‘Drive My Car’ Review: Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Haruki Murakami Adaptation is an Unforgettable Ride [Cannes]
Filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi, perhaps best known to international audiences for his 2018 high concept relationship drama Asako I & II, returns to Cannes with Drive My Car, another tale that requires a certain amount of commitment from the audience, with warm results for those that stick around for the journey. Based on one of the sections of Haruki Murakami‘s short story collection titled Men Without Women, Hamaguchi’s film manages to enthrall for all of its 179 minute running time.
I did laugh out loud when the credits rolled at the 45-minute mark, yet the delineation between the opening sequence of a husband and his wife’s infidelity not only feels more like a self-contained narrative than merely a first act or precis, it directly informs all that’s to come. While many will balk at a 3-hour running time (while gorging on episodic television marathons without complaint), it’s quite remarkable how the film manages to be set at a pace that’s both deliberate and engaging, resulting in a running time that is anything but indulgent — simply following the requirements for the storylines being told.
The film is anchored by a powerful performance by Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yusuke Kafuku, a stage actor and director who is known for creating polylingual peformances of classic plays from the likes of Chekov and Becket. His relationship with his playwright wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a complicated one. It seems it’s only during sex that they truly bond creatively, as we witness her carving out stories mid-coitus that he helps her record.
After the credits roll, the story shifts two years later and changes the location to Hiroshima, an area that — like the film’s protagonist — manages to find paths to recovery after being scarred by massive tragedy. Tasked with mounting a production of Uncle Vanya, Kafuku casts a diverse group of individuals, including a spirited actor Toji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) who had a strong connection with his wife.
The film’s title comes from the connection he develops with Misaki (Toko Miura), a quiet yet committed driver who, for insurance purposes, must be chauffeur for the director. It’s in the gentle, yet entirely believable connection between these two broken souls that the film generates much of its emotional power. And it’s only through the deliberate and subtle shifts in their own circumstances that their growth as individuals appear completely convincing, providing a powerful argument for the film’s luxuriant running time.
In lesser hands, the staginess of the theatrical elements could easily result in quite dull cinema, yet Hamaguchi’s skill allows him to revel in the broadest of performances while still remaining restrained by the
precise narrative of the source material. Like Lee Chang-dong’s 2018 film Burning, itself a beloved part of that year’s Cannes slate, Murakami’s storylines seem primed for cinematic translation, embodying both literary sophistication and character exploration without succumbing to a myriad of soliloquies or bloated visual meanderings.
The notion of the polyglot productions — where each play has participants of many cultures and languages speaking core text to one another with the audience reading titles projected on the back wall — makes overt the notion that different voices and perspectives can all share the same stage, whether or not we share a same language. As metaphors go for the universality of both kindness and malice despite overt linguistic and cultural barriers, this hardly makes for a shocking revelation, yet given how poorly stage elements are often incorporated on screen, it’s a clever trick well-realized.
This tale is told so well, with such a deft touch that never sways things one way or other, that it manages to fully engage in powerful ways. Drive My Car is a film of great subtlety and care, yet it never feels boring or rote. It’s got the feel of a gentle rainfall, and rather that lulling one to sleep like so many bloated arthouse projects can do, we’re drawn ever closer to the travails of Kafuku’s story. Overt connections between the central narrative and Chekov’s Vanya plot that we see performed are of course no accident, yet even here what could feel as a cheat — stealing from a master to inject something into one’s own project — somehow manages to not only elevate via the cultural and time-period differences the original text, but illustrates to contemporary viewers how the words of this iconic play resonate deeply with concerns of the present day.
Ambitious and yet quietly confident, Hamaguchi’s film feels an absolute treat. Drive My Car is a hell of a ride, the red Saab riding through the landscape like a beating heart, taking viewers along a journey that they won’t soon forget.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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