"It's my first time in Cannes." That may not sound like a funny line on paper, but some in the audience may find themselves chuckling when Isabelle Huppert says it in "Claire's Camera."
Huppert, the grande dame of contemporary French cinema and an oft-cited candidate for the mantle of World's Greatest Living Actress, is of course as much a fixture of the Cannes Film Festival as sunlight, rosé and cinema itself. She has twice won the festival's best actress prize, once served as president of its competition jury and last year took the stage to sing "Happy Birthday" to Cannes on the occasion of its 70th anniversary.
Audiences attending that particular edition of the festival might also have seen Huppert in "Claire's Camera," a delightful, teasing wisp of a tale from the tirelessly prolific writer-director Hong Sang-soo. Hong and Huppert have worked together before, in their 2012 triptych, "In Another Country." (That film, aptly titled, was set in Hong's native South Korea.) Their latest collaboration has the tossed-off ease of a happy if unplanned reunion.
Claire (Huppert), a music teacher from Paris, has accompanied her filmmaker friend to Cannes for the festival, though "Claire's Camera" carefully avoids any hint of flash and glamour, lingering instead on the town's quiet, underpopulated beaches and hotel rooftops. Shortly after her arrival, Claire strikes up a conversation with a man named So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young), who turns out to be a Korean film director. And like most of the Korean film directors who crop up in Hong's playfully self-reflexive movies, So is a font of friendly, charming conversation but will eventually reveal himself to be a drunken, pathetic lout.
Around the same time, Claire befriends a pretty young Korean woman named Man-hee (Kim Min-hee), who is (or was) attending the festival in her capacity as a film sales agent. At this point, we already know what Claire doesn't yet, which is that Man-hee and So worked together and recently had a one-night stand. Shortly afterward, Man-hee was dismissed by her boss, Yang-hye (a smiling, ruthless Chang Mi-hee), who inconveniently happens to be dating So.
The firing scene, set at an outdoor café, is a small, simple master class in Hongian technique. Shooting in a single take that frames Man-hee and Yang-hye at a careful distance, Hong draws out their polite, evasive conversation to squirm-inducing effect. "You shouldn't have made that kind of mistake," Yang-hye tells Man-hee, never explaining what the mistake was.
It ends with an incongruous stab of humor: "How about we take a photo together to remember our parting?" Man-hee says brightly, jumping up and snapping a selfie.
The photography motif will be resumed by Huppert's Claire, who uses her Polaroid camera to take pictures of everyone she meets. When she meets them and in what order, however, is one of the movie's quieter mysteries. Hong, a sly master of repetition and variation, likes to tell simple stories in not-so-simple ways, and he unravels this one in casually nonlinear order; you never know if a scene might suddenly reveal itself to be a flashback or a flash-forward.
Huppert is happy to serve as the polite trigger for all this temporal chaos. You might find yourself studying Claire's wardrobe for continuity clues, though it might be more useful to admire the salutary brightness of her yellow shirt and blue handbag, in contrast with the darker attire of So and Man-hee. For Huppert, most celebrated for her uncompromising severity in films like "Elle" and "The Piano Teacher," the movie is an opportunity to cut gloriously loose; no less than Claire herself, she seems to be enjoying her holiday.
And it's a pleasure to watch her simply hang out and connect with Kim, Hong's most frequent on-screen collaborator of late. (Check out her brilliant work in the director's "Right Now, Wrong Then" and "On the Beach at Night Alone.") Claire and Man-hee have to converse in English, neither one's first language, and their gently halting rhythms add a charming layer of awkward authenticity to their conversation. The Korean dialogue may flow more freely among So, Man-hee and Yang-hye, but it achieves far less in terms of honest communication.
"If I take a photo of you, you are not the same person anymore," Claire tells So, introducing but not answering the movie's central philosophical riddle. Photography, like cinema, achieves an approximation of reality, an imitation of life. The discrepancies between truth and fiction can be easy to overlook, just as the lingering effects of a work of art can be difficult to gauge. "Claire's Camera" runs 68 minutes and is as slender and unassuming, in its own way, as a Polaroid. But you may emerge from it not feeling like quite the same person, either.
In Korean, English and French dialogue with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 8 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills