Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a sublime meditation on loss and moving on at this year’s London Film Festival.
When we first meet Yusuke and Oto, she is telling him a story post-coitus, about a girl who sneaks into a boy’s house and leaves him tokens of her affection and desire. In the morning, he recants the tale to her as they drive to work – she is a screenwriter and he is a theatre director and actor. They are clearly each other’s muse. She creates beautiful tales from a place of passion yet is unable to remember them afterwards. Yusuke recognises the duality of their relationship. Simultaneously close yet separated by an emotional distance that is potentially filled with secrets and lies.
One day following a cancelled trip, unbeknownst to Oto, he discovers his wife in a passionate clinch with an actor on her show. Later when she asks to speak to him about something important, he chooses to spend the day driving in his car, avoiding what he sees as the inevitable conversation.
Following an unforeseen tragedy, Yusuke finds himself directing a multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya.
One can draw parallels with the character of Charlie in Marriage Story. Both are dealing with loss and unable to fully articulate their emotions and feelings, choose to focus on their work. Where Adam Driver’s character has a cathartic breakthrough during his performance of Being Alive, Yusuke finds himself paralysed at the thought of acting. We discover that his method of learning his lines is to drive around listening to the script being read and filling in his own dialogue. However the voice on the recording is Oto’s.
In trying to deal with the end of one relationship, he finds himself thrust into two new ones against his will. The company provide him a chaffeur to drive him around in his battered old car due to concerns over his eyesight. Then the actor he saw with his wife auditions for the production.
The driver/passenger dynamic does follow your typical plotline. A cold and frosty association gently thaws to become a bond and eventual friendship as the silence of the journeys give way to conversation and the eventual sharing of personal stories and secrets.
The connection between director and actor, and possible love rivals, could have gone down many different roads. It is initially unclear as to how much each party is aware about the other’s knowledge of the tryst. Does Koji know that Yusuke saw them together? Just how deep did the affair go?
When Yusuke decides to cast the young Koji in the role of the much older Vanya, there is confusion on his part. What is leading Yusuke’s decision? Is it a chance to control and humiliate Koji if he fails in the part? Or is there a level of art imitating life as in the play Vanya falls in love with the Professor’s wife?
As rehearsals unfold, the two form an unexpected bond and offer each other the opportunity for closure. There is a beautiful scene where Yusuke recants the tale that Oto told in the opening scene to Koji, only to be stunned when the story he believed to be incomplete is then completed by Koji. Illustrating that perhaps each of them only knew half of Oto, never able to truly possess the whole woman.
Hidetoshi Nishijima is suitably reserved as the emotionally inarticulate Yusuke. To continue the car analogy, this is a man has stalled. He is stuck and unable to truly move on. Hearing this story is like receiving a jumpstart back to life. In that moment, he is unable to surpress his emotions and it offers the audience a way into his character. To finally explore and understand his love and loss. It is a beautiful, tender moment from a masterful performance.
The film has a runtime longer than it would take Chris Rea to drive home for Christmas. However at no point during the journey did you feel the need to ask “Are we there yet?”.
At one point, Yusuke remarks to Misaki, that her driving skills make him forget that he is in the car, that he is travelling. He can just enjoy the ride. That is how it feels for the audience as well. We are the passengers on a stunning road trip in the hands of a consumate professional.
It has been said it is not about the destination, it’s the journey. Writer-Director Hamaguchi understands and is ever mindful of that. Drive My Car is a perfectly paced journey that allows Yusuke to reach his final destination right on time.
Drive My Car is in cinemas from November 19
Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Stars: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima
Runtime: 179 minutes