Claire's Camera (2018)


Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Country: France / South Korea

I can understand why Claire’s Camera, the new drama film by Korean director Hong Sang-soo, may be considered a bit shallow for some viewers. At the first sight, the story feels somewhat underdeveloped, but a deeper look into its incidents made me appreciate it more. Shot during the 2016 Cannes film festival, the film is an insouciant 68-minute reflection on relationships and time, the transitory and the permanent.

The most delightful episode of the film happens during its first minutes, when Manhee (Kim Min-hee), a film selling person in Cannes, is forced to resign from work without an acceptable reason. Her boss, Yanghye (Chang Mi-hee), justifies the fact with a sudden loss of confidence after five years working together but contradicts herself during the explanation. She states she hired her because of her honesty, something you can’t change with time, but now is trying to convince her that it changed.

After a while, we learn that the true reason for the dismissal was jealousy. The 50-year-old filmmaker So Wansoo (Jung Jin-young), for whom they work, slept with Manhee while drunk. Nothing wrong with that if he wouldn't be maintaining a romantic relationship with Yanghye.


The sadness of being without a job becomes attenuated when Manhee befriends Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a full-time Parisienne teacher and part-time photographer who is in Cannes for the first. She meets director Wansoo by chance, becoming a bit shocked by how much he drinks, and through her magical camera, encourages Manhee to figure out what she wasn’t capable to understand.

Fluctuating with slight temporal shifts, the narrative feels manifestly comfortable while the dialogues don’t measure up to other Sang-soo works, but feel naturally engaging nonetheless. Only some of the scenarios felt a bit too composed.

This is the second time that celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher; Elle) works with Sang-soo, following their auspicious collaboration in 2012 with In Our Country. In turn, Min-hee (The Handmaiden), after the polemic news regarding her real-life affair with the director, continues his muse, having participated in all his works since 2015.

Claire’s Camera is not among the director’s best efforts and yet, has the power to captivate us with its lightness, effortless spontaneity, and instinctive charm.


Happy End (2017)


Directed by Michael Haneke
Country: France / Austria / Germany

German writer-director Michael Haneke earned cult status with gut-wrenching dramas such as “The Seventh Continent”, “The Piano Teacher”, “The White Ribbon”, and “Amour”. In his most recent work, sarcastically entitled “Happy End”, he addresses depression and suicidal tendencies as he depicts a French middle-class family, at the same time that faintly glances at the European migrant crisis. The story is loosely tied to the Oscar-winner “Amour”, which, like this one, also starred Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant as daughter and father.
Its premise, smartly steeped in technology, shows us an absorbing sequence of images recorded on a smartphone. At first, we see a woman being filmed while in the bathroom, and then unconscious due to a mysterious drug poisoning. Afterward, that overdose is transferred to a hamster, which ends up stiff in his cage, intoxicated with anti-depressives. The author of the videos is Eve (Fantine Harduin), a 13-year-old who, even admitting her guilt in both cases, never passes the sensation of evil or darkness. With her mother in the hospital, she is going to live with her estranged father, Thomas Laurent (Mathieu Kassovitz), his new wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden), and their baby.

However, the camera turns momentarily to Anne Laurent (Huppert), Eve’s aunt, a divorced workaholic who has to keep an eye on her demented octogenarian father, George (Trintignan), and her demotivated son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), who is facing a drinking problem. While Thomas is a well-established doctor, Anne and Pierre run the family business, a construction company in Calais that has been going through serious financial difficulties. Their disquietude associated with rescuing the company expands into a panic when a dangerous landslide occurs in one of the construction sites they were operating, causing a worker to be injured. 


The emotional turmoils arrive from many fronts. Pierre is not getting better, feeling useless and ashamed of himself and attracting trouble in every move; Eve is becoming as much depressive as her mother was and finds out that his father is having an extramarital affair with a cellist; after eluding his caregiver Rachid (Hassam Ghancy), George flees from home in a car to commit suicide, but the best he can do is restraint, even more, his moves by becoming wheelchair-bound. He’s a stubborn man, though, and will study other ways that could make him end his sufferable existence. The only 'normal' situation seems to be Anne’s engagement with a British lawyer, Lawrence Bradshaw (Toby Jones).

The scenario is ideal for Haneke’s wry observations, who depicts the usual emotional fissures and inner sufferance with a disarming dark humor that keeps the film on its feet, even in the most strained situations. 
The aesthetic maturity of the static long-shots don’t compromise the emotional strength of the tale, but rather compensate the numerous close-ups that intended to dig deep into the characters’ broken souls.

While the ridiculously funny finale is quite clever, pumping up a film that had fallen in drowsiness for a while, the ultimate confessions and empathic understanding between granddaughter and grandfather is, perhaps, the most questionable scene of the film.

Even familiar in tone and less effective than Haneke's previous material, “Happy End” feels destructive inside out, and the Austrian helmer shows it with a sardonic artistic touch.


Things To Come (2016)


Directed by Mia Hansen-Love
Country: France / Germany

Things to Come” is a pungent drama that links together Mia Hansen-Love and Isabelle Huppert, acclaimed French director and actress, respectively.
Last year, the latter was the protagonist in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle”, receiving well-deserved accolades around the world for her brilliant performance. This year, she can only expect further praise since she reteamed with directors Hong Sang-soo in “Claire’s Camera” and Michael Haneke in “Happy End”.
Huppert excels once again under the direction of Hansen-Love, winner of a Silver Berlin Bear, who wrote the script with the actress in mind. Her previous film, “Eden”, was on my favorite list of 2014.

Her new film follows Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert), a qualified high school philosophy teacher whose emotional strength is tested when her husband, Heinz (André Marcon), also a teacher, leaves her for another woman after 25 years of marriage. It was their children, Chloe (Sarah Le Picard) and Johann (Solal Forte), who forced him to choose between staying and departing when they found out he was seeing someone else.

The situation becomes even more stressful because Nathalie’s mother, Yvette (Edith Scob), is losing the battle against a severe depression and constantly attempting to kill herself. It’s kind of a relief when she finally accepts to dwell in a well-prepared, if costly, nursing home. 
And because bad things always come in threes, she is fired from the school she's been teaching for years.

All these setbacks would totally destroy a weak person, but Nathalie is something else. To quote her own words: ‘I’m fulfilled intellectually’; ‘I found my total freedom’. She suffers in silence as she seems to fully accept the unfamiliar situation she is in. There are no dramas. The only person she relies on to talk about her personal life is Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student who invites her for a farm he bought in the mountains. Although he considers her a bourgeois and pretends to be more radical than he really is, they are genuinely fond of each other.
Trying not to lose face, her eyes were soaked in tears with a painful ‘au revoir’ to Heinz’s beautiful beach house, where she used to spend her summers. 

By taking a good look at its narrative, one may think this is a heavy dark film, but it doesn’t work like that. After all, family is still there. One fundamental question arises, though. What would be of this woman if she had no children?

Even deserving all the praise for eschewing clichés and dramatic trifles, Hansen-Love could have suppressed a couple of scenes that felt contrived and unnecessary, like when a man harasses Nathalie at the movies. 
As for the rest, this character-driven accomplishment is powerful, portraying life’s contingencies with class, honesty, and an extraordinary sensibility.

Elle (2016)


Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Country: France / Germany / Belgium

In glory, Paul Verhoeven returns to film direction with “Elle”, a French-Belgian-German psychological drama of great intensity, featuring Isabelle Huppert at her best.
The Dutch filmmaker, who gave us the relevant “Soldier of Orange” and celebrated Hollywood pics such as “Robocop” and “Basic Instinct”, had his career’s peak in the late 80’s and beginning of 90’s, but can’t be considered prolific. From 2000 on, he directed only four films, which abruptly oscillates in quality. “Hollow Man” and “Tricked” were too flimsy to deserve a recommendation. Yet, “Black Book” and “Elle” lit the fire of hope in the hearts of his fans, especially the latter, which marks a radical change in style, vision, and posture.
Verhoeven directed from a script by David Baker, who in turn, based himself on the Interallié Prize novel “Oh...” by Philippe Djian.

The film opens bluntly with a violent rape. The man is dressed in black and has his face covered with a baklava. The woman is Michéle Leblanc (Huppert), a successful video-game entrepreneur who was able to rebuild her life respectfully over the years, apparently recovering from the trauma of being associated with 27 evil slays perpetrated by her psychopath father. 
Her life may look much tranquil now, but Michéle keeps struggling with life, the ones around her - including family and people at work, and her own inner demons. Is it some sort of karma? 
She has a very cold relationship with her mother (Judith Magre) who wants to marry a younger opportunistic man (Raphaël Lenglet). Her immature son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), is moving to a new apartment with his pregnant girlfriend and needs money. Despite separated from Richard (Charles Berling), a struggling writer and Vincent’s father, she gets jealous when he starts a relationship with a younger student. At work, very few employees like her and she’s subjected to an offensive prank. To make all this harder, she’s sleeping with Robert (Christian Berkel), the cynical husband of her best friend and co-partner (Anne Consigny) in the company.

And now she gets raped! Terrified, she takes the proper measures to defend herself. Still, she refuses to go to the police regardless the threatening anonymous messages she constantly gets from the man who spanked her and forced her to the act. Michéle, a cerebral survivor who boasts a shocking frankness, no matter the situation, firstly opts to ignore the case, but that can’t continue any longer for several reasons.
Besides professional success, the only positive aspect of her life is Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a married neighbor whom she has a crush on and signals proximity.
With so many ambiguities and complexity, will Michéle be able to cleanse her complicated world?

Michéle’s existence is so rich in details that one may feel overwhelmed. This happens because those same details are far from being constructive or hopeful. The emotional weight she carries arises sympathy. It’s a burdened life that Huppert depicts flawlessly. She couldn’t have been a better choice. She was nearly as perfect as she was in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher”.
Verhoeven, always inclined to dark twists, has to be congratulated for the cinematic version of this compelling character study and encouraged to follow his career with works of this caliber. Hollywood for what?