After his wife’s unexpected death, Yusuke Kafuku, a renowned stage actor and director, receives an offer to direct a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. There, he begins to face the haunting mysteries his wife left behind.
“Many people have said to me that my films have a literary quality. But I don’t think I completely agree with that. Maybe people say that because the films have a lot of dialogue, I don’t know. Words are just one type of stimuli you can give actors to see how they’ll react. At no point am I trying to express a literary quality in my movies, or even in the dialogues. When I wrote a letter to Murakami explaining how I planned to adapt and develop the plot of the book, I told him that the text itself just couldn’t become a movie, as such, and that his words for me would be used in relation to my actors. I told him that the words would be used to trigger emotions and situations among the actors and nothing more. I think when my work converges with literature it’s a remnant of that relationship between the words and the performers, where you have this expression of the soul that can perhaps be traced back to literature. But other than that, I think my process is completely different.”
“‘Respond to the text,’ Yūsuke advises his troupe, advocating on behalf of what he sees as Uncle Vanya’s eternal verities. In his view, the dialogue will inhabit and humanize the actors, and not the other way around; his direction is inscrutable but the ends justify the means. The Chekhovian underpinnings of Drive My Car can’t help but evoke Louis Malle’s sublime 1994 extrapolation Vanya on 42nd Street, which similarly blurred the lines between process, rehearsal, and on- and offstage realities. But where Malle stayed inside a theater, Hamaguchi makes all the world into a stage, composing the driving sequences with spacious, widescreen grandeur. Line for line and measure for measure, Drive My Car is packed with all kinds of literary and dialogical firepower. Yet Hamaguchi reserves his most curious and affecting eloquence for a wordless coda that not only references a production history bisected by Covid-19 but evokes life’s asymmetrical dimensions as opposed to the long, clean lines of even the worthiest and most enduring art. The nobility and beauty of the latter lies in its failure to fully imitate its source.”
« Une force tranquille circule d’un bout à l’autre de Drive My Car. Sa mise en scène, sa photographie, où se mêlent des tonalités beiges, blanches et bleues, son montage très maîtrisé, tout y laisse circuler les mots, les silences et les énergies (des êtres et des lieux), et mobilise pleinement l’attention du spectateur. Plusieurs séquences de ce film sont de purs moments de grâce: un long échange entre Kakufu et le jeune Takatsuki dans la voiture, un recueillement devant le vestige d’une maison dans la neige, ou la sublime dernière scène d’Oncle Vania jouée face à un public, où se dit la nécessité de tenir debout en dépit des épreuves de l’existence. En prenant un tout autre chemin que Louis Malle dans Vanya, 42e rue (des répétitions de la pièce, plus vraies que nature, rendaient poreuse la frontière entre l’art et la vie, sans que l’on sorte du théâtre), Ryûsuke Hamaguchi aboutit au même résultat: faire triompher la force des liens et, par voie de conséquence, faire entrevoir une dimension plus vaste à nos vies. Y a-t-il plus beau sujet? »
Bilge Ebiri: Your other film this year, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021), made up of three short stories, also came out in the U.S. not too long ago, so it’s hard not to think of these movies as companion pieces. One theme that does seem to run through your movies is the way that our past relationships continue to haunt us. To what extent did the two films inform each other?
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car really do echo each other in a lot of ways. The production period actually overlapped between the two films. I had shot the first and second stories of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy before the pandemic. We started shooting Drive My Car in March of 2020, right as the pandemic hit, and we had to go on an eight-month halt in production. During that period, we shot the third story of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. After the emergency decree was lifted, we finished the second half of Drive My Car, which is the part set in Hiroshima. Also, I had initially thought of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in part to prepare for the feature that I was going to work on. I wanted to get used to thinking about these similar themes. I knew I wanted to work with a car driving at night, how to express sexual relationships onscreen, and also of course the theme of performance.
What is it about a car driving at night that appeals to you?
Driving at night is very different from driving in the day. There’s something very abstract about it. The details of the city start to become more blurry, the details of the environment and what’s outside go out of focus, so what you start to see is darkness and light. That abstractness is something I was drawn to. I also think that words said at night are different from words said during the day. Daily life is farther away, and you draw out something different from the characters – their inner selves. Conversations during nighttime drives often end up being deeper conversations.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi in conversation with Bilge Ebiri4
- 1. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, “Drive My Car: An Interview with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi,” Reverse Shot, interview by Jordan Cronk.
- 2. Adam Nayman, “Are You Talking to Me?,” Film Comment, 12 October 2021.
- 3. Anne-Claire Cieutat, « Drive My Car, » BANDE À PART, 14 juillet 2021.
- 4. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, “Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Theory on Driving at Night. The man behind Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy breaks down his filmmaking process,” Vulture Magazine, interview by Bilge Ebiri.