Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Reading Proust in Chile: Bonsai

Modernist literature can be trouble.  It will ultimately undermine Julio and Emilia’s relationship, even though Marcel Proust brought them together in the first place.  Unfortunately, he suspects she was the one when looking back on their brief affair in Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

We are told right up front, one of the former lovers will die and the other will continue living a lonely existence.  As the film opens, Julio and Emilia have been apart eight years.  Sleepwalking through life, Julio interviews for a temp job typing a famous novelist’s longhand manuscript, but prices himself out of the gig.  However, when his neighbor and reluctant girlfriend Blanca shows an interest in the project, Julio starts faking it, passing off his writing as that of the celebrated Gazmuri.  He only learned the bare bones premise, which bears a certain resemblance to his ill-fated relationship with Emilia.

When they met as students of literature, Julio pretends to have read his Proust to impress her.  Reading out loud soon becomes a courtship ritual for them, but a passage from Macedonio Fernández lodges a subconscious impulse that will sabotage their short but intense romance.  While Bonsái seems to establish the objective reality of these flashback scenes, it still plants the seeds of doubt.  Indeed, déjà vu runs rampant as Julio thinly fictionalizes their star-crossed love (or so we assume).

Rather faithfully based on Alejandro Zambra’s novella, Bonsái’s Proust references are clearly not haphazard, consciously alerting viewers to the importance and fallibility of memory in Julio’s reveries.  The past (whether real or imagined scarcely matters) clearly hangs heavily over his present.

Jiménez’s approach is more graceful than gimmicky, preferring subtly to clunky post-modern gamesmanship.  However, the deliberate vacuity of Diego Noguera’s Julio and the self-absorption of his two lovers leave a bit of an emotional void at the heart of the picture.  Still, Hugo Medina, seen briefly as the crucial Gazmuri, brings a welcome zestfulness to the cerebral proceedings.

Rather than a love story, Bonsái is a meditative elegy for love lost.  Despite the problematic characters, there is something universal about their human failings.  A finely crafted director’s film, Bonsái would be a terrible date movie, but it is recommended for those who appreciate sophisticated narratives and Latin American cinema.  It opens this Friday (5/11) in New York at the IFC Center.