SIFF Review: Bonsái dir. Cristián Jiménez (Chile, 2011)

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Diego Noguera and Natalia Galgani take comfort in reading classic literature in Cristian Jimenez's Bonsai, a featured selection of the 38th Annual Seattle International Film Festival
Chile, 92 minutes
Directed by Cristián Jiménez
Starring Diego Noguera, Natalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia

For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say “I’m going to sleep.” And half an hour later, the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book… – Opening passage from the Overture in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way

The above passage plays a pretty central role in establishing the mood and feel of Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái, a rumination on the nature of young love, living in the past, the nature of deceit and loneliness that’s playing during the 2012 SIFF festival. Specifically, it is the sense that our protagonist, Julio (Diego Noguera), finds himself inevitably becoming the focus of his various fictions, both small and large.

The film dispenses with any pretensions at being a traditional boy-meets-girl love story with its opening voiceover narration, which reveals the fate of its central lovers; ensuring that any lingering questions we might have of whether Julio will end up back in the arms of Emilia (Natalia Galgani are ultimately moot. In the end, the fates of Julio and Emilia are fixed, “the rest,” we are assured, “is fiction.”

Once this has been established, the story begins in earnest as we watch Julio commit the first of numerous willful fabrications the characters in Bonsái indulge in. During the first day in a Literature class at University, a professor asks the class if they have read Proust’s IN Search of Lost Time (the first literary allusion in a movie filled with them); like many an unprepared student before them, Julio and Emilia raise their hand. Julio goes about the process of covering his tracks, and in the process meets Emilia at a study session at a friend’s house, which becomes an impromptu party after Emilia reveals her inability to sit still (or simply conform to societal norms). Eventually, the two of them hook up.

Its central relationship established, the movie moves forward eight years and focuses solely on Julio, living alone in Santiago, working as a Latin tutor, and being interviewed by a celebrated Chilean author for a job transcribing the author’s latest novel. Later, Julio informs Blanca (Trinidad Gonzales), his neighbor-with-benefits, that he had received the position, only to have that notion dashed. Faced with telling Blanca that he did not, in fact, land the job with the noted author, Julio instead opts to pretend like everything is fine, substituting his own writing to take the place of the author. As Blanca volunteers to help him with the job, he goes to great lengths to make the job look authentic, basing his story on the author’s inspiration: “the story begins with a man who finds out his former lover has passed away.” Julio uses his experience with Emilia to fuel his fake novel.

From here, the movie goes back and forth through time, alternately focusing on Julio working on the novel and the relationship that the novel is based on. Throughout, we see the pattern and cumulative effect the lies have on the characters. In each instance, the lie occurs in order to cover up something the character wishes were true; we then see life adjusting to the new lie, before we then see the character realize that they’ve painted themselves into a corner and are forced to either endure or change the circumstances. Of the main players, only Barbara seems immune, though this is because her lies are those of omission, and not fabrication. Because of this, she is savvy enough to see the truth in Julio’s story, and what it says about the author (whom she does not suspect is Julio while she’s making the observations). In the past, Julio and Emilia move beyond the bliss of new love and into the slowly exasperating nature of truly knowing each other, not a surprising development, as we’re already familiar with Julio’s future.

Jiménez uses the structure to explore these dynamics in greater detail; what could have been an endless quirk-fest, instead becomes an exploration of two lonely people who don’t really fit in the world, each of them competent enough to seem secure, but whose insecurities keep them from reaching out and connecting, whether to other people or the world around them. At one point, Julio makes as close to a passionate defense as he can muster over the benefits of failure (“are you kidding me?” comes the reply). Emilia and, to a much lesser extent, Blanca are just as solitary and stunted, but Blanca at least begins to move away from such inertia.

Freed from the constraints of plot, Bonsái instead becomes a character study and a literate visual poem about nostalgia and melancholy packed with subtle symbolism. The scene that explains the meaning of the title is a thematically rich moment, one that ripples outward and encompasses the rest of the film in the process. Add to this aesthetic the aforementioned literary allusions, which extend beyond Proust to thematically appropriate references to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, and you have one of the quieter victories to emerge from South America this year.

It is somewhat surprising to learn that this is only Jiménez’s second feature film. While it is too early to tell where his career will head after this movie, Bonsái shows the work of an artist who is unafraid to display his influences and his intelligence proudly.

Bonsái may be seen on Wednesday, May 23rd at the Harvard Exit

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