Drive My Car (M, 179 minutes) Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi *****
Drive My Car is an adaptation of a 40-page short story from Haruki Murakami.
Coming in at one-minute under three hours, you might wonder at just how much content and meaning writer and director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has located within Murakami’s tale.
In more or less present day Japan, Yusuke is a well regarded actor/writer/director. He is married to Oto. And the two of them enjoy a position of some exult within the arts and theatre crowd of their city.
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In a flourish that seems almost like self-parody from Murakami, Yusuke is appearing in a production of Waiting For Godot. Excerpts from the famously elliptical and self-referential play warn us that Drive My Car will not be a journey through easily interpretable territory – and neither will it arrive at any endpoint that seems especially inevitable or cosily explicable.
Yusuke and Oto are living out a not-unhappy and very Murakami-esque marriage of introspection and thinly veiled mutual criticism, punctuated occasionally with bouts of chilly, but politely inventive bonking, during which the lights will stay on, the protagonists will be sober and each party will be tolerably well satisfied. Though perhaps not quite satisfied enough to simply fall asleep, contentedly sighing and farting in each other’s arms, as you or I might.
Without giving much away, 40 minutes of the film has elapsed before the acting credits appear. Which is surely an oblique way of assuring us that everything and everyone we have met up until now, has only been a preamble to the story proper.
Drive My Car picks up the tale a few years later.
Yusuke has decamped to Hiroshima – a place freighted with genuine and unimaginable human suffering, as if to point out, slightly prematurely, that in the long-run Yusuke’s problems aren’t going to amount to a hill of beans.
Yusuke is in town to direct a multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. And via the medium of that play, we will watch as fidelity, mortality and good old-fashioned angst are given a tickle and asked to reassert their place in the modern world.
Yusuke’s decision, to cast as Vanya a young actor who was having an affair with Oto, will be revisited often. Is Yusuke hoping to punish, humiliate, educate or redeem the callow youth. Or, all of the above?
Sitting down to watch Drive My Car, I wasn’t sure I was ready for three hours of Murakami, unfolding – as it must – against a backdrop of classical music played on unobtrusive stereos, in houses in which the restraint is conspicuous and everyone seems to waiting for the photographer from Vogue to arrive.
One hundred and seventy-nine minutes later, I really didn’t want the film to end.
For all its length, the exasperating self-regard of the characters – and even for the slightly wearying sensation of being trapped in a room full of people desperate to prove how sensitive they are, as though no one had ever felt alone in a marriage or uncertain of their talent before – Drive My Car is still a warm, witty and achingly compassionate tale.
Drive My Car defies description or categorisation. It is a road movie – Yusuke and his young driver Yoon So travel in Yusuke’s prized red Saab to and from the theatre every morning and night – but one that only moves in circles.
It is a love story, assuredly – although one that must reject nostalgia and melancholy.
And it is also a film in which people at first only exist in the present, to give context to the people who we knew in the past. And of how Yusuke eventually moves through that, mostly within the cocoon of a small red Saab, which seems able to pass through the years without any friction or drama at all.
It’s almost as though Murakami thinks that car has something to teach us.
In Japanese with English subtitles, Drive My Car is now screening in select cinemas.