I used to hate Russian literature. The specific way its characters careen through their emotions and lives always reminded me of the storied Russian habit of getting drunk and trying to mess around with bears, like Pierre in War and Peace; or, at the right bar, getting the bear drunk instead.
In high school, I watched Vanya on 42nd Street, a movie that reunites Wallace Shawn with his companion from My Dinner with Andre, André Gregory, and a small handful of actors in a rotting old Ziegfeld theater. With the help of David Mamet’s translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the supreme unhappiness and self-destruction of every single human in the play translates perfectly into the supreme unhappiness of squabbling actor-y New York discontent. Wallace-Vanya feels he’s wasted his life, and when he tries to shoot the husband of the woman who’s rejected him for yet another man, it’s clear he’s representing exactly the place where Norman Mailer stabs his wife at a party and no one thinks it’s a big deal.
I can’t stress enough how viscerally I disliked this movie. No one was happy and no one was trying to be, and they weren’t even enjoying their misery. Between this, Tolstoy’s callous murder of Prince Andrei, and a youthful inability to understand the motivations of even one character in the Brothers Karamozov, I rejoiced in the idea that a body of literature devoted to drunken bear people drowning in discontent could reasonably be ignored. I therefore happily exchanged it for a long spell with the relative coolness of Greek tragedy. Stylized reminders not to kill your father and marry your mother: now that was art. At least there, murder ended in regret.
My best film-friend told me recently that I’d probably like Drive My Car, so I blithely went to see it. If I’d known it contained Uncle Vanya as play-within-play, I might not have been so ready. But he pointed out to me the delightful phenomenon of the film’s popularity: people right now are actually going to see “a three hour atmospheric foreign film! Released by Janus! In Japanese!” Actual good art that immediately lands as legitimately pleasant to a lot of people right away is rare. Ok I thought, this sounds good. It seemed to promise the sort of restrained pathos I could get behind.
Drive My Car has two distinct parts, the first detailing the demise of a Tokyo marriage between an actor-director and his screenwriter wife who continually cheats on him, which ends abruptly with the unexpected death of the wife. The second part — the harder, longer part — is where the actor-director Kafuku goes to Hiroshima to direct a version of Uncle Vanya. While Kafuku is known for taking the title role in the past, the play now is too emotional — in an earlier production in Tokyo, he leaves the stage in anguish after Vanya’s line “that woman's fidelity is a lie through and through.” So in Hiroshima, Kafuku gives the role of Vanya to one of his dead wife’s ex-lovers — only to have to take it back when the ex-lover kills another man. Oh yes, and for somewhat obscure reasons the theater requires him to have a driver, but this too works out well in the end.
The film is exquisite. The careful quietness of the pace, the exchange of the elegant busy-ness of Tokyo for the seaside of Hiroshima, the slow burn of the deepening friendship between the actor-director and driver Misaki is exactly the sort of thing that I look for in films. But the film is also about an abundance of grief. Not only about grief for Kafuku’s marriage or the death of his wife, but also the grief of Misaki for her dead, abusive, and possibly multiple-personality-disorder mother, and the grief of the actor playing Vanya’s niece Sonya, Lee Yoon-a, a dancer who found herself unable to dance after a miscarriage. All this, and for Hiroshima too: the miasma of suffering that the nuclear atrocity left there provides inhuman-human counterpart to individual suffering, a subtext of impossible regret for impossible waste, slowed down to the hypnotic pace of Vanya, long road trips, and slowly starting to love.
There is wildness in the grief in Vanya, a great inhuman madness, a grief that without anywhere to go, burns itself up in wasteful passion, in aimless attempts at murder and self-harm.
Re-reading Uncle Vanya again, when everyone else is trying to cancel all of Russian literature, on the other side of a dead-as-a-doornail marriage myself, is now an excruciating pleasure instead of simply excruciating. The play is set on a farm no one wants to be on. Everyone is bored on the farm; the entire second act takes place in communal insomnia. They drink vodka at daybreak. They joke about how many trees they are cutting down, complain how all the money goes to the bored and lazy gentry. Dr. Astrov, Vanya’s rival for Yelena, brags about preserving the forest, predicting that if he can succeed in saving enough, in a thousand years he’ll have made mankind happy. The dramatic irony of his boast, on the other side of the atomic bomb and climate change, is unbearable. At the end of the play, in order to escape the tumult of the farm, the gentry depart, ironically, for Kharkiv, Ukraine, leaving Vanya and Sonya forever behind in the depths of their loneliness and shared sense of wasted life.
There is wildness in the grief in Vanya, a great inhuman madness, a grief that without anywhere to go, burns itself up in wasteful passion, in aimless attempts at murder and self-harm. Sonya, who has to give up the most while being culpable for the least, is the moral center of the play; but each production gets to choose whether her attempt to console Vanya for their suffering in the final lines is real, or lost in some still more painful irony. In Wallace Shawn’s Vanya, the actors gripe and complain their way through Chekhov’s lines, they feel the depth of the passions they are enacting, but they still sit on the surface of their grief. There’s something about it they can’t admit; so they can’t do anything about it.
In Drive My Car, Kafuku’s directorial obsession is the pace of the lines, that each sentence comes slowly, quietly, and relentlessly, a pace only possible when the actors give themselves fully to the text; this is director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s method as well. This process happens not without a certain danger: as Kafuku puts it, “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it drags out the real you. Don’t you feel it?” But even Kafuku’s wife’s ex-lover finds a relief from the weight of the homicide he committed at a Hiroshima bar, as he finally allows himself to lean into the expiation of the emptiness of his life that the play holds out for him. Kafuku’s rhythm slows the feverishness of Chekhov’s play into real contemplation, and so offering something like Greek catharsis, but achieved via the intimacy of the Russian mood where suffering is always personal.
There’s a secret to grief, and it’s not for everyone, that sometimes after much suffering by you at the hands of other people you love, what bothers you the most is not being cheated on or being abused by your parent, but what you did about it before they died or went away. Everything you didn’t say, everything you didn’t try to prevent, hangs more heavily in the loss and absence of them. Shifting from imagining ever more wildly transgressive versions of the wrongdoer to the immediacy of what you yourself are personally responsible for can sometimes bring an odd sort of relief. Dostoevsky’s Zosima argues that “everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything;” Kafuku’s version is more localized. “If I were your father,” he tells Misaki, once she’s confessed she was unable to help as she watched her abusive mother perish in a landslide, “I'd hold you round the shoulders and say, ‘It's not your fault.’ ‘You did nothing wrong.’ But I can't say that. You killed your mother, and I killed my wife.” Misaki responds with relieved finality: “Yes.”
In one sense, this guilt is pure hyperbole. Kafuku could not have prevented his wife’s brain hemorrhage by coming home a few minutes earlier; Misaki couldn’t have saved her mother by entering into the landslide herself. But this self-responsibility for regret also captures something of the existential ground of things done and left undone, the latter of which, in contrast to the finitude of one’s bad deeds, will unfortunately always remain infinite. The real actual murderer in Drive My Car is able to forgive himself soon enough. But the infinitude of the undone, of inaction, of hopeless waste, inevitably weighs more heavily than any single deed. This is the same infinitude we contemplate when we contemplate the waste, past or future, real or imagined, of nuclear-scale devastation, something that in one obvious sense is beyond our human ability to comprehend — except that it’s also our constant human task nevertheless to comprehend it, to understand and experience its grief. Not that we might drown ourselves in regret, but just so that we might continue to live, and live not without hope.
At the end of the movie, Kafuku and Lee Yoon-a enact again the final scene of Vanya, where Sonya says what she can to Vanya’s grief, in the hollow space left by the absence of the people they love who will never return. The weight of the three-hour story that Hamaguchi has told has perfectly made space for Sonya’s words to be precisely true: that we must live our lives, and one day, we shall rest. It’s the hope for this rest that allows us to return to the difficult task of living.
What Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning film allows us to see, exactly right now, with its extraordinary blend of bearish grief and dream-like forgiveness, is a way to contemplate our infinite regret at what we are or were unable to do, just at this moment, whether for ourselves and for the globe, in the negotiated space of the nuclear age — and so flip us, the audience, back into our lives, the better to see what we must do, in order to live in war, but still with the hope of peace.
Mary Townsend is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. John’s University.