Drive My Car

Drive My Car ★★★★★

In the world of movies, reckonings often arrive by way of plot. The characters act, or are acted upon, in a way that causes them to learn something about themselves. In Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s films, as more often occurs in life, profound understandings arrive a long time later, often during the long gaps when nothing much is happening, and often by way of conversations. This might be why his films feel more real than most. You can lose yourself in his conversations as you might lose yourself in a novel, or as you might find yourself still talking to a friend late into the night. And like his characters do over the course of the movie, you can also learn something about yourself from his films, or at least that’s been my experience.

The way Hamaguchi’s films focus on the act of conversation, and the importance of the words spoken (and not spoken), can be compared to Ozu, or American Indie cinema, of the European arthouse tradition spanning the likes of Rohmer or Bergman. Ingmar Bergman’s films make for an interesting comparison. Whereas the Swede’s films are characteristically concise and searing, Hamaguchi’s are extended and gentle. What unites the two directors, however, is how their works are rooted in text and in the mechanics of rehearsal. Bergman famously led from the script, working with a family of actors well versed in his methods. Hamaguchi appears to be the same. In the case of the excellent Drive My Car, the comparison goes deeper. Bergman worked extensively in the theatre, and here Hamaguchi situates his film in that world, using its methods to demonstrate the importance of language as the means of dialogue that yields understanding.

The film’s protagonist, Yusuke, is an experimental theatre director and actor in the mould of Peter Brook. His approach is to assemble a cast of international actors who speak in different languages. His method is to then let the actors sit with the text for an extended period, denying them the urge to react or perform to it, but rather to let it slowly enter them until it attaches itself, like a lamprey, to their life’s experiences. The idea is that the performances come from the actors’ profound relationships to the text and that their interactions with each other are of a much lesser significance.

The method Yusuke applies is comparable to the process Hamaguchi adopts over the course of his film. It’s the story of two main characters - the middle-aged, successful Yusuke, and his much younger, contractually appointed driver, Misaki. Despite their age and gender gap and difference in social class, these two people have both lived quietly with their respective sorrows and guilt for years. They’ve replayed their stories repeatedly inside their heads, while never being able to make sense of the narratives enough to allow them to move on from their pasts.

Misaki is a young woman who’s had a very difficult childhood involving abuse and neglect. At the age of 18, following the death of her mother, she fled her home and now does the only thing she knows how to do well: driving. Socially, she’s withdrawn to the point of having no expressive surface. She’s taciturn to the point of blankness. She holds her sorrows inside her and has no extrovert urge to reach out and share them with others. She just sits, remembers, and drives.

Yusuke is similar, but also different. He’s dwelled for years on the history of his daughter’s death, the strain it placed on his marriage, and his wife’s many subsequent infidelities. While she was alive, he never talked to her about it for fear of losing her. But then after losing her anyway, he’s allowed his story to deepen further into a confused jumble of grief, guilt, and unanswered questions. Consequently, he’s been unable to come to terms with what he feels. He can’t reconcile the love his wife expressed to him with her behaviour in seeking other men for sexual pleasure. He holds his confusion to himself. He drives and he remembers, and he works, going through the motions of his habits and his methods.

In a sense, Yusuke’s been sitting with his own story in the same way he’s asking his actors to sit with the play’s text. He expects Chekhov’s words to eventually settle into his actors’ experiences much as the text already resonates with his own; but while Chekhov seems to understand him, Yusuke’s yet to properly understand himself. His confused feelings about his marriage have not settled into anything he feels able to express. It’s only as he workshops Uncle Vanya with a new troupe of actors, and even more critically begins to pay attention to Misaki on the long drives they share together, that he is finally able to start bringing his personal story into the open, in conversation, to an audience. Misaki, who has patiently driven him everywhere he’s wanted to go, gently leads him to a peaceful place of understanding, pointing the way to acceptance of his wife’s apparent contradictions, and in effect, enabling him to find grace where before was torment.

Rewardingly, he returns the favour to Misaki, travelling with her to the site of her childhood’s unhappiness. He listens as she finally, softly, expresses her own feelings, freeing her up to move on with her life. Their final conversations mark a deeply moving climax that swells quietly as if out of silence.

Drive My Car is an absorbing film. It gets most of its plot out of the way before the opening credits roll, at which point the film truly begins. From here it starts to explore how we use language to communicate and to understand. The use of Chekhov’s text is masterful, providing many insights that resonate with Yusuke’s grief. The pacing is wonderful too, held intact over a graceful three-hour run time. The scenes in the car have a meditative feel that is echoed in the way Yusuke has his actors read the lines slowly and without inflection. The readings remind me a lot of my experience in watching Chekhov productions over the years. His words flow with a kind of wearied, autumnal haze. Or at least they do until they suddenly don’t, when the inevitable Chekhovian gun explodes and shakes the inertia awake. And this moment happens in Drive My Car as well. One of its very few occasions of high drama help set in motion the final act of quiet conversations. As literal as the gun is in Uncle Vanya, the figurative gun in Drive My Car is surely that long gestated moment of comprehension.

So, what did I learn about myself from this great film? Well, I’ve not suffered to anywhere near the same extent as Yusuke or Misaki, but I have had a rotten year. My wife left me, and my son moved out of home to live on the other side of the world (on the same day, no less), and I’m still prevented from seeing my daughter due to border closures. As part of the separation, I’m going to lose my home soon, and my future security is now a lot less certain. My health hasn’t been the best and I’ve struggled to come to terms with injury. I’ve not been able to make sense of how suddenly all of this has come about. I still see my wife now and then. She comes over and we cuddle, and she tells me how much she still loves me and how I’m still the most important person in her life. And I just can’t reconcile it. I can’t reconcile how she loves me but doesn’t want to be with me. And in this regard, I suppose I see a little of myself in Yusuke. And when Misaki tells Yusuke that there’s nothing contradictory about his wife loving him and seeing other men, I realise there’s nothing contradictory about my wife loving me and not wanting to live with me. 

Favourite Films | Best Films of the 2020s | Ryusuke Hamaguchi Ranked | NZIFF 2021

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