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Isabelle Huppert Plays A Woman Of Mystery In This Baffling Character Study

February 19, 2024 - Culture

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Korean director Hong Sang-soo is such a Berlinale favorite that his film in competition, featuring Isabelle Huppert as an apparently penniless tourist trying to scrape together a living in Seoul, is his sixth film to be invited to the festival since 2020 — remarkably, that’s not even his entire output over that time. He hits this pace by keeping things simple, shooting each film in just a couple of weeks with very few crew and small casts, most of whom have been his collaborators for years, and covering many of the key technical jobs himself.

He writes about a milieu he knows: Seoul’s community of writers, actors and film-makers, all with well-stocked bookcases and even more lavishly stocked drinks cabinets. His stories, which generally consist of the back-and-forth of conversations, occur to him on the wing and turn on chance meetings, which are also pivotal in his working life. Isabelle Huppert was one of those lucky encounters. They have now made three films together.

This time around, Huppert plays a French woman called Iris who has seemingly slid into the other characters’ lives from nowhere as an international woman of mystery; where she worked or even slept before she arrived right here, right now remains unknown.  She has a much younger flatmate (Ha Seongguk), who first saw her sitting on a bench in his local park, trying to play recorder; she has now been living with him for two months. Their relationship has the ambiguity of endless possibility. He  basks in her encouragement of his own attempts to write poetry and her sheer Frenchness. She gives off flirty signals to which he seems oblivious; he makes dinner. The traveler’s needs are few, the kindness of strangers surprisingly reliable.

We first see her, however, with clients who have ill-advisedly employed her as a French teacher. Iris makes no bones about her lack of training or experience. Her so-called method is to talk to them in English, drawing some expression of emotion or personal history from them, then provide a French translation which they are instructed to keep repeating.

Her theory, which she explains with mad confidence, is that saying something truly significant to the speaker will make the language sink into their psyches. The fact that she twists or changes what they say in her translations, so that they will in fact be making declarations of inadequacy or hatred for their parents, is presumably just her bit of drunken mischief. Her tipple is makkeolli, a Korean rice wine that she describes as so mild she can have it with every meal. It’s practically food!

That should ring alarm bells, given that everyone else treats makkeolli with circumspect respect, but it is her strangely malicious flirtations — when one of her clients is out of the room, she starts giggling manically at the woman’s husband like a boy-mad schoolgirl — that suggest sociopathy. Gradually, we notice that Huppert is perpetually fidgeting, never still but not moving in any decisive way either; she kneads her hands and shifts from one foot to the other, leaning forward but not quite managing to get going.

When she does start walking, she walks tentatively and seemingly at a snail’s pace. Turn your back, however, and she disappears. Always a tantalisingly enigmatic actor, Huppert excels herself here. By the time the young man’s mother appears, discovers a woman her age living in her son’s flat and wants to know who she is, why she’s there and how it can be that her son doesn’t think these things matter, we are ready to share her furious frustration.

Hong often shoots in black and white, but chooses here to shoot in a limited palette of flat colours, matching Iris’s green cardigan to the green case of her favorite pen and the green paint on the rooftops where she goes to smoke when she tires of making English conversation. That ubiquitous green is one of a smorgasbord of details that ultimately seem to signify nothing beyond their own oddity. The rocky outcrop in the park where Iris falls asleep when she has nothing else to do; the electrical mat she is seemingly using to measure currents in her feet; the rice wine habit: these things are indeed odd, but cannot sustain a narrative thread. Hong Sang-soo’s work, repetitive as it is, has a devoted constituency.

The elusiveness of his open texts is attractive; his portraits of the Korean cultural elite intriguing; his artful angles on their modernist houses visually seductive. In this instance, however, these elements, taken together, feel frustratingly slight. It is a mystery with too few clues.

Title: A Traveler’s Needs
Festival: Berlin (Competition)
International sales agent: Finecut
Director/screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Lee Hyeyoung, Ha Seongguk, Kwan Haehyo
Running time: 1 hr 30 mins

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