“Drive My Car” is far from driving
The act of driving is one of our most routine acts, but also one of the most paradoxical: the idea of moving forward on one point while remaining completely still on another. You may have thought something similar at some point. Maybe you’ve even thought about it while driving, awakening your subconscious from the neutral state of an activity demanding our full attention.
It’s this very paradox that makes Japanese writer-director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s decision to center driving in his wonderfully clever film, “Drive My Car”, powerful, poignant and rather perfect. In this epic of wandering souls, seeing what lies ahead means recognizing the path you have traveled all this time.
“Drive My Car” follows Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an accomplished actor and respected director known for his multilingual productions. Yūsuke is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a television writer who is herself a highly respected designer. They work well together in every way, even linking their creative process to a fervent sex life. They come up with exotic story ideas together, telling them profusely in their post-coital moments.
However, all is not perfect between them. After a flight to a theater festival is unexpectedly delayed, Yūsuke returns home to find his wife having sex with a young actor from his TV production. He quickly walks away, distraught and invisible, but convinced he must keep quiet about what he has seen. When Oto later dies unexpectedly from a brain hemorrhage, Yūsuke is left with nothing but silence.
Two years later, grief still consumes Yūsuke’s life. In fact, he still drives his little red Saab to productions playing a practice tape that Oto once created for him to help him memorize his character’s dialogue. She speaks and he answers. He knows Anton Chekhov’s lines by heart. But that same heart won’t let him stop replaying Oto’s tape.
And it turns out that a festival event hired Yûsuke for a two-month production of the play he keeps repeating: Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. So he rolls and repeats. He stays connected. He even deliberately chooses accommodation an hour from the Hiroshima festival just so he can hang out with Oto’s voice during the drive.
When he arrives at the festival, however, the producers require him to have a driver for liability reasons. His assigned driver is a pimple-up woman named Misaki (Toko Miura). Yusuke objects. He denied. But in the end, he has to live with this woman who drives and is in his car.
Misaki is a good driver. A good listener. And as time and events unfold, it looks like Misaki could be very good for Yūsuke Kafuku as well.
Despite its title, “Drive My Car” is far from driving. This Japanese film, based on a short story published in The New Yorker, has plenty for viewers to think about if they can slow down their minds, read all the many English subtitles, and forget about the clock. The film struggles emotionally with our shared experience of grief and loss – how these experiences can destroy or transform.
The film also weaves together scenes from Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” to illustrate his point that surviving grief, taking time to listen, and embracing those we love are the only viable choices in life. We must continue to live, tell us the characters of Chekhov.
“Drive My Car” is essentially a character study of the most straightforward genre. An attentive movie buff will find themselves studying the characters in this film closely; the looks they exchange when conversations take confessional turns, the hints of reaction when a revelation is reached, the slowness of formality to impart unexpected understanding underneath. Even if “Drive My Car” is not a movie you analyze, you will surely be absorbed.
But there’s a touch of whimsy to it all, a cheekiness that extends from a humorously curated soundscape to how the script matches its cruise control speed. Art and life are interchangeable in “Drive My Car,” and time affects how we see the two.
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This meditative dazzling, winner of the Oscar for “Best International Film”, is a film filled with delicate and intersecting emotional mysteries. “Drive My Car” is an eerie work of artistic self-reflection on how ideas, people and images can be imbued with new meaning without actually changing. Views can change even on life’s most routine journeys. In this movie about things we should and shouldn’t say, things we know full well and things we can never say, that makes all the difference.
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