A- Literary comic drama

  • Written and directed by Cristián Jiménez

Bonsái begins with a spoiler. Before anything else happens, a narrator tells us that Emilia will die before the end of the film, but that Julio will live, and that he will be alone. We’re also told that he had been alone for a long time before her death.

Jiménez’s strangely deadpan comic drama cuts back and forth between two timeframes, placed eight years apart. Writer/director Cristián Jiménez makes sure this doesn’t confuse you. Intertitles, which also function as chapter titles, plainly state "Eight years later" or "Eight years before." And if that isn’t clear enough, the older Julio sports a beard.

In both timeframes, but with different women, Julio deals with romantic love of the passionate, erotic, can’t-keep-your-clothes-on variety. Whether it’s real love or merely bonsailust is hard to say. I’m not sure whether any of the participants worry about that. But not surprisingly, in the later, more mature romance, both partners seem more  matter-of-fact.

The earlier-set story concerns the ill-fated Emilia, whom Julio meets in college. They read to each other in bed, they discuss great literature (mostly Proust), they go to punk-rock concerts. And they enjoy each other’s bodies with the hot single-mindedness of youth. 

The later story is actually more interesting. Now a struggling writer, Julio hopes to get work assisting an established author with his new novel–primarily typing a hand-written manuscript. Overconfident, he tells his current lover (and across-the-hall neighbor) Blanca that he already has the job. When it falls through, Julio keeps up the lie, writing a hand-written manuscript himself so that Blanca can watch him type it into his laptop.

Of course, that means that he’s actually writing a novel to keep up the deception. One wonders if this will be the beginning of a great career.

Jiménez uses a deadpan, matter-of-fact approach that reminded me of early Jim Jarmusch.  The still camera watches through many a straight-on shot, as the characters slightly underplay their parts. Occasional gags remind us that this is a movie. My favorite: In one scene where Julio bikes through traffic, an animated arrow onscreen helps us find him in a crowd.

All of these effects have a way of separating us emotionally from the material, which helps slant this basically serious story in the direction of comedy. And in the direction of simple observation. Aside from the tragic ending (which we know about from the beginning), much of this story involves very common experiences–young love and professional ambitions. Jiménez wants us to study these people more than sympathize with them. And in the study, we see pieces of ourselves.

I saw Bonsái at a press screening prior to its local premiere in the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.