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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
There’s a moment in Seamus Heaney’s poem Clearances when he recalls peeling potatoes with his mother. Neither looked at one another, or paused. But their shared task offered intimacy – they were “Never closer”, Heaney writes, “the whole rest of our lives”.
A similar, understated kind of intimacy propels the central relationship in Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s latest feature film Drive My Car, which marks his second time in Competition at Cannes. Since making his first film in 2008, and with increasing momentum since his breakthrough epic Happy Hour in 2015, Hamaguchi has been quietly building an oeuvre of dramas that revolve around romantic tangles, people who work in theatre and what ties these themes together – social scripts, performance, deception, memory.
Much of this latest film takes place in its eponymous car – a red Saab, to be precise. Precision is key for Hamaguchi’s tragicomedies of manners and for the Murakami Haruki short story of the same name upon which this film is based. (Though in Murakami’s story the Saab is yellow, Hamaguchi’s red substitute looks exquisite against the snow in the film’s closing scenes, shot in Japan’s northernmost region of Hokkaido.) The film adheres closely to Murakami’s text, though it makes its own detours.
A theatre actor, Mr Kafuku, loses his wife, whom he secretly knows was unfaithful to him. Much of the film is concerned with how Mr Kafuku spends his days, rehearsing Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya with a multilingual cast of actors at a theatre in Hiroshima.
The theatre hire a driver to transport Mr Kafuku between his house, rehearsals and various appointments. The driver is a young, brusque woman from Hokkaido called Misaki. During the course of the film Mr Kafuku and she gradually learn more about each other’s lives and form a tender bond. Like Heaney and his mother they find it easier to relate when they are sharing a task; for them this task assumes the form of a journey. What begins as a shuttle between home and rehearsal spaces ends up taking the pair across Japan and on a journey through memory and loss.
Besides the car, the other vehicle Mr Kafuku uses to express emotion is acting. Learning lines by endless, robotic repetition (often on a cassette tape played inside the car) is his method for tapping into the emotional intensity of a character – and perhaps, he hopes, himself. No coincidence that he is rehearsing Uncle Vanya, a play first directed by Stanislavski, whose method mined an actor’s inner motives to give personal resonance to a character’s actions.
During the course of the film (like many of Hamaguchi’s, Drive My Car is in no rush, though its three hours cannot compete with Happy Hour’s five) we come to realise that Mr Kafuku’s interest in acting and roleplay is more than a professional one. His late wife – a screenwriter for television – hid numerous affairs with her protagonists behind what seemed a happy marriage. In a twist of intelligence and provocation characteristic of Hamaguchi, Mr Kafuku concedes that fidelity would in fact have been a lie for his wife. That she both loved him dearly and was unfaithful was her genuine self. Later, Misaki mirrors this when she reflects on her mother’s personality disorder, which produced alternative personas that probably constituted a more authentic and caring self. These details unfold between Mr Kafuku and Misaki in the car, on the road. The car’s interior becomes a kind of heterotopia for them – it is intense, transformational, yet freeing in its mobility.
Roleplay and performance fascinate Hamaguchi, evidenced so finely in Happy Hour and, more recently, Asako I & II (2018) and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021). Drive My Car contains numerous extended takes in which actors workshop lines and scenarios in improvised scenes. Language is key here – be it Japanese, with its nuances of politeness and elliptical implication, or body languages and facial expressions. Mr Kafuku’s cast for Uncle Vanya comprises actors who use Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Korean Sign Language.
Like Hamaguchi, Mr Kafuku is interested in what can be said, emoted, translated and felt. Perhaps therein lies the key to his melancholy – Mr Kafuku’s difficulty in expressing feelings breeds his interest in studying their languages of expression. His late wife was called Oto; the written character for her name means ‘sound’, Mr Kafuku tells Misaki. Even after Oto’s death her sound resonates through Mr Kafuku and Misaki’s days, by way of the cassette recordings she made to help him learn scripts. As the Saab glides north from Hiroshima to Hokkaido, one gets the feeling that Mr Kafuku is growing closer not only to Misaki but also Oto, the one woman driving his car, the other delivering him his lines.
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