Dive My Car | reviewed my Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | June 2022

The Play's the Thing
Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers

Miles David Moore

A performance of a classic play is the main action of one much-honored recent movie, Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car, and a major subtext in another, Almodovar's Parallel Mothers.  Director-screenwriters Hamaguchi and Almodovar use the theme of theater to create stories of great nuance and depth, exploring the mysteries of the human heart and—in Almodovar's case—the tragedies of Spanish history.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Drive My Car revolves around an experimental, multilingual performance at a Hiroshima theater festival of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.  The director, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), has played Vanya and is an acknowledged expert on the play.  He insists on staying at a hotel an hour from the theater, so he can practice his ritual of playing a cassette in his car of his late wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) speaking the lines of Sonya, with himself answering as Vanya.  However, the festival's rules mandate that he have a driver, and the organizers assign a young woman, Misaki (Toko Miura), to drive Yusuke.

From the film's prologue, we know that Yusuke has glaucoma in one eye, which makes him resent Misaki's presence as a reminder of his encroaching disability.  We also know that Oto was having an affair with a young actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), just before her death.  When Takatsuki—who has no idea Yusuke knows about the affair—auditions for the play, Yusuke casts him as Vanya, though Takatsuki is too young for the role.  The other actors had expected Yusuke to cast himself.

Drive My Car progresses from there, with more characters and more unexpected corners in its plot than can be discussed in an average-sized review.  Hamaguchi's opening gambit must be noted: Oto, a screenwriter, gets her best story ideas during sex with Yusuke and relates them to him.  Hamaguchi also reveals during the film that a major character has a volatile temper, which becomes a crucial plot point toward the end.  Thus he follows Chekhov's classic dictum: if you wave a gun in the first act, it must go off in the second.


It becomes apparent that Uncle Vanya is both a touchstone and a millstone for Yusuke.  "Chekhov is terrifying," he says at one point.  "Whenever you say his lines, it drags out the real you."  Specific lines spoken by Vanya haunt him:  "For twenty-five years he's been pretending to be someone he's not," and "That woman's fidelity is a lie through and through." It takes a spur-of-the-moment overnight drive, to Misaki's ruined home village in wintry Hokkaido, to bring catharsis to Yusuke.  In the bargain, he learns some things about Misaki that reveal her to be as complicated, and as
tragic, as any Chekhovian heroine.

With a running time of three hours, Drive My Car is not for the impatient.  It is thematically and emotionally complex, dependent on quiet revelations of character for its impact.  Speaking for myself, Hamaguchi had me from the opening scene, with a naked Oto waking in a violet dawn in her and Yusuke's high-windowed bedroom, relating her latest story idea.  The story—about a teenage girl who becomes obsessed with a classmate and breaks into his bedroom when she knows he won't be home—is mysterious, erotic.  She does not finish the story, and it remains unfinished—so far as Yusuke knows—at her death.  It is not till much later that, when he least expects it, he learns the end. This storyline is only one of many reasons why Drive My Car is a hypnotic, immersive experience.  Drive My Car won the Best International Feature Film Oscar, as well as the Best Foreign Film Golden Globe and Best Screenplay at Cannes.  It is hard to think of a more deserving winner in any filmmaking year.

Another play—Garcia Lorca's Dona Rosita the Spinster—figures in Parallel Mothers.  Teresa (Altana Sanchez-Gijon), mother of Ana (Milena Smit), stars in a production of Dona Rosita.  This is not the center of the film's plot, but the identity of the playwright is significant.


Parallel Mothers begins with Janis (Penelope Cruz), a magazine photographer in Madrid, doing a photo shoot of forensic archeologist Arturo (Israel Elijalde).  Janis has a favor to ask of Arturo: could his foundation excavate the suspected mass grave of her great-grandfather and other men from her hometown, all of whom were murdered at the start of the Spanish Civil War?  Arturo makes no promises but says he will take up the subject with his board of directors.  One thing leads to another, and soon Janis and Arturo are sharing a bed.

Janis becomes pregnant.  Arturo has a wife, so marriage is out of the question.  Janis decides to have and keep the baby.  In the hospital she befriends her roommate Ana, a teenager whose delivery is also imminent.  Ana does not wish to discuss the circumstances of her pregnancy and has a strained relationship with Teresa, who visits her.  Teresa is touring Spain in the role of Dona Rosita, and Ana resents her prolonged absences.  

Janis' daughter Cecilia and Ana's daughter Anita are born on the same day.  Months after the births, Arturo shows up at Janis' apartment, asking to see Cecilia. When he sees the baby, he insists she looks nothing like him and that she can't be his.  Janis throws him out, but later, on her own, she decides to have a blood test.  What she discovers is earth-shattering; not only is Arturo not Cecilia's father, but Janis is not her mother.  Several plot twists later, the apparent conclusion is confirmed: Cecilia and Anita were accidentally switched in the hospital.

From this revelation Parallel Mothers progresses.  The story allows Almodovar to pursue some of his favorite themes: the festering of long -kept secrets; the grief and guilt faced by women in general and mothers in particular; the bitter, lingering wounds left by the Spanish Civil War and the long, evil reign of Franco.  How well Almodovar ties these themes together at the end is debatable, but that he has made an engrossing and often powerful film is not.  His final image at a gravesite is unforgettable,
a reminder of Faulkner's aphorism that the past is not dead or even past.  The murdered men of the war, starting with Garcia Lorca whose remains have never been found, will always be with Spain.


To say what happens to Janis after her discovery, in her dealings first with Ana and then with Arturo, would reveal too much. I can tell you that Cruz, who is in nearly every scene, gives a masterful, moving performance that more than justified her Best Actress Oscar nomination.  The rest of the cast matches her.  Sanchez-Gijon has a striking scene in the film's midpoint, confessing to Janis her remorse for putting her career above her daughter.  But hers is only one of many distinguished performances in Parallel Mothers, some only a minute or two in duration.

The past several years have given us some great screenwriting: Belfast, The Father, Hell or High Water, 12 Years a Slave, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Spotlight, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, Parasite, Roma, Cold War, Promising Young Woman, The Power of the Dog.  Drive My Car and Parallel Mothers not only rank among the best-written films of those years, but merit comparison with the work of the playwrights they honor.  Like Chekhov and Garcia Lorca, Hamaguchi and Almodovar understand the worlds that are contained in a well-crafted line and a well-drawn character. Their films demonstrate that understanding, and reinforce the simple truth that cinema, first and foremost, is theater.  In an age of CGI spectaculars, it is good to see that the play is still the thing.



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Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2022 Miles David Moore
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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