Perhaps only Ryûsuke Hamaguchi could take a short story by one of Japan’s most acclaimed writers, Haruki Murakami, and get a three hour movie out of it.
But no one who saw his “Happy Hour” would be shocked at the patience-testing element of “Drive My Car.” After all, he got over five hours out of what might appear to be a simple tale of the emotional lives of four women over basically one long “taking stock” night in that 20015 film.
Not all Hamaguchi’s films go to such “slow cinema” extremes. But he likes characters who talk. And the many long monologues, along with repetitious driving scenes and extended table-reads of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in rehearsal push the limits of audience tolerance even as they mesmerize.
He’s toying with narrative demands and narrative structure in an intimate portrait of grief, fidelity, of what you know and don’t about yourself and your partner.
His protagonist, the actor and director Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), endlessly prepares for roles by running lines against a cassette recording of whatever character has a scene with him, while driving his restored 1980s Saab 900 Turbo. He plans such rides to and from the theater so that they’re an hour long.
It doesn’t matter if the show is in rehearsals or already up and running, if he’s starring in “Waiting for Godot” in Tokyo or directing “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima. He has his “routine,” and he’s gotten famous in acting circles for this sort of pounding the text approach to acting.
We meet Yûsuke in the afterglow of sex with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). She’s naked, relating a story that unfolded in her head while she was in the throes of passion. Yûsuke listens, contributes and encourages this long tale of a kinkily-obsessed teenage girl who “used to be a lamprey.” His “method” is running lines ad nauseum. This is her creative “method.”
Theirs is a marriage of open “I love yous” and affection, until that day he comes home from a canceled flight to find her wearing out their bed with a young actor on a TV show she writes for. She doesn’t see him. He never tells her. And the frost barely has time to settle over this betrayal when he comes home one day to find her dead.
It was “natural causes,” of course. Because this story has barely a whiff of anything that could be taken as contrived or melodramatic. Even years later, when Yûsuke casts the young rake (Masaki Okada) whom he met when his wife brought him to a play of his, a fellow actor who then cuckolded him, there’s little that plays as “ulterior motive” in him doing it.
As this multi-lingual “Vanya” (actors speak Japanese, Chinese and even Korean Sign Language in it) grinds through reading after reading, with actors impatient to get it “on its feet,” adding physicality to their beyond-memorized vocalizing of the test, Yûsuke’s routine is altered by the requirement that a near-expressionless young driver (Tôko Miura) take the wheel of the Saab and do all his driving in Hiroshima.
The long drives, with lines from “Uncle Vanya” playing out underneath them, have a meditative quality. Yûsuke’s interactions with the actors, with a helpful multi-lingual assistant and with the sad and mostly-silent driver feel bitter, drained of emotion.
Something, we know or hope we know, has to give.
This Cannes and other film festivals’ darling plays as more dramatically flat than other rapturous reviews let on. The acting is heavily internalized, the inciting incidents few and very far between.
In fleshing out and dragging out the Murakami short story, Hamaguchi lets us know he’s not playing by conventional narrative plotting or film structure. The opening credits, coming after a relatively action-packed prologue — two sex scenes and a death — roll just over 40 minutes in.
Hamaguchi defies expectations, time and again, and forces the viewer to consider not just what we’re taking from this film, but what we bring to it. The guilt that goes hand-in-palm with grief in screen melodramas is here, but not in any openly identifiable or relatable way.
Yûsuke moments with the womanizing punk Koji (Okada) are deflating, with just a whiff of judgmental.
The many monologues — anecdotes from someone’s past, Oto’s script outline, a character revealing some secret — are immersive but drained of emotion.
One can’t pick on the actors not giving us much here. Pretty much everyone hits the same tone, as they were directed to do. A rare moment outside this Temple of Gloom — an actor, politely complaining about the constant table-reads, a dinner at home with another — feel like a movie Hamaguchi doesn’t want to let out of the bag.
And then there’s the daring treatment of “Uncle Vanya,” a show whose multi-lingual performance means that the cast must know what they’re hearing and reacting to even though they often don’t speak the language. Physicality and internalized-text is all. Hamaguchi fearlessly puts us in the audience for this challenging and gimmicky indulgence, where viewers in the theater who don’t know this warhorse play by heart must read subtitles (how opera is performed in many places) projected above the stage, not locking their eyes on the actors.
Is Yûsuke punishing the players? Is Hamaguchi mocking the theater?
The otherwise wholly consistent mood and vibe of “Drive My Car” give it a literary quality rare in films and explains much of its acclaim. It’s a movie of repressed characters living interior monologues not delivered, the cinema of droning along storytelling rebranded as “serene” or “patient.”
That makes this festival darling one of those films you ponder and appreciate, almost at arm’s length. It’s that afraid of moving you.
Rating: unrated, sex
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima, Tôko Miura, Masaki Okada, Sonia Yuan and Yoo-rim Park
Credits: Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. scripted by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. A Janus release.
Running time: 2:59