Drive My Car is the latest proof that Ryusuke Hamaguchi is thinking much bigger than most of his contemporaries.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi has fast become one of the more dependable filmmakers regularly working the international festival circuit, ever since he broke big at Locarno in 2015 with the sprawling, ornately plotted Happy Hour. Cannes quickly cosigned him, selecting his 2018 picture Asako I & II for a competition slot, and earlier in 2021, less than half a year after his remarkable Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy took the Silver Bear at Berlinale, Hamaguchi exited Cannes once again, this time with a Best Screenplay award for his adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short fiction piece, Drive My Car.
The premise and thematic interests of Murakami’s story remain mostly intact in this cinematic adaptation, but Hamaguchi has expanded the scope of this relatively brusque work (published as part of the Hemingway-inspired 2014 collection Men Without Women), transforming it into a nearly three-hour epic melodrama spanning the course of several years. Drive My Car plays out over two acts distinguished from one another by a time jump that takes us from an instance of disquieted domesticity and into another, though this time performed. Centering on sullen stage actor Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Drive My Car first reflects on his marriage to actor/writer Oto (Reika Kirishima), strained and confused by the loss of their child, their union sinking into further dissonance at the revelation of Oto’s frequent infidelities. Years later, Kafuku still wrestles with unanswered questions about Oto and the truth of their relationship, questions he is forced to confront directly while guest directing a production of Uncle Vanya for a Hiroshima based acting workshop, provoked by the play itself and the participation of one of the actors who his wife had an affair with.
And indeed, as suggested by the Cannes award, Drive My Car’s screenplay is an achievement to be experienced, an imaginative act of adaptation that takes great pleasure in revealing its characters to the audience and deflating the conflicts implied by its seemingly salacious plot. Hamaguchi handles his character with great care and respect, and while Drive My Car adheres to the melodrama’s tendency to build toward intense emotional crescendo, the screenplay does not angle at violence, but instead, a profound acceptance. It’s rare to encounter a film so committed to a belief in others, recognizing empathy as a transformative spiritual force, an embrace of the unknown that can shape our understanding of broader existence. Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography accentuates Hamaguchi’s existential musings, his compositions taking extra care with scale, lengthy monologues delivered in close up (acting/storytelling as a means of catharsis, a recurring theme for the filmmaker) are framed to make the speaker appear massive and all-important, but then are quickly countered with frames that position them as small figures juxtaposed against massive LED screens depicting grand celestial activity, representations of the greatness of human accomplishment but also the limits of our perception. Drive My Car pursues these huge subjects confidently, actually managing to make a film about “the human condition” that never condescends or deals in dishonesty; it’s clear Hamaguchi is thinking much bigger than most of the filmmakers he competes with at these festivals.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 9.