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

“He’s very special. No one in the world makes little masterpieces like him in such a short time”


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.

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.