Drive My Car (2021) review

Introduction

Many would agree that Ryusuke Hamaguchi is the new poster-boy of Japanese cinema, a director that happily disturbed the somewhat stale international hegemony of Kore-eda and Kawase. This year, Hamaguchi did not only deliver, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021), an anthology on love and desire, but also an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Drive My Car’ which was included in his Men Without Women (2017).

Review

Stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is currently performing a multi-lingual version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting on Godot. His wife Fukaku Oto (Reika Kirishima), with whom he is seemingly happily married, is on the other hand working on an erotically charged drama for Japanese television.

One morning, upon arriving at Narita airport to take a plane to Vladivostok, Yusuke learns that his flight has been postponed to the next day. Returning home, he discovers his wife making love on the couch with Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), one the actors of her upcoming drama. Yet, before being noticed, he slips out and drives back to Narita to stay at a hotel. He pretends he saw nothing. Not that much later, he finds his wife dead in their apartment.

Two years later, Yusuke has accepted to direct Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for a festival at the Hiroshima Arts and Culture Theater. Per his request, his residence is one hour away from the theater, on an island along the Shimanami bridge. Yet, the news that he will be driven around by personal driver slightly upsets him. Luckily, the test drive with Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) goes well.

Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a narrative that explores the elusive nature of female desire, the ease by which a subject flees into his ego to avoid dealing with his own subject and the other as subject, and the need to address one’s speech to the Other to escape one’s subjective deadlock. Hamaguchi masterly develops these thematical elements via his exquisitely composed conversations. To discern these thematical dynamics, the spectator is tasked to read between the lines of the many conversations, most importantly the conversations between Yusuke and Fukaku.   

Their conversations, as soon becomes apparent, have different interrelated sides. There is speech in which the Other as subject – Yusuke’s subjectivity as well as the subjectivity of Fukaku – is missed or avoided. There are conversations full of empty chitter-chatter as well as moments where inter-subjective romantic connection is seemingly made.

The possible deceptive nature of these romantic moments only becomes tangible for Yusuke by his discovery of his wife’s adultery. From then on, Fukaku’s romantic signifiers, like those within their conversation about not wanting any children, become poisoned by the possibility of being mere fabrications (Narra-note 1). Yet, Yusuke keeps drinking her poisoned signifiers and even answers them with his own romantic signifiers – he helps upholding the fiction of romantic harmony. Why? In our view, he plays along with her signifiers to not lose her but also to escape the need to question his own subjective position within his marital relationship. But the reality of this romantic betrayal, as is elegantly underlined by Hamaguchi, weighs more and more on his mind.  

Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

  

Fukaku’s adultery is, in our view, function of her need to feel desired as subject. She reveals her desire by revealing Yusuke her seductive fantasy of the high-school girl breaking into the house of her beloved that forms the basis of her new drama. While for some spectators, this fantasy simply echoes her own erotic interest in the young and handsome Koshi [girl/Fukaku <-> boy/Koshi], this fantasy, by inverting the roles [girl/Yusuke <-> boy/Fukaku], expresses her desire to Yusuke: desire me as a subject (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3).

A very important element in Drive My Car is the cassette recorded by Fukaku to allows Yusuke to practice the lines of Vanya in the play Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. This cassette eerily blends the line between fiction and reality – fiction echoes Yusuke’s subjective reality. Even though Chekhov’s story is different, and its love ‘triangle’ is somewhat more intricate, the conversations he rehearses while driving, like those between Vanya and Helena and Vanya and Sonya, painfully reflect his romantic predicament before her untimely death. These echoes obviously harm him; they threaten to derail his performance as Vanya and reveal that Fukaku’s betrayal remains unresolved. So, even though the reality of the betrayal weighs on his mind, Yusuke finds no way of dealing with it. His passivity, his inability to find a subjective solution and work-through the event, is function of his inability or refusal to question his own position within their marriage.  

Two years later, the mystery of her infidelity and his subjective standstill persists. This is made evident by Yusuke’s emotional reaction by witnessing the audition of Koshi Takamatsu as Astrov and Janis Cheng (-) as Helena. It does not only confront him with what might have attracted Koshi in his deceased wife, but also offers him a glance at her desire, a desire he misrecognized (Narra-note 4). His subjective standstill is also evident in his refusal to play Vanya – to avoid Chekhov’s play from calling forth his suppressed subjective struggle – as well as in his repetitive act of replaying his wife’s tape (Narra-note 5). In fact, the tape, which keeps echoing the unresolved riddle of his wife, has become a veritable symptom of his inability to work-through this event.

Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Yet, can Yusuke, who stands transfixed before the impenetrable door of her elusive desire, turns this dark door into a mirror to finally question, via the riddle of her elusive desire, his own subjective logic and accept his own subjective misstep? Without spoiling too much, Yusuke’s trajectory reveals, in an intimate and emotional manner, that speaking to the Other – not the concrete other, but the Other – is essential to instigate any kind of process to resolve one’s subjective standstill and venture into the inner world of unresolved guilt and repressed emotions (e.g. sadness, anger, mourning… etc.).

The composition of Drive My Car stands out due to its simplicity – a simple combination of fixed moments and moments of fluid but unhurried dynamism, and its elegantly composed but understated visuals. What’s so visually satisfying about the visuals of Drive My Car is that rather than surprising us with the artfulness of his own composition, Hamaguchi excavates, time and time again, the very artfulness that resides in the interplay of the contrasting visual elements. Hamaguchi does not only unearth such poetic elegance in the geometry of moving human bodies, but also succeeds in evoking the serene beauty of environments (e.g. of the Setouchi region), a tranquil allure born from the harmonious contrast between nature (e.g. seas, trees, … etc.) and culture (roads, the bridges, …etc.), the urban charm of Hiroshima city, the meditative beauty of driving on roads and tunnels, and the elegance of light – be it sunlight or the lights of the night – playing on the interior of Yusuke’s Saab (Cine-note 1).

Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
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Hamaguchi’s simple composition is slow-paced. Yet, this slow pace is not without function. While this pace, of course, allows Hamaguchi to deliver many moments of mundane visual poetry, his quasi-meditative pace is fundamental to evoke the intricate intertextual fabric of the narrative, underline the subjective standstill of Yusuke, and create a highly engaging emotional rhythm, a pleasing ebb of flow of moments that does not fail to emotionally affect the spectator.

Moreover, it is via this compositional simplicity and the slow pace that Hamaguchi draws our intention to the poetic complexity of speaking. Hamaguchi does not only reveal the mundane poetry of enunciating signifiers, the erotic flavour of our utterances – an erotism hiding in the rhythm of one’s speech as well as in the signified of the chosen signifiers, but also the impact of the unsaid, the deceptive nature of our own ego – a flight into blindness, and that what speaks through signifiers (i.e. desire) but remains unheard.

Given the importance of the signifier, some might argue that visuals in Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car are merely subordinate to the dimension of speech. Yet, such thinking ignores the central role the visuals play in visualizing those who speak, emphasizing the signifier as such, and highlighting the effects speech has on others (Cine-note 2). The simplicity of Hamaguchi’s composition is thus not only important because it delivers understated visual pleasure, but also because it provides the time and space to the actors to breathe life into the poetic complexity of speech, the weight of silence, the subjective impact of signifiers, and the role subjective blindness – i.e. hiding within one’s ego – plays within our lives.      

Drive My Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is, in short, a meditative and intimate masterpiece. It is a narrative unlike any other. With an exquisitely layered but challenging intertextuality, Hamaguchi elegantly underlines the ease by which a subject deceives himself – hides within his safe deceptive ego, how destructive one’s deafness for the other’s subjectivity and desire can be, as well as how addresses one’s speech to the Other is necessary step to force open one’s subjective deadlock. Yet, the true power of Drive My Car does not simply lie in this intertextuality, but in how the pitch-perfect performances of the cast and the meditative visual composition breathe life into this intertextuality. It is the perfect interplay of elements that ensures that Yusuke’s trajectory touches the spectator in profound ways and stirs the inner depths of his subject.

Notes

Narra-note 1: By saying that her signifiers attain a deceptive flavour, we do not mean that her words are devoid of any kind of truth. In the best case, her words, like Misaki implies at one moment, convey a half-truth – the truth and the unsaid forming two sides of the same coin. In the worst case, they’re mere empty shells of a feeling that once was but has now been extinguished.

Narra-note 2: The conversation about having children is also underpinned by Fukaku’s desire to be (feel) desired. Does Fukaku, by instigating this conversation, not try to question where Yusuke’s desire lies within their marriage? And does Yusuke’s answer not radically silence this indirect invitation to vocalize his own desire? Does he not avoid bringing his subject in play?      

Narra-note 3: Even Fukaku’s further erotic exploration of her fantasy – the schoolgirl’s past life as lamprey as well as the person who enters the room while she is masturbating – roughly fits the two structures, while adding another. Fukaku’s fantasy echoes, first and foremost, the event of Yusuke finding out her infidelity (girl/lamprey/Fukaku <-> boy/stone/Koshi <- [Yusuke]). Her fantasy of the lamprey also offers a final version of her demand to Yusuke to show his desire for her as a subject (girl/lamprey/Yusuke <-> boy/stone/Fukaku <- [-]). Lastly, she frames, through her own fantasy, the ‘end’ of her own marriage (stone/Yusuke <->Fukaku/lamprey <- [Koshi]). In other words, she says goodbye to him by showing in her fantasy that the interference of Koji enables her to escape the relationship with her stone, the stiff and emotionally restrained Yusuke.

Narra-note 4: Yusuke’s choice to give Koshi the role of Uncle Vanya, a bitter, broken man obsessed with what he has lost in life and Helena who continuously escapes his grasp, is double motivated. With this decision, he does not only put Koshi in his own subjective position – an indirect act of revenge, but also a clever way to avoid the need to question his own subjective position within his relationship with Fukaku from the perspective of the couple Vanya and Helena.

Narra-note 5: This inability is also highlighted when Yusuke tells Koshi to not onlyyield himself (make love) to your acting mate, but also to yield himself (make love) to the text. He tells him that the text is questioning him and that he needs to listen to it and respond.Yusuke’s signifiers do not only explain why he avoids reciting Vanya’s lines in the car – he does not wantChekhov’s text to question him,but also echo that, within his marriage, he did not wield his subject to his marriage partner.

Cine-note 1: The mundane poetry of many shots is also supported by the realistic colour-design, the music by Eiko Ishibashi, and the sound design (e.g. the sound of birds, the rhythmical sound of rustling waves, … etc.).

Cine-note 2: To emphasize the dimension of the signifier, Hamaguchi often combines speech-acts with what one could call decorative visuals – visuals that have no direct relation to the speech-act as such, but offer a background that focuses the spectator one what is being said.

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