Don’t confuse Drive My Car, the most acclaimed film of the year, with the Beatles’ “Drive My Car.” That 1965 song broadcasted the excitement of fame, commercialized sex, and isolation that the Beatles experienced and the whole world saw but, perhaps, could not themselves appreciate. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes the title literally for a three-hour demonstration of bourgeois alienation.
Japanese theater doyen Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), seen performing Waiting for Godot, and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter, play communication games that include infidelity and impersonal sex. Years later, guilt carries over into Yusuke’s artistic residency in Hiroshima, where he is commissioned to mount an experimental production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In this game, Hamaguchi grants the audience points for catching more cross-cultural references.
Initially, the various deceptions seem to be on to something about modern, selfish intimacy where verbalized sex (performed to a vinyl record playing classical music) marks the pretense and isolation in a marriage of middle-class artistes. This slays reviewers who recall the voice-over narration in Alain Resnais’s classic 1960 Hiroshima Mon Amour, but Hamaguchi isn’t a poetic filmmaker, he’s — pardon the pun — pedestrian.
Everything takes a long time in Drive My Car because Hamaguchi’s intentions are so obvious and literal-minded. Yusuke, his open-faced hospitable patrons, and his motley cast behave exactly as they seem, maybe out of cultural tact but with no hidden agendas or dramatic surprises. He’s provided a young, taciturn chauffeur Watari (Toko Miura) who is as introverted and damaged as expected. The young actor he casts as Vanya (Masaki Okada) confirms our first view of him as vain and alarmingly sincere. Yusuke learns to accept and sympathize with their idiosyncrasies because this really is a restaging of Uncle Vanya.
Hamaguchi hijacks Chekhov’s themes of moral deference and spiritual lassitude, but he doesn’t hot-wire that observation the way Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, or even Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge did. What might seem to be ineffably Japanese (given intimations of global guilt when Yusuke and Watari visit Hiroshima’s Cenotaph) is Chekhovian, therefore universal.
But I’m reluctant to hand Hamaguchi Chekhovian laurels because his measured style feels like Chekhov when done poorly. Drive My Car is the opposite of lively; it’s as glum as Watari herself. High-brow Yusuke must learn to forgive her working-class dreariness. He eventually sits next to her in the passenger seat — it’s like Green Book for the art-house crowd.
The exaggerated praise for Drive My Car is another indication of film culture’s decline — reviewers have found a movie to match their own malaise. The ending of Uncle Vanya is always moving — Louis Malle achieved that and more in Vanya on 42nd Street — so Hamaguchi’s adaptation achieves nothing new. Adding a deaf-mute actress to deliver Sonya’s famous closing lines is shameless, but PC reviewers don’t respond to the beautiful Christian faith, only to this production’s emphasis on pity. Or as Yusuke summarizes it: “We’ll be okay.”
This comes after Hamaguchi pays his debt to millennial nihilism when the chauffeur reveals she was abused by her sadistic, schizophrenic mother and vengefully let her languish. Her confession elicits the guilt Yusuke has kept hidden. At this point, it’s evident that Hamaguchi should have focused on the driver. In keeping with today’s lousy dramaturgy, he’s telling the wrong story and larding it with “art.”
One actor says, “Chekhov’s text comes inside me and moves my body that was stuck. When you say his lines, it drags out the real you.” But Hamaguchi doesn’t go for that kind of transformation. His anemic style recalls earlier, dull, art-house favorites such as Ye-Ye and Secret of the Grain, which were admired by reviewers who didn’t want cinema to be emotional and overpowering. They don’t prefer Chekhov, they prefer hijacked Chekhov.