Away With Language [DRIVE MY CAR]

Drive My Car

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

The depiction of the creation of art is certainly nothing new to film, and has yielded both some transcendent works and some profoundly mediocre movies. But something that continually eludes the grasp of all but the finest of cinematic artists is the capture of that most intangible yet essential of elements: inspiration. Whether bestowed by the muses or birthed by external forces, it emerges without warning, upsetting the artist’s entire worldview with the force of their expression.

In his own unassuming, humble way, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke has joined those select few with Drive My Car, his second truly great film of 2021, and a giant step forward in his ongoing synthesis of various influences to create something entirely his own. That he has blown up the forty page Murakami Haruki short story of the same name into a three-hour epic is one thing, but his care on all levels — the script co-written with Oe Takamasa, the purposeful direction, and most of all the extraordinary feats of casting — yields something altogether more complex, emotionally direct in a similar way to his previous film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy yet tied up in the narrative and emotional reverberations across that most typical of surrogate families: the theater troupe.

Drive My Car finds its pater familias in Kafuku Yūsuke (Nishijima Hidetoshi, a regular in Hamaguchi’s mentor Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s films), a theater director/actor whose signature style involves staging classic plays with actors speaking their own native languages — examples in the film include Indonesian, German, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, and, in one of the most galvanizing touches in recent memory, Korean Sign Language. A forty-minute prologue, set two years before the rest of the film, quickly establishes the elements that continue to permeate throughout: his love for driving his bright red Saab 900, his cosmopolitan engagement with the theatrical world, his daughter’s early demise, and most of all the mysterious, erotic relationship he has with his wife Oto (Kirishima Reika). She is the focus of the film’s first shot, a hazy nude silhouette against the sunrise, narrating a story about a young girl who habitually enters her crush’s house. As the film relates, this mixture of eros and inspiration is crucial to her creative process, as sex — with either Kafuku or the coterie of affairs that she embarks on, which unbeknownst to her he is aware of — sometimes triggers a dreamlike series of recollections that her partner memorializes for her. She is also involved in Kafuku’s own creative process, recording the other roles of plays that he is acting in to help him internalize the rhythm that forms the bedrock of his productions.

The tape of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which Kafuku plays over and over, reciting to and against while in that Saab, ends up being the last tangible vestige he has of Oto: she dies unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and the grief and unresolved tensions inherent to their relationship enter into the swirl of emotions and relationships to be elaborated upon. Two years later, Kafuku is invited by a theater festival in Hiroshima to direct Uncle Vanya, and learns that, due to the rules of the contract, he is not allowed to drive his Saab during the residency. His assigned driver is Watari (Miura Tōko), a taciturn young woman with a prominent scar on her left cheek, whose driving allows Kafuku to enter a state of bliss and concentration in his car that he has never felt before. The gradual growth of their relationship, as they open up more and more about their pasts of grief, trauma, and loss, intertwines with Kafuku’s production of Uncle Vanya, as he enlists, among others, Takatsuki (Okada Masaki), Oto’s final lover and a notorious playboy, to play the much older role of Vanya; and Lee Yun-a (Park Yu-rim), a mute Korean woman, to play Sonya.

Drive My Car‘s mystery lies in its sense of balance, its ability to juggle all of these already myriad relationships mentioned above and the numerous other connections that Kafuku — and, by reticent extension, Watari — form with the company at large. For this is a true ensemble film, and one that understands that a transcendent moment of connection, within a group of people that requires it for both artistic and personal reasons, can arise between any pairing and within any moment, whether it be a charming dinner — featuring one of the cutest couples in film history — a fraught, emotionally and temporally taxing car ride, or a reconfigured rehearsal in the sunlight that adds new depths to relationships only hinted at before.

Rehearsals, as might be expected by the Rivettian label that has been, rightly or wrongly, ascribed to Hamaguchi, form a significant chunk of Drive My Car‘s non-car driving scenes, but their nature, and the back-and-forth that Kafuku has with his actors, goes far beyond simple questions of duration. In keeping with the rhythmic sense that Oto’s tape provides, the actors are instructed to speak slowly and without emotion, internalizing both the text and the reactions from their fellow players, so that it has formed a bedrock that blocking and motion can build upon in emotional terms. In explaining why he has refused to play Vanya, as he did just after Oto’s death, Kafuku explains that Chekhov brings out the reality of a person’s soul, extracting all that is hidden and buried, and that quality comes through forcefully in the many tape scenes in the car. Each extract is deployed judiciously, often seeming like Oto — or any number of other characters — is talking directly to Kafuku through Chekhov, while at other times embodying Kafuku’s perspective, hinting at inner fonts of rage, insecurity, and distress that he can’t permit himself to express.

Nishijima’s performance acts as a perfect channel for these mixed feelings, precisely because so much about it is simultaneously fixed and shifting. Sometimes within the same shot, his face appears to change age, with the slightest movement able to embody a cheerful youth or a wearied maturity, and his emotional range occupies that same continuum. Such a quality meshes beautifully with Miura’s role, especially as she becomes more and more prominent through the final hour, which breaks from the theatrical setting to embody a flight into the unknown, a space for pondering and emotional excavation that zeroes in on the most guarded feelings of two broken people. Her contribution rests in that stoicism, borne from the experiences of someone well beyond her years, an exterior that seems almost impenetrable until what first seems to be an unusually direct and standard — for Hamaguchi — scene of emotional catharsis, the third-to-last sequence that might well be the last lingering moment in a far lesser film.

That is where the last two scenes come in, and especially Park’s role. Kafuku and Watari’s relationship gradually becomes mapped onto the Vanya and Sonya relationship, and Hamaguchi brings it full circle with the second-to-last scene, performing the final scene of the play with Kafuku as Vanya. Lee emerges as a central character, embodying the hope and optimism that, as in Uncle Vanya the other characters can’t quite bring themselves to fully believe in, and so much of that comes through the particular nature of the sign language, the physicality of it and the duration that it invites. As the actors become more and more familiar with the text and she is translated for less and less, the performance seems to reach across into the viewer, a direct communication to the camera that emphasizes each stroke and motion with a deliberateness that transmutes the already considerable emotional catharsis of the play.

And if that weren’t enough, Drive My Car offers a final coda, set in another time and another place. The precise meaning of it is purposefully elusive, radically reconfiguring the accumulated objects present throughout the film to provide another form of catharsis entirely. Hamaguchi understands in his bones the interplay of emotionality and mystery, the weight that he must give to each character and their hopes and dreams, embodied in so many manners: even the score, a supremely pleasant and relaxed jazz score by Ishibashi Eiko, casts an entirely different light on the driving scenes, inviting a new sense of contemplation. Drive My Car marks out that space for thought, for pondering, and in doing so crowns the ascension of one of the 21st century’s finest filmmakers to date.