Drive My Car makes isolation look normal and its end miraculous
When I hear some movie, book, or anything else is about “communication,” as someone told me about Drive My Car, my instinct is to flee. I prefer to see communication problems as a sub-theme at most, as they sometimes are in the films of Robert Altman, expressed by his famous overlapping dialogue. Maybe it comes of growing up in the Age of Rapping (not the musical form, but discussions where honesty and authenticity had to be strenuously demonstrated) and the rise of “communications” as a modifier — communications studies, communications strategies, communications platforms, etc. — which may have left me feeling that any focus on how people do or don’t communicate is an invitation to either a grift or a struggle session.
But Drive My Car really is about communication, though you may not know it at first because the couple we start out with, Oto the TV scriptwriter and Kafuku the theater actor, seem to communicate very well, albeit oddly in one respect: Oto tells Kafuku imaginative stories after and sometimes during sex. One story we’re let in on contains a strong erotic fantasy element and also a metaphorical fantasy element — which come to think of it sort of describes Drive My Car, too.
That story takes on some significance when [spoilers, though I will try to be gentle with them because there are a lot of revelations in this movie] Kafuku finds Oto is unfaithful to him. Kafuku does not let on that he knows, and we spend some time trying to read whether she knows that he knows. At one point, in her coital storytelling, it seems she does, but we can’t be sure. We can’t be sure whether Kafuku is sure, either; he has been taciturn throughout the opening movement, but by the time of this story he has almost imperceptibly shifted a gear, and become even harder to read. We see him in his car, rehearsing his lines for a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in which he is the lead; Oto has taped the other characters’ lines for him, and Kafuku reads Vanya’s lines against hers.
Two years later. Oto is dead and Kafuku doesn’t want to act anymore'; there’s a suggestion that he simply can’t; in one of several scenes in Drive My Car that are just opaque enough to be tantalizing rather than frustrating, we see him acting in Uncle Vanya, playing a scene haltingly; we can’t be sure whether it’s his style or a nervous breakdown.
Anyway, he has obtained a directing residency in Hiroshima and the play he’s directing is Uncle Vanya. One of the actors who auditions is the young man with whom Kafuku knows Oto cheated on him. (The young man doesn’t seem to know that Kafuku knows this.) Kafuku casts the young man as Vanya. It’s a perverse choice, since, for one thing, the kid killed it in his audition as a sexually aggressive Astrov and obviously feels uncomfortable as Vanya (who, you may know, is a schlemiel and a sufferer, in love with an unobtainable woman).
If the assignment is vengeful, Kafuku doesn’t seem to be enjoying his vengeance. Worse, the kid wants to talk to him — about acting, about his life, about some things that have gone wrong for him and, very obtusely it seems, about Oto, with whom, he admits under Kafuku’s prodding, he was in love. (Neither man will go so far as to discuss or even acknowledge the infidelity.)
Meanwhile Kafuku has another problem. The residency insists that he have a driver — earlier, another of their visiting artists killed someone with a car and they made it a policy not to let the visitors drive. Kafuku wants to keep driving himself. He’s still running the Vanya lines against his wife’s voice in the car. (He tells them it’s his “method.”) He is told that their driver — Misaki, a short young woman with a distant stare, an unsettling air of total equanimity, and a round, glib face with a faint but distinct scar — is very good at her job and in any event he has no choice. For a while he sits in the back seat every morning and night and runs his lines instead of talking to Misaki.
I bet you can guess that arrangement doesn’t last. In hindsight and reflection, some of the plot devices are transparent (though as I mentioned they do pull some fast ones). But the movie has such a leisurely pace, and the acting is so quiet and earnest, that I quickly got used to the characters’ ways of doing things — even if, as with the couple’s bedtime stories, they’re very strange. It was only later that I looked at the details of what had happened and questioned them. For instance, why would Kafuku still need to run lines in the car if he’s just directing? Why didn’t I notice right away how crazy that was? I try to imagine just about any other actor and director trying to put that one over, and think both the character and the metaphor would be obvious, even laughable.
But in Drive My Car these habits of isolation seem like business as usual until Kafuku and Misaki start to work on each other. They are the most isolated characters and, if “character” as narrowly understood were all, they might have stayed locked inside themselves forever. (Some people do, you know.) But there are things we need more than we need to be who we think we are, and sometimes a spark of recognition — the knowledge that we have been seen and heard, revealed by a something as simple as a compliment, can lead to a place where a burden might be shared and even relinquished. Never heard of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, the director, before this, but I’ll be back.