I’m going to talk about how the movie ends, but I’m not going to spoil it.
At least that’s not how the plot of “Drive My Car” really works. Adapted by Ryusuke Hamaguchi (in collaboration with Takamasa Oe) from a novella by Haruki Murakami, the film is an adventure of gentle twists and the occasional swerve, with big surprises and small reveals scattered like landscapes on a long road trip. You might be shocked at how quickly it all goes by; the film is almost three hours long, but the time passes easily.
A short, tactful summary may be in order, a sort of Google Maps precise of the route. Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director and actor from Tokyo, is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), an actress, who is having an affair with a younger colleague. The couple had a young daughter who died several years before, and when Oto dies suddenly, she leaves Yusuke paralyzed with grief. Or so we suspect. He tends to disguise his feelings behind a facade of calm, accentuating his usual restraint with the occasional flash of irritation or sardonic humor.
He continues to work and resides at an art center in Hiroshima, where he will direct an experimental production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. I don’t think I can spoil it either. The great works are like that, and one of the wonders of “Drive My Car” is the way it illuminates and refreshes a solid old classic, deriving some of its own strength, novelty and mystery from Chekhov’s well-thumbed lyrics.
A little more about ‘Drive My Car’. In Hiroshima, Yusuke is assigned a driver, Misaki (Toko Miura), who shuttles him to rehearsals, errands and social activities in his beloved red Saab. Like Yusuk, she has suffered a terrible loss, and their shared grief – or rather, their common state of raw, lonely, unacknowledged fear – becomes the basis of a delicate and unlikely friendship.
That band’s story culminates in an intensely emotional scene in a snowy field – tears flow and Yusuke finally gives voice to his heretofore unspoken pain – that would surely be an Oscar night showstopper. (And if the academy is wise enough to nominate “Drive My Car” for Best Picture and Nishijima and Miura for Acting, maybe it will). But what I want to talk about is what happens next.
That is the show continues. As the opening night of “Uncle Vanya” approaches, we’ve been introduced to some backstage intrigue and immersed in Yusuke’s offbeat approach to the piece. The cast includes actors from different countries, all of whom speak Chekhov’s dialogue in their native languages, including Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean Sign Language. As soon as an audience is present, surtitles are projected on a screen behind the stage. The English-speaking viewer, who already reads subtitles, learns to listen to the tones and rhythms of the different languages, including the swishing and tapping of gesticulating hands.
That might sound mind-bogglingly cerebral, like the kind of high-concept aesthetic venture that’s more interesting in theory than it is in practice. It turns out to be the opposite. “Uncle Vanya,” a play about how hard it is to hold on to what’s important in life, rarely felt more vital or direct, as if it wasn’t written in the 1890s, but rather lived before our very eyes.
Yusuk, sprinkled with white powder in his hair and a mustache taped to his lip, plays the title role, a 47-year-old man driven near madness—almost murder—by unrequited desire and existential disappointment. His performance on stage is an unexpected development, the payoff of a subplot that I leave up to you to discover.
Yusuk hasn’t acted since Oto’s death, and as “Uncle Vanya” unfolds, the shock to his system seems apparent. After Vanya’s Act III raved about its wasted prospects and bitter regrets – “If I had lived normally, I might have been a different Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky!” – he leans against a table in the wings, apparently struggling for breath and composure.
Maybe Vanya’s condition reminds him of his own, or maybe the demands of acting are too much to bear. The first Russian production of “Uncle Vanya” was directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the progenitor of Method acting, in which the actor gauges his own experience to locate the emotional truth of the character. Knowing what we know about Yusuke – after seeing him cry in the snow in the previous scene – it’s easy to see why he would be overwhelmed by Vanya’s torment.
But he is also a professional, and the scene runs smoothly through a montage of the performance. We see the action on stage from the side and then on a video monitor in the green room, observing the movement of props and bodies rather than absorbing the movement of Chekhov’s drama. The film seems to end up in a muted denouement.
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Instead, we’re looking at the ending of “Uncle Vanya.” The bustle and artifice of the theater fade, and so do the artifice of cinema. The actors look in front of the camera, which approaches the point of view of a member of the theater audience. A pivotal reverse shot reveals that Misaki is in the house, looking at what is essentially the representation of a moment from her own life.
Not exactly of course. Art is not a mirror; it is a dream. But “Uncle Vanya” ends with a middle-aged man and a younger woman realizing that they are bonded by a love that is not romantic or sexual, but somehow spiritual. Vanya is only ‘uncle’ of Sonya, the daughter of his late sister and Professor Serebyakov, the prominent intellectual who, according to Vanya, destroyed his life. While Vanya is in love with Serebyakov’s current wife, Yelena, he also shares his heartbreak with Sonya, and is saved from despair by her tender, melancholy display of faith.
You don’t need to know the piece to feel the power of the scene. You don’t even have to read the subtitles. A deaf Korean actress, played by the extraordinary Park Yurim, is Sonya, and her final monologue is delivered in Korean Sign Language. Vanya – in other words Yusuke, in other words Nishijima – sits at a table and Sonya leans over him, her face floating behind and next to his as her hands slide and flutter in front of his eyes. When a sign involves touching a cheek or gesturing to a mouth, his face becomes part of her speech and her words become caresses and gentle taps against his skin.
The feeling of two people coming together in an experience that transcends language and transcends physicality has a power that I have rarely encountered in theater or film. This intimacy is not created by removing artifices, but by adding more layers, creating a state of communion between the two art forms.
“We have to live,” Yusuke tells Misaki in their last scene together in the snow. “We’ll be fine.”
“We will live, Uncle Vanya,” Sonya Vanya promises at the end of Chekhov’s play. “We will rest.” The explanations ring true, but it’s not just that Hamaguchi finds confirmation in Chekhov, or relies on the authority of an earlier literary master to certify his theme. It’s not even as if we need movies or plays to tell us that life goes on – only, through an alchemy we barely understand, to make us believe it.