Drive My Car (2021) Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
This ruminative, linear, narrative-heavy, arthouse cinema mimic directed and co-written by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi fulfills all the conditions to be a revelatory, epic vision of the meandering issues of human relationships, however its vaporous philosophical redundancy and cursory similarity to classic traditional Japanese cinema seems to strip it of any trace of greatness. Drive My Car is cinema tailor-made for the average moviegoer and the easily persuaded aficionado; it is evident that the plentiful diffusion of formal idiosyncrasies in the structural design of the drama is effortlessly alluring, falling into a specious formula that ironically I was not carried away by it. I really consider this facile and cheap rhetoric of pseudo-artistic cinema to be light on meaning and vacuous in substance.
The punctilious, deft and undeniably dexterous filmmaker Hamaguchi is talented enough to be linguistically paraphrasing and physiognomically photocopying the aesthetics and brilliance of other directors in particular. And this cyclical narrative is crisply filmed with a sublimity that emphatically demonstrates that its DNA comes from a heady construction of filmic eclecticism. There’s nothing wrong with an inflated use of influences, be they narrative or visual, but the abundant level of repetitive wide shots that suggest the modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni and the conversational sobriety that evokes Yasujiro Ozu are so distractingly obvious that it tends to be more a collection of aesthetic delights that don’t belong to the auteur behind the work.
Actor and theater director Yūsuke Kafuku is married to Oto, a screenwriter. Oto conceives his stories during sex and narrates them to Yūsuke. After seeing her husband in a performance of Waiting for Godot, Oto introduces Yūsuke to his regular collaborator, the young actor Kōji Takatsuki. When Yūsuke returns home early one day, he finds his wife having sex with the young man. He quietly leaves unseen and does not tell her about it. One day, when Yūsuke leaves for work, Oto tells him that he wants to talk to him later that night. Yūsuke returns home late to find Oto dead from a brain hemorrhage. After her funeral, Yūsuke suffers a nervous breakdown during a performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and is unable to continue with the show. Two years later, Yūsuke accepts a residency in Hiroshima, where he will direct an adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Yūsuke chooses Kōji Takatsuki, whose career has recently been affected by inappropriate behavior, as Uncle Vanya despite his young age and concerns about his erratic behavior. The theater company requires Yūsuke not to drive but to be driven in his own car, a red Saab 900. He objects at first, but relents after the young and reserved chauffeur, Misaki Watari, proves to be a skilled driver.
Drive My Car vaguely justifies its injudicious 3-hour running time, yet if there is anything positive to note about this deceptive film, it is that the acting depth, soothing and poetic dimensions are startlingly immersive. Hidetoshi Nishijima along with Tôko Miura bring robustness to the recycled script and lend evocative symbolism to the art of the simple, the uncomplicated and the cathartic. Rock-solid performances that have more fervency than any pretentious unfinished ideas from Hamaguchi’s shallow direction. It is a subtle love letter to acting, and an explicit internal confession that becomes legible through honest feelings that gradually make us experience a complex connection to these authentic characters. Its thematic textures are certainly tantalizing, easy to like and hard to loathe, though I fall somewhere in the middle. What I do know with acidic truthfulness is that Drive My Car’s cinematic traditionalism remains basic and indulgent, it seeks with imperious anxiety to be an art film, something that objectively it is not.