[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
The plot of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car revolves around a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Because each player performs in his or her native tongue, it is not enough to simply memorize the lines; they must know and understand the text on a spiritual level, thus allowing them to listen and respond to their costars, rather than just waiting for their cues.
It is, in short, a film about communication.
This theme permeates every facet of the narrative. The protagonist is a stage actor and director. His wife, a television screenwriter, composes her stories in a sort of hazy, dreamlike post-coital trance; she depends on him to recall the finer details in the morning. In exchange, she records herself reading the various supporting parts in his plays so that he can rehearse during his long commutes to and from the theater. This creative symbiosis has kept their marriage alive following the tragic death of their daughter, but the specter of infidelity lurks beneath the placid surface of their relationship. He is painfully aware of her disloyalty, but refuses to risk alienating her by acknowledging it—even when confronted with irrefutable evidence of the affair (glimpsed only fleetingly through reflective surfaces—a recurring visual motif that clearly conveys the character’s fundamental inability to accept the truth).
That is where the poetry of Drive My Car resides: in words unspoken, in conflicts unresolved, in grief never properly expressed. The result is an exquisitely quiet, subtle, intimate drama. In less capable hands, the three-hour running time might have felt bloated and unwieldy; much like the eponymous taciturn chauffeur, however, Hamaguchi’s razor-focused, self-assured artistic vision ensures that the viewer barely notices the minutes ticking by.