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‘Drive My Car’: A Symphony of the Heart

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The heart is a monstrous thing. When we’re young and heartbreaks come easy, it seems so true it’s barely worth acknowledging. If we’re lucky, we grow up and spend the rest of our lives forgetting this fact— an artifact of our awkwardly remembered angsty, pining teenage years. But for most, there’s a day sooner or later that we’re reminded. Something seen that should’ve remained unseen, an answer to a question better not asked. And suddenly, something clicks into place, the air in our stomach and lungs rushes out; beneath it all a familiar rumbling, the subterranean hunger of the heart.

Drive My Car (2021), directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Drive My Car (2021) is Hamaguchi’s latest film, one of two playing at New York Film Fest. It follows an actor, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), grappling with the sudden death of his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima). Oto’s screen time is over by the time the intro credits appear on screen, but her presence haunts the film at every turn. Oto is kind and supportive, a screenwriter whose stories come to her in post-coital dazes. At first glance, their marriage seems solidly grounded, a view that’s complicated when we abruptly learn that she sleeps with other men.

Early into the film, Yūsuke happens to come home early after a delayed flight and sees Oto fucking (there’s no better word) the young actor starring in her latest drama. Rather than confront her, Yūsuke—still unseen by his wife wrapped in the throes of her lover— slinks away. We expect a confrontation to occur, but it doesn’t. Instead we’re met with domestic scenes of tenderness, a sweetness that cruelly corrodes as it numbs. Then, one day as he leaves the house, she says she wants to talk about something when he comes back. So he stays out, driving aimlessly, and comes back late. Too late. He finds her dead on the floor from a brain hemorrhage. And so she leaves him with the ellipses of a last testament, never testified.

Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura) in Drive My Car.

On the surface, the ensuing plot is simple. Yūsuke takes his beloved car— one which he has diligently maintained for over a decade, where he rehearses his lines with a tape recording of Oto’s voice as his interlocutor— to Hiroshima to participate in a residency program. There, he will put on a production of Uncle Vanya in his idiosyncratic multilingual style (his performances have actors from across the globe play roles in their native tongues, as if they had never gotten the memo that the Tower of Babel had fallen). For his stay, he’ll also be assigned a driver, a stoic young woman named Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura). Oto’s lover auditions for the play, because of course, and is assigned the titular role by Yūsuke himself.

Underneath this deceptively subtle narrative, however, lies a chasm, a simple fact that threatens to unravel us and Yūsuke at every turn: that to love another is to love something fundamentally unknowable. That the opposite of loneliness can only be found when you love something outside yourself— yet that to experience something outside yourself is to experience an insurmountable distance that defies love’s urge to swallow its object of desire whole.

Janice Chang (Sonia Yuan) and Lee Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim) in Drive My Car.

It’s a paradox that Hamaguchi makes us feel in all of its impossibility. The terrible unknowability of the Other, the specter of Oto, the question mark that follows Yūsuke throughout the film. The unspoken knowledge that the one you loved the most had an inner life that was impenetrable, had motivations and hopes and desires that remained locked away. Or, even more terrifyingly, that the person you loved was exactly what you saw. That the hurt inflicted wasn’t for any deeper reason, that it served no higher purpose than the base desires it satisfied, that they were a person flawed in the way that everyone else is flawed, with no deeper redemption forthcoming. “Do you really know the one you loved,” Hamaguchi asks. “And what if you did?” the film counters.

Hamaguchi’s controlled style of filmmaking is a perfect companion to the roiling emotional turmoil happening underneath. His compositions are beautiful, neat, clear. The way he places his characters throughout the frame, for example, often communicates developing relationships far before the narrative explicitly brings those relationships to the fore. One might expect a more impassioned form of cinematography to accompany this story about the aftermath of heartbreak. But Drive My Car is largely about Yūsuke’s failed attempts to smooth over the rocky terrain of his heart, and Hamaguchi’s cool formalism visualizes that compulsion in filmic style. It is a film that, like its protagonist, remains staunchly dedicated to staying composed when the world around it seems to be falling apart.

Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) and Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima).

This isn’t to say that this is a pessimistic film, despite the doom and gloom image I may have painted so far. There are moments of transcendence when that space that separates people collapses into a single point. In those moments, the pain of loneliness seems to fall away, and we’re able to truly meet each other, face to face. By making the protagonist a stage actor, Hamaguchi explores this possibility of these encounters through several angles: the ways that actors encounter characters, characters encounter audiences, lovers encounter lovers, readers encounter text, and the ways that each of these moments is pregnant with possibility. 

If there’s anything the film is interested in interrogating, it’s this possibility. No matter how faint it might seem, and no matter the hurt that might come before or after, this possibility has to be worth it— what else would be if not this? The film doesn’t tell us how to make these moments happen. That would be too easy. But it does urge us to try to discover how we might overcome ourselves, how we might truly meet one another as we are, if only we could find the courage to take the first step.

Rating: 5/5

Film pages: IMDb

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