From HAPPY HOUR (Locarno, 2015), ASAKO I & II (Cannes, 2018) to WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY (Berlinale Grand Jury Prize, 2021), director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has built a formidable filmography within years and quickly become one of the most vital voices in Japanese cinema today. Returning to Cannes competition with a mesmerizing adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s eponymous short story DRIVE MY CAR, the young filmmaker is sure to find even more acclaim and discerning fans everywhere.
The film’s premise is set up with great deliberation and mystery in the 45-min pre-credits first act. We meet a couple in post-coital reverie. Instead of words of tenderness, wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) mumbles about a girl who leaves tokens at her lover’s house for sexual gratification, as husband Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) dreamily prompts her to go on. It’s not clear if the increasingly kinky story is a memory, a fantasy or some exercise the couple does for fun, but the singularly strange and sensual atmosphere alone gets your full attention. We then learn that Kafuku is a stage actor and Oto is a TV producer. Despite signs to the contrary, there are definitely cracks in their marriage, seen in her sad smiles and his reaction upon an unfortunate discovery.
The film properly begins two years after a shocking incident, when Kafuku takes up residency at a theater in Hiroshima to direct “Uncle Vanya”. He casts actors from different countries, including a mute actress (Yoo-rim Park) performing in sign language, for an innovative rendition of the Chekhov play. And while he’s widely expected to play the role of Vanya himself, Kafuku casts young, womanizing actor Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the role for reasons unexplained. This and many other secrets about Kafuku will eventually be revealed after he acquaints the equally impenetrable Misaki (Tôko Miura), a young female driver assigned to bring him to and from work every day.
This may sound like a lot, and indeed a lot happens in DRIVE MY CAR. But the amazing thing is not how Hamaguchi turned a 40-page short story into a three-hour movie, but how those minutes just flew by. As was the case with his previous films, this intimate epic about loss and forgiveness is densely, vigorously written. Whether it’s characters exchanging dialogue, running lines, telling stories or listening to recordings, things are always spoken. Hamaguchi uses words to seduce, hurt, shock and comfort. And he trusts the power of his words. There’s a signature Hamaguchi scene in the third act where Kafuku and Takatsuki share a long conversation in the car. The camera cuts from one face to the other, until it just stays with the younger man for an uninterrupted monologue. The staging cannot be simpler, and yet the tension is so compelling you cannot take your eyes off the screen.
Same goes for the memorable opening scene, where you find yourself immediately entranced by this seemingly unrelated tale of a girl intruder. It’s a gorgeously shot scene with suggestive shapes and silhouettes in the pre-dawn light, but it’s the enigmatic words that truly captivate. The tale later gets an update from a surprising source before its true meaning is revealed. And you’re not just dazzled by the feat of imagination, but reminded how storytelling itself can be an act of mercy.
Both leads Nishijima and Miura are solid, communicating emotional depth despite their stoic appearance. The film is ultimately about two people who saved each other from their own guilt, and these two actors embody that beautifully. Scene-stealing performances are delivered by Kirishima and Park. The former is watchable as an unknowable woman with a past she can’t let go. The latter injects so much life and soul into sign language it touches you on a visceral level.
I think Hamaguchi might have erred on the sentimental side just a little bit towards the end, but overall DRIVE MY CAR is a beguiling, slow-burning blast. It would be great to see it/him awarded come Saturday. On that note, we’ve now seen exactly half of the 24-strong competition slate. And I find it encouraging that – with the exception of BENEDETTA, which is just Paul doing what only Paul can do – my top favorites, including DRIVE MY CAR, all came from filmmakers still in their 40’s.
AHED’S KNEE is a pure blast of energy that leaves one staggered. Despite its potentially polarizing political stance, I would be surprised if it isn’t recognized in some form. THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD is painfully lovely and captures the essence of a generation that has never been done before. I was also terribly charmed by COMPARTMENT NO. 6, a 90’s-set road-movie from Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen. An easy complaint might be that the film’s too “light” for awards consideration, but one rarely encounters such empathy-inspiring, relentlessly appealing characters as those portrayed by the two leads Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov – in movies big or small. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride with them and got a bit misty towards the journey’s end.
In terms of chances for Palme, I wouldn’t rule out THE DIVIDE either as a populist choice. The movie is muscularly made by Catherine Corsini and has that urgent, timely LES MISERABLES vibe. Lead actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is a contender for best actress in a field that’s – refreshingly for Cannes – getting crowded. Italian maestro Nanni Moretti’s THREE FLOORS is very well made, if also maddeningly safe and old-school. That can be said of François Ozon’s EVERYTHING WENT FINE too, a moving film about euthanasia you can take your whole family to. Personally I would be happier if Spike Lee and his jurors go for something new and exciting, even if it also means a little messy and rough. Does that include Mia Hansen-Løve’s BERGMAN ISLAND? I’m not sure. I liked the film’s second half a lot but that first half somehow left me completely cold. Perhaps that was just because it was the fourth film I saw yesterday and my mind needed one full hour to reboot at that point. I shall give it another chance.
It’s very possible that this year’s Palme hasn’t screened yet though. With a bottom-heavy schedule, we still have films by, among others, Asghar Farhadi, Jacques Audiard, Sean Baker, Ildikó Enyedi, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Wes Anderson coming up in the next days. So stay tuned…