The two best movies I saw this year were Leos Carax’s “Annette” and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car.” Two cold, overlong intellectual exercises that used the trappings of classic drama plotlines involving dead wives to explore performance and narrativization challenged and excited me as few other movies did. Where the Brechtian, anti-entertainment “Annette” popped the hood to flash the shiny mechanisms of entertainment at its viewers, “Drive My Car” makes elliptical circuits around a core set of ideas that remain remote and hazy, never resolving into an especially clear or coherent message. In a year dominated by movies progressing zombie-like through the same old motions and received ideas (Cash-grab adaptations! Stultifying, overstuffed prestige pictures!), “Drive My Car” and “Annette” opened before me like escape hatches to the future of film.
“Drive My Car” follows Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor directing Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” for a Hiroshima theater festival, and Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), the young woman employed by the festival to drive him. In stereotypical Murakami fashion, Kafuku’s slightly sinister screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) dies early on and haunts the movie thereafter. She is a spectral presence who never, even before her death, seems like a real human being. None of the characters do, really, and it’s a testament to Nishijima and Miura’s excellent acting that their characters have the depth that they do. The two actors’ minute facial movements (Nishijima’s frowning mouth, Miura’s quick glances) form an express contrast to the high melodrama of “Uncle Vanya,” and are all the more noticeable, and powerful, for it.
The film quickly abandons cohesion and realism in favor of coincidence, repetition, remove and a kind of slow-burn tension that permeates every second. Kafuku, scheduled to perform in “Vanya” before Oto’s death, listens to Oto’s taped reading of the script in his beloved red Saab. Kafuku casts actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), Oto’s lover and the star of her TV shows, as the titular role of “Uncle Vanya,” a role once played by Kafuku himself. When Kafuku mentions a story of which Oto once told him the beginning, Koji finishes it. The chilling tale, which ends with the words “I killed him” repeated over and over again, is reminiscent of a surreal series of events earlier in the movie. Are these stories any less real than the barely there plot stitching them together?
Stories abound in “Drive My Car.” The many different narratives of the film (Oto’s menacing stories about lampreys and her dead daughter, Misaki’s story about her mother, “Uncle Vanya”) bleed into the main film and wander from character to character. We hear “Uncle Vanya” in Oto’s voice and Oto’s story in Koji’s. A gunshot from “Uncle Vanya” cracks across a scene of nighttime driving; in the following scene, the shouts and tears and high drama of Chekhov are interrupted by the police, who calmly escort a murderous cast member out of the theater.
Kafuku’s “Uncle Vanya” production is characterized by the profusion of languages in which it is performed. The cast members say their lines in Korean, Japanese, English, Mandarin and, in the case of the mesmerizing Lee Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), Korean sign language. For all of the carefully calibrated performances and blank-faced anguish various characters exude through minute glances and simple phrases, Park is the standout performer of the movie. She silently dominates every single one of her scenes, from her audition for the role of Sonya to her final scene with Kafuku.
For almost the entirety of its three-hour run time, “Drive My Car” captivates. The exception is the cathartic confessions of Mitsaki and Kafuku, which drag. For the first time in a movie filled with “Vanya” rehearsal scenes, I could feel the script behind the actors. This “real” moment in which the two main characters confess their deep-seated guilt and remorse feels false and contrived, unlike when they do it through Chekhov. ”Drive My Car” is the kind of movie that leaves you guessing if a particular scene is ill-conceived or unnecessary, or if you’re just missing the point. The confession scene feels (intentionally?) rote and extraneous. By the end, the movie’s originating traumas are almost lost in the rearview, replaced by heady meditations on language, speech, silence and time. Watching “Drive My Car,” I kept returning to writer Joy Williams’ description of Don DeLillo: “His work can be a little cold perhaps. And what’s wrong with that? The cold can teach us many things.”
Stephen Altobelli (22C) is an English major from Westminster, Massachusetts. He is a resident advisor for the Clairmont community, an advising fellow with Matriculate and an avid David Lynch fan. Contact Altobelli at email@example.com.