Director: Cristian Jimenez
Screenplay: Cristian Jimenez
Based On A Novel By: Alejandro Zambra
Producers: Bruno Bettati, Julie Gayet, Nadia Turincev
Starring: Diego Noguera, Nathalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 95 min
Cristian Jimenez's Bonsai has been described in several publicity items as a 'slacker romance'. The term 'slacker', popularised by Richard Linklater's 1991 film of that name, has been used previously to define many films and it often sets up (in this viewer at least) expectations of self-conscious quirkiness, cutesy, empty philosophising or, worst of all, tedious cannabis worship. This is, of course, a narrow-minded trigger reflex and there are many films that would fit into the slacker sub-genre that feature none of the above. Bonsai is one of them and it's a whole lot more interesting than my preconceptions predicted (hideous memories of Garden State still loom large!).
Bonsai follows the story of Julio (Diego Noguera) and his romances with two women, seperated by a period of eight years. The first of these romances is with Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), a punk rock fan who shares his obsession with literature. The second is with Blanca (Trinidad Gonzalez), his neighbour and frequent sexual partner. After failing to secure a job transcribing popular novelist Gazmuri's new work, Julio lies to Blanca that he got the job but instead writes his own novel, charting his former relationship with Emilia.
Bonsai's structure is a familiar one, flitting backwards and forwards between the eight year period to build up a clearer picture of how Julio came to be in his current position. However, Bonsai executes it unusually well. Rather than bounce confusingly between time periods with irritating regularity, the film plays out in long passages bookended by the captions '8 Years Later' and '8 Years Earlier'. We spend sufficient time in each time period to almost completely forget the other one exists. The scenes of Julio's student romance with Emilia are especially engaging but the neatest plot point comes when Julio begins giving pages of his novel to Blanca, pretending they are excerpts from Gazmuri's new opus. When he receives negative feedback on the writing and the character's actions, Blanca is unwittingly reviewing both her lover's writing skills and his former relationship.
For all its narrative and structural success, Bonsai doesn't quite manage to avoid all the pitfalls associated with the slacker sub-genre. Slacker films that focus chiefly on one character inevitably end up sharing that character's sluggish, non-commital rhythm and, while this can be successful, sometimes it becomes wearing too. Strong characters are needed to help make the everyday routines of slackers interesting and, unfortunately, Bonsai doesn't really have those either. Instead, it seems committed to a terminally deadpan delivery from all its characters which makes them hard to read or identify with. Directors have pulled off this deadpan approach with the help of strong dialogue (witness the films of Hal Hartley, for example) but Jimenez's dialogue is also uneven. Though sometimes ingenious, it also feels straitjacketed by its attempts to capture a sense of the mundane so extreme that it becomes unrealistic. Before they make love for the first time, Julio and Emilia discuss tea, only to fall into each other's arms with seemingly no provocation at all. Perhaps this is realistic in a sense but the embrace and subsequent sex scene don't feel earned.
With characters I felt nothing for and whose lives were of little interest to me, Bonsai was never going to become a favourite of mine. And yet the film did extremely well at holding my attention. There were, for sure, moments when I really wanted this relatively short film to end. But these were fleeting because some little detail directed with aplomb would always emerge to awaken me from my indifference. And while I was never quite convinced by either of his love affairs, Diego Noguera's performance as Julio held the film together through his ability to impressively capture a sense of both Julio's younger and older self. The requisite 'time-has-passed' facial hair is present in the latter day sequences but Noguera's wonderfully subtle shift in how he plays Julio makes it completely unnecessary.
For all my problems with it, Bonsai is a film I'd very much like to see again and I feel perhaps I'd get more out of it second time round. While I doubt I'd feel any more for the stiff characters, I sense that there were certain narrative tricks that I didn't pick up on and that warrant revisiting. For instance, in its opening scene Bonsai informs us of what would otherwise have been a climactic revelation, that Emilia will die. We are told this in a flat, matter-of-fact way and also informed that the truly important thing is that Julio will live. When the scenes in which Julio learns of Emilia's death arrived, I felt that the film faltered because I had built up no relationship with this rather flimsy character myself so the news had no impact. But given that I was so coldly informed of Emilia's death right at the top, coupled with the fact that I cared far more about Julio than anyone else, leaves me thinking there's more here than meets the eye.
Whatever clever little curiosities further viewings of Bonsai may unlock, I know it will never be a film I wholeheartedly recommend to friends. But neither will I discourage them because, for all its flaws, Bonsai has made me think a great deal and also made me want to watch it again, two signs of a film that's well worth seeing.
Bonsai was released on DVD by Network Releasing on 11 June 2012. The DVD features only one extra, a diverting but hardly revelatory interview with the film's director.