This week sees the Portland premieres of two of the finest imports of 2021, each a strong candidate to be among the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film. One is from a certified master, the other from a relatively newbie, at least to American audiences, but each probes the intricacies of human relationships with similar precision, aided and abetted by memorable, award-caliber performances.
The subtler, more surprising of the two is Drive My Car, the fourth feature by writer-director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi to receive an American release, and the second to come out in 2021 (the other being Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy). It marks Hamaguchi’s emergence as a mature talent in full command of his storytelling craft. One aspect of that proficiency is that, despite a gentle pace, few moments of action or suspense, and a nearly three-hour running time, Drive My Car holds your attention throughout.
I’ve read some other reviews or descriptions of the film’s plot that openly discuss what happens in the first half hour. If you haven’t, don’t. Even though this extended prologue basically sets the stage for the rest of the story, it contains enough narrative, tension, and emotion to make revealing its twists and turns sort of a spoiler.
Suffice it to say, then, that Drive My Car follows a veteran and respected theater actor and director named Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who arrives in Hiroshima for a two-month residency, during which he is to stage an experimental, multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Yûsuke had requested lodgings some distance from the rehearsal space, since he typically practices his lines in his trusty Saab while driving to and from the theater. But, for insurance liability reasons, the theater company won’t allow him to drive himself and assigns a young woman (Toko Miura) as his chauffeur.
Hamaguchi could easily have told the tale of the inevitable, begrudging, friendship between the aloof intellectual and the taciturn driver in a conventional way, but the tone of the story (adapted and expanded from a short story by Haruki Murakami) and the delicacy of the work by Nishijima and Miura are beguiling. Each character carries their own trauma, and, if anything, Drive My Car is about the power and value of expressing vulnerability.
Meanwhile, rehearsals for Vanya continue, with Yûsuke casting disgraced former TV idol Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) despite his evident disdain for the man’s talent. It turns out Koshi and Yûsuke have history together, one that turns on notions of loyalty and the sources of creativity. If all this seems too vague, it’s just because I don’t want to spoil the ways that each of Yûsuke’s relationships is integrally related to the events of the film’s first act. Maybe it’s enough to just say that one of the great difficulties in adapting literary fiction to the screen is that the interior reality great fiction captures simply can’t be made visible, barring some sort of magic. Drive My Car has that magic. (Opens Friday, Jan. 21, at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre)
FOR ALL THE DELICACY and restraint of its melodrama, Drive My Car is, in some ways, an opposite to Parallel Mothers, the latest overflowing font of maternal fascination from Pedro Almodóvar. As expected, there are color, emotion, plot twists, and the sort of performance from Penelope Cruz that American filmmakers seem incapable of even trying to elicit.
Cruz plays Janis, a middle-aged (but, like, Penelope Cruz middle-aged) photographer who finds herself pregnant following a brief affair with a handsome forensic anthropologist. While in the maternity ward, Janis meets Ana (Milena Smit), another expectant single mom, but one who, unlike Janis, regrets the whole situation. The two bond, in ways that will wax, wane, and deepen over the course of the film.
Again, as with Drive My Car, it feels churlish to say too much about the plotty particulars. The two new mothers drift apart, then back together. There is tragedy. Ana’s mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), closer to Janis’s age, becomes a significant figure, to the degree that Triangulated Mothers would almost be a more appropriate title. Cruz’s performance may be her best, potentially topped only by others she has given for Almodóvar in Volver and All About My Mother. And Smit is a revelation, matching Cruz nearly every step of the way.
Ultimately, the most radical thing about Parallel Mothers is the way Almodóvar incorporates Spanish history. His earliest films were rightly seen as exuberant, angry responses emerging at the end of the Franco regime. As he inevitably moved more into the mainstream, explicit political statements were rare to nonexistent. Here, a subplot about Janis’s efforts to exhume the unmarked mass grave where Republicans, including her grandfather, were executed by Franco’s forces decades ago, provides both moral and narrative weight. (Remember that forensic anthropologist?)
There was a slight worry—at least, I slightly worried—that 2013’s I’m So Excited and 2016’s Julieta marked a period of both qualitative and quantitative decline for Spain’s best filmmaker. But 2019’s Pain and Glory, followed by this effort, demonstrate that Almodóvar has the stamina and the style to churn out superb films like this one for years to come. (Opens Friday, Jan. 21, at Cinema 21)
Of the various view-on-demand arthouse outlets that sprang up or expanded their presence during the pandemic, the most surprisingly sturdy is that of the Metrograph Theater in Manhattan. They’ve nicely curated their own small roster of exclusive titles, and newly added among them is the once-lost, fascinating 1962 feature from Oregon-bred filmmaker James Blue, Olive Trees for Justice. Shot in French-occupied (but not for long) Algeria, Blue’s only fiction film tells the story of an Algerian Frenchman traveling back home to see his dying father and reminiscing about his past and his culture. It’s a startling piece of nerorealism, made more intense by being shot during the Algerian uprising against French colonial rule. It’s only the most significant part of a week-long James Blue retrospective at the Metrograph, which also includes two epic, Frederick Wiseman-esque documentaries made while Blue worked with the Media Center at Houston’s Rice University in the late 1970s, Who Killed the Fourth Ward? and Invisible City, and the 2017 documentary Citizen Blue, which charts the dedicated, mercurial, and sadly truncated career of one of Oregon’s great filmmakers. (Streaming online starting Saturday, Jan. 22, at Metrograph online)
FRANCE IS THE LATEST ATTEMPTED PROVOCATION from French director Bruno Dumont, who once upon a time turned heads (and, occasionally, stomachs) with enfant terrible efforts like La Vie de Jesus and L’humanite. More recently, he’s issued forth the de rigeur two-part Joan of Arc biopic required of all Serious French Filmmakers. Now he has made France, a morality play-slash-media satire starring the lovely Lea Seydoux as France Le Meurs, the country’s most popular TV journalist, someone who seems to combine Megan Kelly with Christiane Amanpour while remaining steadfastly nonpartisan. After a minor traffic mishap in which a young Arab immigrant is injured, though, she begins to reevaluate her life choices, resulting in an increasingly surreal series of events. There are individual moments of sublime dark humor, but if Dumont is trying to make some statement about contemporary French society in general, I didn’t get it. (Opens Friday, Jan. 21, at the Living Room Theaters)