The act of driving is among our most routine, and also one of our most paradoxical — the idea of moving forward in one respect while remaining completely stationary in another. You may have thought something similar at one point. Maybe you’ve even thought about it while behind the wheel, jolting your subconscious awake from the neutral state of an activity demanding our full attention.
It’s that very paradox that makes Japanese writer-director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s decision to center driving in his marvelously intelligent film, “Drive My Car,” potent, poignant and rather perfect. In this epic of wandering souls, seeing what’s ahead means recognizing the road you’ve been traveling over this whole time.
“Drive My Car” follows Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an accomplished actor and respected director known for his multilingual productions. Yûsuke is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a television writer who is herself a very respected creator. They work well together in every way, even tying their creative process into a fervent sex life. They come up with ideas for exotic stories together, narrating them out lushly in their post-coital moments.
All is not perfect between them, however. After a flight to a theater festival is unexpectedly delayed, Yûsuke returns home to find his wife having sex with a young actor from her television production. He quickly walks away, distraught and unseen, but convinced that he should stay silent about what he saw. When Oto later dies unexpectedly from a brain hemorrhage, all Yûsuke has left is silence.
Two years later, grief still consumes Yûsuke’s life. In fact, he still drives his little red Saab to productions playing a practice tape that Oto once created for him to help with his character’s dialogue memorization. She speaks and he responds. He knows Anton Chekhov’s lines by heart. But that same heart won’t let him stop replaying Oto’s tape.
And it just so happens that a festival event has hired Yûsuke for a two-month production of the very play that he can’t stop repeating: Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” So he drives and repeats. He stays connected. He even purposely chooses housing that’s an hour away from the Hiroshima festival just so he can spend time with Oto’s voice during the drive.
When he arrives at the festival, however, the producers mandate that he has a chauffeur for liability reasons. His assigned driver is a buttoned-up woman named Misaki (Toko Miura). Yûsuke objects. He refuses. But in the end, he must live with this woman driving and being in his car.
Misaki is a good driver. A good listener. And as time and events unfold, it begins to seem like Misaki may well be very good for Yûsuke Kafuku, too.
In spite of its title, “Drive My Car” is far from driving. This Japanese film, based on a short story published in The New Yorker, has quite a bit for viewers to ruminate upon if they can slow their minds down, read through all the many English subtitles and forget about the clock. The film wrestles emotionally with our shared experience of grief and loss — how those experiences can destroy or transform.
The movie also weaves in scenes from Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” to illustrate its point that surviving grief, taking time to listen and embracing those we love are the only viable choices in life. We must keep living, Chekhov’s characters tell us.
“Drive My Car” is essentially a character study of the most forthright kind. An attentive movie-watcher will find themselves closely studying the characters of this movie; the looks they trade when conversations take confessional turns, the hints of reaction when a revelation is reached, the slow chipping away of formality to yield unexpected understanding underneath. Even if “Drive My Car” isn’t a movie you analyze, you surely will be absorbed.
But there’s a touch of whimsy to it all, a cheekiness that stretches from a humorously curated soundscape to the way the screenplay matches its cruise-control speed. Art and life are shown to be interchangeable in “Drive My Car,” and time affects how we see both.
This dazzlingly meditative, “Best International Picture” Oscar winner is a film filled with delicate, cross-lacing emotional mysteries. “Drive My Car” is an uncanny work of artistic self-reflection about how ideas, people and images can be imbued with new meaning without really changing. Sights can shift even on the most routine of life’s commutes. In this movie about things we should say and shouldn’t, things we fully know and others we never can, that makes all the difference.