wed 23/09/2020

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Bonsai

Bonsai

Bittersweet tale of Proust, pot plants and doomed love

I can't leave until I find my Ramones T-shirt. Natalia Galgani as Emilia

One of the most refreshing aspects of current Latin American cinema, most evident in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, is a particular brand of off-beat romantic comedy – one with echoes of the literate and quirky US independents of the Eighties and Nineties, of Hartley, Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo, but laced with melancholy and shards of realism that are specifically Latin.

One of the most refreshing aspects of current Latin American cinema, most evident in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, is a particular brand of off-beat romantic comedy – one with echoes of the literate and quirky US independents of the Eighties and Nineties, of Hartley, Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo, but laced with melancholy and shards of realism that are specifically Latin.

Bonsai, from Chile, is a delightful example of this. Adapted from Alejandro Zambra’s novella by writer/director Cristián Jiménez, it is an individual and wonderfully playful film, teasing us with intimations of rom-com, before becoming something more complex, thoughtful and profound.

It starts with the first meeting between awkward, listless Julio (Diego Noguera) and sultry, spiky Ramones fan Emilia (Natalia Galgani), fellow literature students who lie to each other at a party about having read Proust, but are honest about their instant attraction. They start a relationship.

Jiménez keeps us constantly on our toes, with literary references and running motifs

We then fast forward eight years, to a point when that relationship is long over. Julio’s passive gait is now accompanied by a touch of world-weariness; whereas before he seemed inchoate, here life seems to have taken a toil. He’s still lying to girlfriends. When Julio is interviewed by a famous author, Gazmuri, for the job of typing up the latter’s new novel, he excitedly tells his neighbour and lover Blanca (Trinidad González). When he fails to get the job, he doesn’t have the heart to tell her; instead, he starts writing the manuscript himself – using the starting point of Gazmuri’s novel to write his own story, about the rise and fall of his relationship with Emilia. And this, every evening, is the manuscript that he brings home to type.

Hereon the film flits between the past and present, the first love and the new. As Blanca reads the latest instalment of what she thinks is Gazmuri’s novel – critiquing its surprisingly poor writing, but developing style – she is unaware of what it actually represents, namely the memories that endanger her own relationship. For Julio, the book becomes the tool with which he will finally come to terms with the past, allowing him to mature as a person and as a writer – proving Proust’s assertion, perhaps, that “happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind”.

Much of Bonsai is played as charming comedy, with some great, laugh-out-loud moments, such as the young Julio’s attempt to read Proust on the beach, which merely leads to a book-shaped white space on his sun-tanned body. But the film also ponders serious themes – the uncontrollable, often seemingly illogical flight paths of love, the sifting sands between reality and fiction, truth and lies.

In the course of all this, Jiménez keeps us constantly on our toes, with literary references and running motifs. The time-shifting structure is admirably straight-forward, while the attention to detail spans the Ramones T-shirt that does stand the test of time, to the presence of plants as first a destructive, and finally rejuvenating force (we learn a fair bit about bonsai maintenance), to the different effects that the same night club can have on a couple, depending on their rapport.

If Noguera’s studied feebleness can be a little irritating, Galgani, with far fewer scenes, presents considerable depth to a striking, enormously attractive individual whose public exterior belies her vulnerability.

The film opens with a spoiler, a voiceover telling us that Emilia will die, leaving Julio alone. It’s a sign of the film’s hold on us that it is easy to forget this fact and become absorbed to the point that, when she does die, it feels as much a shocking body blow for us as for Julio himself.

Watch the trailer for Bonsai

 

It teases us with intimations of rom-com, before becoming something more complex, thoughtful and profound

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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