If you think this is a spoiler, then don’t panic. This is actually the film’s opening gambit, its very first line – because what counts in Chilean director Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái is not the future, but the past. What lies ahead is taken care of from the off; we already know exactly where its characters will wind up. What really matters is the journey that leads us there.
Bonsái is a film about love, life and literature, a tilted hat to youthful pretension, sexual awakenings and intellectual discoveries. The film follows the hapless Julio (Diego Noguera) as he tries to make sense of the world around him and the women in it. Flitting from his college days in Valdivia with the melancholic, kholed-up Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) to his present-day fling with a next-door-neighbour in Santiago, the narrative swings from heavy, all-encompassing, young love to casual, almost uncaring modern-day companionship. From selfish, youthful obsession to give-a-shit adulthood, Bonsái is the story of a man who never truly knows who he is or what he wants.
Present-day Julio, an erstwhile literature student, finds himself commissioned by world-famous author Gazmuri to type up his newest novel. But when he is unceremoniously dropped from the job, Julio runs with the opportunity. Instead of typing up Gazmuri’s novel, he begins to write his own, passing it off to his girlfriend as the great writer’s newest work. But the story he writes and the characters he invents are nothing but ghosts from his past – hazily-recalled memories of his first great love.
The film, adapted from the Aléjandro Zambra novel of the same name, riffs on the ideas of time lost and regained. The spectre of Marcel Proust’s intimidating behemoth of a novel, In Search of Lost Time, hangs over Jiménez’s film as it does Zambra’s novel. It infiltrates its plot, its characters, their preoccupations and their affectations. The opening scenes transport us to a classroom, a literature lesson in Valdivia. ‘Put up your hand,’ says the teacher, ‘if you’ve read Proust.’ A few eager fingers shoot up among the desks, and a crowd of rather hesitant fraudsters follows in their wake. Julio is the last one to raise his hand. He hasn’t read Proust. But Emilia has – or so she claims. So when the two meet at a party, it’s an awkward exchange about a book he’s never read that begins the most important time of Julio’s life.
Julio and Emilia are Chile’s post-dictatorship generation, frustrated by a desire to rebel with nothing to fight back against. They’re not quite sure what they stand for. Passionate but disaffected, they look to the literary greats for inspiration – whether they find it or not is another story. They’re the country’s post-Pinochet come-down, faltering and unsure, still modelling themselves on past masters. Julio, for example, can’t shake the hold Gazmuri has over him – he writes in classroom exercise books with a fountain pen, mimicking the great novelist in the hope of nurturing his own creativity. He’s constantly putting on an act, trying to fool everyone – including himself – that’s he’s the real deal. But it’ll take more than a strategically placed teacup stain and a little smudged ash on a lined page to convince the world of that.
Jiménez does a fantastic job of lining up quirky comedy and meandering melancholy side-by-side. There are moments when you will genuine laugh out loud, and there are points where you’ll clap your hand to your forehead in despair. He slots some absolutely beautiful shots in amongst the crowd – a pair of hands entangled on bright green moss, Emilia stood stock-still under the shower head, clutching a cup of tea. The sex scenes are slow, intimate – flesh against flesh under a peachy, soft light. There’s no eyes-down prudishness here, and the film is all the better for it.
‘Blah blah blah.’ This is the line Julio and Emilia are constantly repeating, whispering it to each other in the bedroom lamplight, sighing it as they roll their eyes on paved street corners. Bonsái is a film about people who struggle to find the words to express themselves. Don’t go expecting guns, explosions and flashy costumes – although there is some fantastic knitwear on show, if that’s your kind of thing. Undeniably sweet but with an awkward acerbic edge, Bonsái is one of those films that doesn’t come along every day. Beautifully shot, perfectly observed and with some fantastically fragile, birdlike performances, Bonsái is a rare treat.
UK Release: 30th March 2012
Contributing Writer: Avalon Lyndon