Processing Grief: “Drive My Car” and “The Lost Daughter”

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura in Ryusuke Hamaguchi “Drive My Car”

The Holiday Season: festive lights, families gathering, and grief. Yes, this is both the merriest time and a time to remember those we’ve lost. It can be a stressful time for people who feel forced to put on a cheerful demeanor. There’s so much jolliness and so little space for real reflection or room for processing the trauma of not having family or friends to gather together, or being apart due to COVID-restrictions and many other reasons. Fortunately, the cathedral of cinema welcomes all.

Yes, there’s a new Spidey film and you can run away to the Matrix. There’s a few animated films to take the kiddos to and many films flickering briefly on the big screen before disappearing into The Stream. Two very different art-house films are worth seeking out for those looking for stories that challenge pre-conceived notions of motherhood, relationships and grief. The Japanese film, “Drive My Car” is a 3-hour tour de force that’s a quiet powerhouse of a film. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” takes you on a Greek vacation fraught with unresolved trauma.

Both films are based on books. “Drive My Car” is a based on a short story from Japanese writer, Haruki Murikami, from his 2014 book Men Without Women. “The Lost Daughter” is from the Italian writer who’s nom de plume is Elena Ferrante.

Olivia Colman in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter”

Two seemingly very different stories and settings; a Japanese actor/director staging a Chekov play in Hiroshima and a professor on a working vacation at a seaside resort. Yet both of these films are exploring gender roles: what it is to be a husband or to be a mother, and reveal characters coping with grief and trauma. Strangers meet and share emotional moments and there’s an unexpected resolution before life resumes.

There’s an unusual start to the Japanese film, “Drive My Car” — you dropped right into a story in progress. No title sequence, no soft fade in, you’re inside a car with a couple. Get settled in, this opening is an intimate look at how this couple leads their lives. She’s a storyteller (Reika Kirishima) who spins her tale during intercourse and reveals the plot twist after orgasm. And then seemingly forgets most of it. Her husband, Yûsuke Kafuku (masterfully played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) then recounts her story to her so she can write the screenplay. They seem to have a loving relationship until there’s a twist.

And, an hour in and there’s finally the Title Sequence. Now, either you’re intrigued and want to see where this unusual story is headed…or you’ve had enough and leave the theater. For a film that has death, sex, grief and exotic locations, “Drive My Car” is a quiet movie. There are a lot of shots inside cars, long takes of our lead walking down hallways or opening doors. The story remains centered on our couple till the twist in the plot and then Kafuku leaves that city behind. And seemingly, his former life as well.

In Hirosima, we meet the cast of Kafuku’s new production of Uncle Vanya. He’s now the director and not acting in the play. The story expands to enfold these intriguing new characters and Kafuku’s driver, Mitsaki (Tôko Miura) becomes a pivotal fulcrum. As new connections are made amongst the cast, we learn more about the quiet, competent Mitsaki. She gains Kafuku’s trust and then affection. Their conversations on the long drives reveal their feelings of guilt over a loved one’s death.

The production ends with a melancholy but spiritual line that reads all the more profound for being signed: “…we’ll bear patiently the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others now and in our old age without ever knowing any rest, and when our hour comes, we’ll die humbly…we will rest.” The film has a more uplifting ending for it seems that Kafuku and Mitsake have healed and moved on. There’s a dog in the car as Mitsake returns with groceries, implying that they’ve created a family. A quietly powerful film that speaks to the realization that you can forgive those you love, even as they act in unsavory ways. They will move forward and leave behind the regret–like the flowers they left behind in the snow.

There are regrets aplenty in “The Lost Daughter“. What begins as an idyllic seaside vacation is, like the beautiful bowl of fruit in the villa, revealed to be rotting. The peace is broken by a loud extended family from Queens, an almost comical appearance of characters akin to “The Real Housewives” or “The Jersey Shore”. Lots of gold chains, talking with their hands, and loud voices. Leda, a professor from Harvard, is played by the masterful Olivia Colman. Every boisterous argument or celebration is an affront to her. She reacts as if it’s an invasion on what’s become her beach and refuses to move her chair to accomodate them.

There’s a young mother struggling with her daughter. Her behavior triggers memories for Leda. Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut, trusts that the audience will understand that the flashbacks Leda sees are of her younger self. The two actresses, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, look nothing alike. Nor do they seem to share any of the same mannerisms. To continue with the fruit metaphor, young Leda peels an orange for her daughers in a single spiral as they chant: “like a snake, don’t let it break”. Leda’s struggling to get any work done with two daughters at home; one of them a headstrong young lady who’s very needy of her mother’s attention. This behavior is mirrored in the present with a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson) dealing with her clingy young daughter.

As Leda learns more about the family, she feels a kinship with Nina and tells her, “Children are a crushing responsibility”. She tries to befriend her but the closer they become, the more Leda remembers her troubled past. Leda is having fainting spells and they seem triggered by the memories of leaving her daughters. This is a complex woman. She acts in childish and hurtful ways and spurns the attentions of the older caretaker (Ed Harris, looking his age) of the villa.

“The Lost Daughter” presents a more complex picture of motherhood. Instead of the romanticized view of a doting Mom, we see the stress of a working woman. Here’s the torment of losing your sense of self and the feeling of never having any space or freedom. In a flashback, we see young Leda having an almost rapturous experience meeting a kindred soul. She becomes enamored of another woman who’s traveling unburdened by children; living her best life. And later, young Leda’s seen pursuing an affair with a like-minded colleague who admires her work. She moves out to pursue her career, leaving her young daughters behind in the care of her husband and her mother.

Back in the present, Leda arranges a meeting with Nina to allow her to use the villa for an affair. When Leda reveals that she’s taken the child’s doll, Nina is furious. Instead of the confidant she’s appeared to be, Leda shows herself to be unstable and untrustworthy. After the confrontation, Leda becomes unmoored. Leda is injured but kicks her luggage down the stairs and drive erratically into the night. The film ends with her waking on the beach. She’s miraculously found an orange, and carries on a conversations with her daughter as she peels it. It’s as if she’s exorcised her trauma and grief over leaving her daughters. It’s an ambiguous ending but perhaps what was lost is now found.

Drinks with Films Ratings:

5 Sake (out of 5) “Drive My Car” makes me want to find Ryusuke Hamaguchi other film, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” also released this year. This is clearly a masterful filmmaker who’s work I must pursue.

4 1/2 glasses of Italian wine (out of 5) “The Lost Daughter” may be Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut but I know it won’t be the last. A great cast, cinematography and soundtrack. Olivia Colman is phenomenal.

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