Drive my car

Image: Lucio Fontana


Commentary on the film directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

It's now showing in theaters (and in two weeks on the streaming Mubi) one of the great films of the year, the Japanese Drive my car, by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, awarded at Cannes and Bafta and nominated for an Oscar in four categories: best film, direction, adapted screenplay and foreign production.

Although the credits themselves inform that it is an adaptation of the eponymous tale by Haruki Murakami, the screenplay mixes elements of three narratives from the book. men without women, by the Japanese writer: “Drive my car”, “Scheherazade” and “Kino”. The feat of Hamaguchi and his co-writer Takamasa Oe was to stitch these stories together into a cohesive whole, enhancing the dramatic reach of each one of them. As if Murakami's stories were sketches, diagrams, for the director's flights of imagination.

A brief synopsis, with some inevitable spoilers, before we move on. Actor and theater director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) lives in Tokyo with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter for television series. He discovers by accident that she is having an affair with a young actor, Kôshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Oto's sudden death ends the long prologue, 40 minutes into the film. Only then do the credits come in.

The narrative jumps to two years later, when Kafuku goes to Hiroshima to prepare and direct a “multilingual” production of Uncle Vânia, by Chekhov, in which each actor pronounces his lines in his native language: Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Libras. One of the actors in the cast is Takatsuki, the director's wife's lover, who even so (or for that very reason) chooses him for the lead role.

Chekhov's play, by the way, acts as the thread that sews together the various stories and the various planes of the narrative. In the short story, she is only mentioned. It could be another classic text. In the film, she permeates the entire narrative, not only through the repeated lines in rehearsals, in the actors' readings and on Kafuku's cassette tape (in his wife's voice), but mainly by composing the emotional atmosphere and, shall we say, the existential approach.

Like Chekhov's theater, Hamaguchi's cinema seems to seek the ineffable feeling of time passing, of "the life that could have been and that wasn't", with its frustrations, its regrets, but also with its fleeting moments of enlightenment, of possible happiness.

The initially cold and professional relationship that is established between Kafuku and Misaki (Tôko Miura), the young driver hired to drive him around Hiroshima, turns out to be fertile ground for the development of this Chekhovian poetics. Gradually they reveal themselves to each other - and to themselves. As is usually the case in Hamaguchi's films, the viewer is also gradually discovering unsuspected facets of each character, not just the main ones.

Takatsuki, for example, who at first seems just a mere television star, superficial and vain, gains density with each scene until he reveals himself as an essentially tragic figure. In a crucial dialogue with Kafuku he says: “What attracted me to his theatrical work was the same thing that attracted me to Oto's scripts: the attention to detail that almost nobody notices”. The remark is valid for the cinema of Hamaguchi.

One example, perhaps not the best: at dinner at the home of his Korean assistant (Jin Dae-yeon) and his mute wife (Lee Yoon-a), Kafuku has a brief moment of relaxation as he chats animatedly with the couple, perhaps the characters friendliest of the entire film. The driver Misaki, also present, eats without saying anything, exercising her ability to become almost invisible. At the end of the scene, the camera, which was showing the conversation at the table, changes the frame slightly and we see Misaki crouched on the floor, petting the hosts' dog. It's a very brief image, but it will gain meaning in the enigmatic epilogue, in Korea.

In another passage, when talking in the back seat of the car with Takatsuki, Kafuku talks about his little daughter who died at the age of 4 and who would now be 23. Upon hearing this, the driver Misaki looks quickly through the rearview mirror, as if in a subtle thrill. That's exactly her own age.

These tiny details, whether noticed or not, build Hamaguchi's dramatic tapestry, woven with that elegant and engaging visual style of a certain Japanese tradition, in which the camera always seems to be in the only possible place, and the shots last exactly as long as they should. . A plastic precision that hides its meticulous construction. It gives the impression of intuition or chance, but it is the result of centuries of eye training.

A road, a tunnel, a ferry, a supermarket, the rubble of a house, the penumbra of an apartment, everything takes on a beauty of its own, the melancholy beauty of matter worked on by time and weather (rain, snow, wind ). Hamaguchi's look is realistic, but above all poetic. Or rather: he seeks what is poetic in the most prosaic reality.

The connections between Japanese cinema and Russian literature are curious. If Kurosawa found affinity with Dostoyevsky (The idiot) and Gorky (scum), Hamaguchi's cinema has everything to do with Chekhov's melancholic lyricism. Drive my car it only made that closeness more evident.

To verify the universality and relevance of the great Russian author, it may be interesting to compare Drive my car with two other beautiful films that revolve around montages of his plays: the North American Uncle Vanya in New York (1994), by Louis Malle, and the Brazilian Moscow (2009), by Eduardo Coutinho. Beyond the flagged fences that separate backyards, Chekhov's deep humanity connects creatures from the Russian steppes to the avenues of New York, the mountains of Minas and the roads of Hiroshima.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brasiliense).

Originally published on CINEMA BLOG


drive my carDoraibu mai ka)
Japan, 2021, 177 minutes
Directed by: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Screenplay: Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe.
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada, Tôko Miura, Jin Dae-yeon, Lee Yoon-a.

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