Wednesday 1 August 2012
(Cristián Jiménez, 2011) It's a confident film that tells you what is going to happen at the end right at the start. Or maybe just a complex one. Cristián Jiménez's Bonsái happens to be both confident and complex. Based on the novel by Alejandro Zambra, it is unashamedly literary, and that device - revealing a climactic narrative point in the first scene through a voiceover by a narrator who doesn't feature in the rest of the film - feels like a literary one, establishing the voice of this film straight away. Bonsái is a romance of sorts, following Julio (Diego Noguero), an aspiring twentysomething writer in Santiago, through his daily life. He sleeps with his neighbour Blanca (Trinidad González), works in a bookshop and applies for the job of typing up the transcript of the famous novelist Gazmuri's new book. He is unsuccessful in this application but pretends to Blanca that he has gotten the job and begins to write his own novel in longhand, which he can then type out and claim as Gazmuri's. In flashbacks to his time in University we see Julio meet and fall in love with Emilia (Natalia Galgani) and realise that the novel he is writing is about this relationship, from which he has never quite recovered. This story allows Jiménez to tackle literature and it's role in our lives as a theme - Proust is quoted, cited and teased by the film, and Julio seems somehow to be using books as a shelter, preventing him from fully embracing adult life and letting go of his College years. The central love story is sensually charged and given the kind of earnest adolescent seriousness that is instantly recognisable but also redolent of a dozen classic art films. There is a pleasing touch of the nouvelle vague here, both in the way Jiménez shoots a love scene using jump cuts and in the thematic entwining of love and art. Also pleasing is the strand of dry black comedy running through the narrative, which often verges over into a poignant melancholy; from Diego explaining the sunburnt chest with the imprint of the Proust he suffered after falling asleep reading on a beach to Emilia on their first encounter to the painful disintegration of their relationship is a distance nicely bridged by the film. The death of a relationship is beautifully evoked, without melodrama or anything too obvious. Jiménez is subtle. His lovers argue about kissing and Jiménez starkly depicts their new distance through the contrast of the distance between their bodies as they sleep together. The bonsái plant of the title is an obvious (and again, very literary) metaphor, but it has a duel purpose here, explicitly - and contentiously, between the characters - symbolising the struggle for survival of a relationship, while also suggesting the way a writer of fiction prunes away fact, twisting and manipulating reality into something he finds more appealing. Julio learns about his relationship with Emilia by turning it into a book - the moment when Blanca tells him something about his own story he himself has not realised is a lovely one, and there is the optimistic sense at the end of the film that he may finally be ready to get on with his life. It is a clever, touching, nicely observed story which does a good job of balancing the headily youthful swoon of first love with the quieter disappointment of life a few years later, when optimism has faded and reality sets in. Jiménez directs the whole thing with a precise feel for the tone and emotion of each scene, but he also has a fine sense for texture and place and lets loose a few jolts of pure, exuberant style which makes Bonsái an exhilarating piece of personal cinema. It's one of those films where scenes of a lone character wandering a city and sitting at cafe tables are never boring but instead feel like snatched, true moments of everyday life in all its small beauty. There is never a false note from any of his cast.