Drive my Car
Ryusuke Hamaguchi is one of the very few filmmakers that managed to deliver two masterpieces in the same year. While Wheel of fortune and fantasy might have gained more hype, probably Drive my car manages to top it in terms of perfection. With no shadow of doubt it can immediately be elected as one of the absolute best films that were released in 2021.
This is not a film about cars, nor does the car act as a symbol. It is a vessel, a recurring location for a much deeper drama that has little to envy from Bergman in terms of development. A theater director struggles with the absence of closure for past events during a stage production of Uncle Vanja, and the theater that hosts the production forces him to take a driver. That is the essential plot, yet it is a complex character study, enriched by a wide, but at the same time, compact range of threads that each serve a purpose in the air-tight screenplay, awarded rightfully at Cannes.
The immense length of the three hours-long film is justified by the presence of a rather long prologue portion. Other productions would have skipped the prologue, which is also repeatedy referenced in detail during the rest of the film, but Hamaguchi chooses to include and depict it in order to fully convey the gist of the events that shook the main character. The duration does not influence the pacing negatively: it remains an enjoyable and engaging film, never tiresome, even if heavily dialogue based, maybe even better paced than the shorter Wheel of fortune and fantasy.
Even though much more erotically charged, Drive my car somehow is very reminiscent of Ozu in its quiet melancholy, albeit, as is the case for Wheel of fortune and fantasy, the film allows an European footprint to dominate: the theater plays that are depicted are european plays, such as En Attendant Godot or Uncle Vanja, the classical music that plays on vinyls in several sequences also is inherited from the european setting. The dominance of post-industrial landscapes has something of Antonioni’s Deserto Rosso to it. While these elements definitely make the film more appealing for european or western audiences, they still do not impose themselves with imperialist arrogance: Hamaguchi’s characterisation, interactions, formae mentis are still profoundly nipponic, and rightfully so.
Many films have depicted the world of the stage, but few have shown in such details the preparation of theater productions. The film accurately documents the various conventional steps of rehearsals, from the early table readings all the way to the premiere, in all of their simplicity and without cinematic artifices. Nonetheless, cinematic is a word that can easily be applied to Drive my car. The aforementioned post-industrial cityscapes are alterned to the scenery of the Hiroshima and Hokkaido regions of Japan, the framing and abscence of prominent camera movements, reminiscent of Rohmer in its simplicity, never becomes tedious, even if the cut rate is not particularly high.
A word must be spent on the perfomances, especially of that of one of the supporting actors (not to the exense of the rest of the actors, all very talented), Masaki Okada, who, in a rather long monologue scene without cuts manages to convey an insane number of emotions with extreme hermetism and subtlety and avoids to turn his performance into a distracting factor, something that is rarely achieved even by talented actors.
In a year dominated by divisive films with disturbing subjects and gloom, Drive my car is a story centered on melancholy and very lifelike struggles of abbandonment and guilt, yet it is nonetheless a soothing, quiet and refreshing film, most recommendable and decisively very appealing to most viewers.