Do you believe behavior can be guided by intimate, private, and unseen forces, and that the face people present to the world doesn’t always align with what resides in the deepest regions of their hearts?
If that kind of philosophical speculation appeals to you, please see Drive My Car.
I did, on Tuesday night at the Spectrum Theater, when tickets are only seven dollars, and I sat masked with two friends and perhaps six other people in an otherwise empty theater. It was only my second time in a movie theater in two years, the other being for the memorable Summer of Soul last August.
This literary, languid movie from Japanese director Ryûsuke HamaguchiI is subtitled in English, runs a full three hours, and considers emotional expression to be the highest form of action. Obviously, it’s not for everyone, or even for most of us. But emphatically, it was for me.
Characters and plot: Kafuku is a successful theater actor and director. His wife, Oto, is a screenwriter. The first forty minutes of the film serve as a kind of prologue—before the opening credits even appear on screen—during which we see Oto finding her creative inspiration as a screenwriter, verbalizing ideas and reciting character dialog, while having sex with Kafuku. Yes, it’s strange—and compelling and believable. We also learn that Oto is having an affair with a television star named Takatsuki, among other affairs, and that her husband does nothing to confront her even though he knows. Why does he let this behavior go?
Then suddenly, Oto is dead from a cerebral hemorrhage, and the film jumps forward two years to when Kafuku has been awarded a residency in Hiroshima to produce a Chekov play, Uncle Vanya. The festival rules require that Kafuku is assigned a driver. Watari is 23 years old, sullen, and handles Kafuku’s Saab 900 turbo with exceptional expertise (extra points for the use of a Saab; I miss my old one). The unusual red car stands out against the bluish-gray palette of the film signifying that the most vibrant and important moments in the film are the extended, meditative conversations and silences between Watari and Kafuku.
Kafuku casts his dead wife’s former lover, Takatsuki, in the lead role of Vanya, for which he is ill-suited. But why? It’s one of those quandaries of the heart whose resolution slowly unfolds. Both Kafuku and the young driver Watari are dealing with personal trauma and regrets. He over the loss of his wife and she over the loss of her mother, and through their strengthening bonds they are able to confess what roles they believe they played in those losses.
Multiple levels of storytelling enrich the film. Oto’s on-the-fly screenplay involves a young girl who is obsessed with her boyfriend and sneaks into his house. The production of Uncle Vanya and rehearsing its script adds another layer of meaning to the main story. But it’s never confusing or disjointed. It is always elegant, additive, and mesmerizing.
The three hours glide by, the final credits roll, and I have just experienced a masterpiece. It’s a rare and inspiring feeling for me, but I also feel a little sad coming out of the theater knowing that not nearly enough people will see this film. Three hours and subtitles and minimal action; you’ve never seen a movie like it.