it for it may seem like she is not under her control. When she finally decides to reveal what’s in her mind to Walther, the latter is disgusted by her weird sexual fantasies and tries to quit, but finds he is unable to. Finally, fed up from it all, he does what Erika asked him to do. The climactic scene deciding Erika’s fate can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Music is a critical point in the film. Not only does it provide the atmosphere, but also stresses on the characters. Erika specializes in Schubert who was extreme in thoughts became unstable of mind late in his life. The moderate Walther is unable to adapt to Schubert as opposed to Erika. Isabelle Huppert is one of the best actors around and La Pianiste shows why. Right from the cold stares in the piano classes to the quibbles with her mother, Huppert lives as Erika. Benoit Magimel as Walther too provides the right kind of reinforcement that a character like Erika needs. Both of them won the top honours at Cannes Film Festival in 2001 for their performances.