Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s mysterious and beautiful new film is inspired by Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same name – and that title, like Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, is designed to tease us with the shiny wistfulness of a Beatles lyric. Hamaguchi’s previous pictures Asako I and II and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy were about the enigma of identity, the theatrical role play involved in all social interaction and the erotic rapture of intimacy. Drive My Car is about all this and more; where once Hamaguchi’s film-making language had seemed to me at the level of jeu d’esprit, now it ascends to something with passion and even a kind of grandeur. It is a film about the link between confession, creativity and sexuality and the unending mystery of other people’s lives and secrets.
Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a successful actor and theatre director who specialises in experimental multilingual productions with surtitles – he is currently working on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and is preparing to play the lead in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. He has a complex relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a successful writer and TV dramatist who has a habit of murmuring aloud ideas for erotic short stories, trance-like, while she is astride Yûsuke having sex, including a potent vignette about a teenage girl who breaks into the house of the boy with whom she is obsessed.
The couple learn that Yûsuke is in danger of losing the sight in one eye – he later learns with a shock that this has changed the short story that she was working on – but this perhaps makes it easier for him to accept that he will need a driver for his trusty Saab 900 when he later directs a new revival of his Vanya production at an arts festival in Hiroshima, a city that is photographed with crisp unsentimentality. Things are complicated by a devastating event in Oto’s life, and Yûsuke being confronted with proof that she had been having an affair with a handsome and disreputable young actor and celebrity called Kôji (Masaki Okada). For complex reasons, he casts this same bumptious Kôji in the lead role for Vanya for his revival, assuring the actor calmly that makeup will cover the age difference, and responds readily but with cool reserve when Kôji keeps saying he wants to talk to him over a drink after rehearsals. This strange duel between the two men is happening alongside Yûsuke’s growing relationship with his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura) whose professional reticence evolves into something else when he starts confessing his anguish to her – prompted by the fact that he likes to play a certain cassette in the car: the voice of his wife running his lines for Vanya.
As Yûsuke, Nishijima has a certain severity, inscrutability and the almost martial self-discipline of someone who is accustomed to leadership and to giving orders to actors while seeming open to their suggestions. (Oddly, when he is in makeup for Vanya, he reminded me of Yasujirō Ozu’s veteran player Chishû Ryû.) Miura’s performance has a reserve of its own, as his confessor and fellow smoker. Chekhov’s play, with all its desperation and regret for missed life chances, has become a touchstone for Yûsuke, and almost a separate character in the movie. What if … Kôji was playing Vanya, not him? What if Kôji was his wife’s partner, not him? What if he had been able to master his feelings, swallow his pride and actively confront his wife with what he knew about her secret erotic life and how much he had been hurt by it? Would this blaze of attempted honesty have saved their relationship? Or destroyed it?
And all the time, Misaki is growing in importance, and in the film’s extraordinary final section, her story is told; a story that need not thematically dovetail with everything that has gone before, other than to show us once again, that other people’s lives are complicated and withheld, and that we are being arrogant if we think that we know everything there is to know about the people that we meet.
Drive My Car is an expansion of a short story, and perhaps it’s true to say that Hamaguchi’s storytelling aesthetic here, as in his other films, is a mosaic or choreography of short stories, an archipelago of lives. Yûsuke, Oto, Kôji and Misaki are living their own stories, and the drama superimposes and overlaps them like a Venn diagram. And there is something very moving when we close in on one particular tale, one life. It is an engrossing and exalting experience.
• Drive My Car screened on 11 July at the Cannes film festival and is released on 19 November in the UK.