Drive My Car: Shock Absorber, by David Bax
Ryûsuke Hamagachi’s Drive My Car is three hours long, so it has a lot of time to be about a lot of different things. It also takes its time–the opening titles appear about 40 minutes in–allowing you plenty of space to think about what all of those different things might be.
In that first 40 minutes–we’ll call it the prologue but it gives no evidence of being so in the moment–we meet a married couple, Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their relationship is deeply intimate, both in that they have a lot of sex (after which Oto invents long stories, a new chapter following each roll in the hay) and that they are achingly tender with one another, supportive and caring in a way that goes beyond mutual respect into tender love. So when Kafuku discovers, without Oto’s knowledge, that she’s sleeping with someone else, you might be able to understand why his initial reaction is to do nothing about it; he doesn’t want to disturb something so precious, so rare that it’s worth the torment as long as he can keep it to himself. With this development, Drive My Car seems to be treading, for a short while, similar ground to Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists. But soon enough, Hamaguchi makes another hairpin turn; Oto suddenly dies.
It would be trite and, more importantly, entirely incorrect to state that the pain of Oto’s loss replaces that of her betrayal. On the contrary, the remainder of the movie–which jumps years ahead to find Kafuku hired by an arts festival to direct an avant-garde production of Uncle Vanya–lives in the volatile conversation between these two very specific and often antithetical forms of hurt that takes place just beneath Kafuku’s tempered but sometimes brusque demeanor. His vision for the play–to cast people of various nationalities and have each speak in their native tongue–illustrates what’s going on in his heart and mind. Languages at odds with one another nevertheless coexist, creating a whole that wouldn’t be achievable via any other concoction.
Kafuku’s method of rehearsing, at least in the early stages, requires the cast members to speak their lines as flatly as possible, reading them from the page as if they are no more than lists of words. Perhaps he’s projecting his own coping mechanism of emotional restraint onto the characters. In any case, it means that Drive My Car belongs to the surprisingly long list of arthouse movies fascinated by rehearsal.
Kafuku’s controlled and even nature doesn’t just manifest within Drive My Car; it extends outward, dictating the form of the film itself. In one of the best scenes, Kafuku is asked about the driving of Watari (Tôko Miura), the woman the festival has hired as his chauffeur. It’s an idle question and a platitude would suffice for an answer. But Kafuku responds with a short monologue of poetic praise, all the more honest for how straightforward he is about it. One of the things he says is that she drives so smoothly, he often forgets he’s in a car. That would seem to be Kafuku’s guiding philosophy, to keep everything still and balanced enough that you don’t feel much at all. In a more obvious movie, this would inevitably lead to a collision of multiple varieties. But Drive My Car suggests that, with the right combination of people riding together, you may be able to arrive, intact, somewhere special.