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I have a sneaking suspicion that often many who write about film have a less than full understanding of the work they’re talking about. You wouldn’t know it reading their criticism though, and I think this can have the unintended effect of putting off audiences from many pieces of cinema. I’m not going to pretend that I understand everything that Ryûsuke Hamaguchi tries to achieve with his second feature of 2021, Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー). Not even half of it probably. But that doesn’t diminish the experience. And I think that’s an important point for critics to make, because a film like this – in multiple languages, about the ‘big things’: the mystery of being human, about love, death, grief, or loneliness – can seem alienating. That unless you get all its layers, all its levels of symbolism, that unless you’re au fait with Japanese cinema and the work of Murakami and Checkov, this isn’t a film for you.
Yes, Drive My Car is a dense, complex, multilayered piece of work. Stories within stories within stories. Conversations, silences, words and glances with multiple meanings. Whole early sections of the film that take on a different significance when viewed in the context of the whole. It’s a film that would benefit from multiple viewings, which is a big ask at three hours run time, especially at a time when viewers will binge whole series but baulk at any feature over 120 minutes. But it’s worth it. Like much of Hamaguchi’s work (Happy Hour is over five hours), it’s art that rewards patience. The kind of work that, if you let it marinate in your brain, comes back days later with new flashes of connection, bubbles of meaning that rise unbidden from the unconscious.
Drive My Car starts with a story. Words and language are a key focus for this film. The act of speaking (or not), the meanings (surface and underneath; intended and not) behind words, communication and understanding are used to unearth something deep about being human. Discovering a post-coital cure for her writer’s block, Oto (Reika Kirishima) improvises a tale for her husband Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the writer and actor/director creating through the other. This small seed grows to have unexpected shoots later, with a sprawling prologue covering the events that upset the balance of their lives.
We rejoin Yûsuke a couple of years later as he prepares to direct Checkov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. He stages his plays with the actors speaking the same script in different languages, encouraging his actors in rehearsal to recite the words without meaning in order to ultimately personalise them. The rehearsal scenes reveal multiple dramatic layers, with the play’s narrative depths overlapping and reflecting the tensions, insecurities, traumas and fears experienced offstage, as Yûsuke embarks on a journey of relinquishing control and existential discovery.
Storytelling, the fictions we tell ourselves and others. The thin, blurred line between art and life. The creative process, and the restorative, truth revealing, healing power of art. These are all part of the film’s preoccupations. It sounds like a lot, but Hamaguchi gives everything time and space to develop so naturally, and even unexpectedly, that it’s not overwhelming. The opening credits don’t even appear for 40 minutes. The calm, introspective narrative structure overlays a deeply dynamic film, filled with delicate visual symbolism from cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya. Much of Drive My Car is understated, deceptively simple in its composition.
As an example, aside from its symbolic importance as a place of solitude, freedom and control, the red Saab of the title is an environment that both forces the camera to stay on faces and register reactions, while also being a place of so few distractions that it can easily forgotten, truly fade into the background as the characters’ dialogue pulls us in deeper. The almost ritualistic, smooth drives to and from rehearsals are filled with increasingly bumpy conversations, and Hamaguchi shoots each from a different angle, subtly bringing a new feeling to each journey.
There’s much more that could be touched upon – the fractured relationship between Yûsuke and the young actor Kōji (Masaki Okada), the emotionally revelatory one between Yûsuke and his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura) – but too much more would spoil the ride. Drive My Car is a deeply human-centred film, exploring connection and collaboration, and showing Hamaguchi to be one of the most exciting dramatists working today. It’s worth the journey.
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