Chekhov is terrifying: Drive My Car (2021)


According to Fandango, it’s been 2.5 months since I was at the movies (about the time that Omicron started gathering speed here), to see House of Gucci (a mixed pleasure). In contrast, Drive My Car — an adaptation of some stories from a Haruki Marukami book that surpasses the original, but equally of Uncle Vanya — was a rip-roaring return that reminded me why it’s worth it to go to the movies.

In the first third of the film, we see the relationship between the Kafukus — Yusuke, an actor, and his wife Oto, a screenwriter. In the second two thirds, we see Mr. Kafuku as he directs a production of Vanya at a theater festival in Hiroshima; some mines laid in the relationship then explode during the preparation of the play. The plot, while at times gut-wrenching in its revelations (the reason why I am not giving more details, as I suspect most readers will not have seen it yet), is effectively balanced with insights about acting and theater that are equally comments on life and (especially) loss. The film got much-deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and it’s clearly the best of the nominated films that I’ve seen. By miles.

One of the film’s main themes is Kafuku’s directorial approach to classic theater, which we see at the beginning. In a scene from Waiting for Godot, each actor in the drama speaks his own native language and the audience follows the whole thing in supertitles. We see an audition for Vanya and a number of rehearsals, which make it clear how a company of actors works to draw out the feelings of the text, first into their own experiences and then into something for the audience. The intentional placement of obstacles to their communication makes them work just that much harder. Kafuku’s approach means that the actors are more than usually dependent on facial expression and gesture to communicate their sentiments and work on each other, in particular as Sonia is played by an actor who signs her lines in Korean Sign Language. But the first step for Kafuku is the text: he wants the words to filter into the actors’ subconscious, so rehearsals involve a very particular style of speech that is almost hypnotic. In a key scene in the film, he tells one of the actors in his play that he can’t perform Chekhov anymore — the lines “drag out the real you.” In the same scene, Kafuku comments on the ideal temperament of the actor.

But privately, Kafuku is still working his way through the Vanya text, with long stretches of him reciting Vanya’s lines against a recording of the play that his wife made. When his routine is complicated by the unwelcome introduction of a driver into his routine, another dimension is added to the script by the new character’s personal narrative, which connects with Kafuku’s on an emotional level. Crisis strikes and the two go on a journey together where both sort out the role that their own failures have played in the losses that torture them both. It was a dollop of cream on top that I think I have now seen a version of the ending scene of Vanya that emotionally convinced me, that didn’t seem like just so much more gaslighting. When Kafuku lets the actor playing Sonia “drag out the real” him, I grasp the real tragedy at the core of the play more fully than I ever have before. As punishing as Kafuku’s approach has been, so rewarding the result for the spectator: Vanya’s mid-life crisis finally seems real, rather than just another manifestation of his self-indulgence.

Yes, it’s three hours long, and yes, it’s heavily subtitled. This didn’t bother me as there isn’t a lot of complicated speech. I also suspect that this film will mean a lot more to people who are familiar with Vanya, although this is probably not a difficulty for Armitage fans.

This is really a film Richard Armitage should see — and not just because of Vanya.

~ by Servetus on March 2, 2022.

18 Responses to “Chekhov is terrifying: Drive My Car (2021)”

  1. I liked Uncle Vanya and not only because of Richard’s performance, I bought the audiobook Chekhov’s stories just after (I have a problem now not finding the new audioboooks read by Richard in mp3 cd format so that I can cycle or do weight while listening to these and partcicularly the joy ellis’ ones that I love) and I must say that I delve rather easily into this “universe” both cerebral and visceral, full of nostalgy or melancholy, thank you for sharing.


  2. That sounds like a fascinating film. I have not heard of it – but I am also not keeping up-to-date with the Oscar nominations. The native language approach sounds like an interesting premise. Thanks for your review – I’ll definitely watch out whether I can catch this film somewhere (if it is not too late already).


    • This film never would have come here had it not been nominated, so maybe someone will bring it back in your large, much more cosmopolitan city. (It’s also streaming starting later this week, i think, but not on a service I subscribe to.) I really loved this. It actually managed to drown my preoccupation with Ukraine temporarily.


      • Grah, I don‘t believe it. Just checked and it seems tonight was the last showing of the film in Dublin… 😡 Here‘s hoping it‘ll make it onto a streamer, soon.


        • naturally. That kind of thing happens to me all the time, too. Definitely keep looking for it. It starts streaming here on HBO Max today. I have not had a very good experience streaming these Oscar nominated films. I have a comfortable place to sit and a reasonably large screen, but if I get annoyed with the film or get interrupted, it’s just too easy to turn it off and never come back. That’s happened with both “Power of the Dog” and “Nightmare Alley” on this cycle. To be fair I’d probably have left the theater with “Nightmare Alley” any way, but I might have a more complete judgment of “Power of the Dog.”

          “Drive My Car” is a pretty contemplative movie. There’s no way a US film maker would get to make a movie that long on this kind of subject. So if I had to watch it at home, I’d make sure I’d be interruption-free and had been to the bathroom before it started.


  3. edited to make the spelling of “Kafuku” consistent and correct. I remember thinking during the film that the way they say it sounds like “Kafka.”


  4. I really liked the look of Drive My Car so feel even more encouraged after your review, and glad you enjoyed it. I was disappointed by Nightmare Alley, I expected much more of it but found it rather pedestrian.


    • I have seen two of Guillermo del Toro’s movies and they were both too slow. This was also on a topic I tend not to like, and then it just got too violent for me. I maybe should see the original, which I imagine (Hays Code-era) was maybe not so gory. I ended up seeing it b/c it was streamable and it got nominated for an Oscar. The only positive thing I have so say about it is that Cate Blanchett really looked good in the film (and probably could have been a huge noir star, back in the day).


      • I loved Pan’s Labyrinth and enjoy funfair/carnival settings in films so was expecting much more – and yes Cate Blamchett was the best thing in it, slinking and slithering round the set. I vaguely remember the original with Tyrone Power, and that it was more coherent, but not the level of gore.


        • I just looked — the 1947 film was 40 minutes shorter! That would have helped a lot. LOL. And they couldn’t have shown that much gore or open violence on screen in ’47.

          Last year when I watched “The Searchers” with my students in a class, I had to explain this, how the business model used to assume that all films played to a more general audience, and how the Hays Code meant that a lot of plot elements had to happen by implication. It really seemed to stun a few of them.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I avoided reading your take until seeing it last night. I’d wanted to see this film for awhile, so the buildup for me was big and it more than met my expectations. Thanks for your observations. Yes, I’ve been wondering for some time if Richard and others involved in that UV production have seen and discussed this film at all. I was quite taken with the multilingual approach to UV and all it implied, and spent some time afterward poking around to see if this was really a thing in theater (it is, even though rare).

    I do wish I had seen it on the big screen, but I went the HBOMax route and am just glad I finally saw it at all. It’s been showing in my town since the holidays, but (like you) I avoided the theater during Omicron. And just when I was comfortable going back, it started streaming, and since I have HBOMax I couldn’t justify buying a ticket.


  6. This really does sound good! I will check it out as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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