I love long, slow movies. I enjoyed Béla Tarr’s 7-hour long slow cinema classic Sátántangó, I adore Yasujirō Ozu’s quiet family epics and I count Antonioni’s extended existential arthouse pieces among my very favourite movies. I’m telling you this so that you can understand that Drive My Car should have appealed to me. The prospect of sitting back with a stately-paced 3-hour long Japanese movie about grief fills me with joy. It’s just my kind of movie.
Unfortunately, Drive My Car did nothing but disappoint me.
Lighted as though it were an IKEA bedroom section, full of the egregiously contemptible forced quirkiness of a teenager’s tumblr page and lacking any form of emotional engagement, Drive My Car stuttered and wheezed through its overlong running time until it broke down for good.
The story follows Yūsuke Kafuku, a theatre director living a numb, emotionless life. His wife, Oto, is dead, and had been engaging in multiple extramarital affairs just before her untimely passing. Alone and focused on his work, Kafuku is regularly driven to theatre rehearsals by a young chauffeur called Misaki. There is, of course, more to the movie than this. One subplot sees Kafuku hire an actor who was one of his deceased wife’s adulterous lovers, another focuses on Misaki’s connection to her childhood. The problem with every single strand of the story is that none are punctuated with any drive, emotion, enthusiasm or passion. Each feels like yet another dreary crumb in an empty bowl.
Drive My Car is a drama about emotional repression where the leads have no emotions to repress
99% of the movie’s dialogue is recited in a flat, somnambulant monotone. Huge dramatic changes may shift the narrative, characters may die, secret feelings of deep and enduring love are revealed and scarring childhood events are recounted but all are delivered to us in the blandest possible way. For the first hour I thought that Drive My Car was a drama about emotional repression. Like Tokyo Story, I reasoned that this could be a story about passionate people hiding their feelings behind a social veil. It was only in the second hour that I realised that Drive My Car is a drama about emotional repression where the leads have no emotions to repress.
No character has any chemistry with any other, most scenes lead absolutely nowhere and it’s at times difficult to avoid the conclusion that everyone involved was simply trying to make the most tediously obscure, meaningless film that they could. When the film’s single moment of emotion finally comes (about 2 hours and 45 minutes in), I was half-asleep and had lost all faith in the story unfolding before me. I had no interest in the characters, their world or their connection to each other, so why should I care when they finally, if only briefly, reveal the smallest fragment of their real selves?
Did every single scene have to lack any semblance of emotion or humanity?
I understand that it was almost certainly the intention of the film’s director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, to saturate the film with numbness and emptiness. But did every single character have to be completely numb? Did every single scene have to lack any semblance of emotion or humanity? Was his film really meant to feel so empty and uninvolving? Apocalypse Now has a numb lead who responds to events either prosaic or unbelievably horrific with the same monotone drawl. This numbness has a purpose. Captain Willard is a PTSD-scarred veteran wearing a mask of cold inhumanity to deal with the insanity of the Vietnam War.
In Drive My Car the characters have their reasons to be numb too, but its the only level that the film operates at. Seeing a numb soldier surrounded by blood, fire and rains of projectile missiles is fascinating, true and captivating. Two people with no chemistry whatsoever going on lengthy uneventful car journeys is cinematic tedium at its most painful. The film has a good deal of sex in it, but none of the sex scenes are in any way sexy, passionate or emotionally involving. Hamaguchi shoots all of his characters clinically in unflattering cold lighting. The result is that every sex scene feels like you’re looking at leftover chicken in a fridge.
That isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have its moments of strength. Oto was a screenwriter who can only break her writer’s block during and immediately after sex. In these post-coital conversations, she tells Kafuku a strange story in which a teenage girl invades the bedroom of a boy she has a crush on. We follow this story as it develops in bits and pieces after each sex session. The scene in which the story concludes is by far the film’s strongest, with the skill of the writing effective enough to make you feel as though you’ve actually seen the events of the story unfold on the big screen.
A desert of drab interiors and easily forgettable conversations
I have nothing but respect for writing strong enough to separate itself from the geography of a simple shot-reverse-shot scene and implant itself in your imagination. Bergman achieved it with the beach story in Persona, and Hamaguchi achieves it here. What a shame that everything surrounding this powerful story of erotic obsession is so dead, dull and lifeless. There’s no spark, no power and no form of creative energy to anything else here. Just a desert of drab interiors and easily forgettable conversations.
I watched Hamaguchi’s film at the Warwick Student Cinema and am incredibly grateful that they screened it. It’s difficult to watch lengthy foreign dramas at the best of times, and I can only express my appreciation and admiration of the fact that the team at the WSC choose such a wide range of movies to cater to all tastes. Sadly, Drive My Car was completely and totally inedible, had no flavour and was very difficult to swallow.
Take the adulatory reviews with a mountain of salt and lower your expectations if you want to see this film. Despite the immense praise, all I can say is that Hamaguchi’s movie has no purpose, no plot, no point and no power. Some say that it’s sheer naked brilliance, I say that the emperor has no clothes.