Bonsái (2011)

Review first published (in a substantially shorter version) by Film4. For what it’s worth, I adore this film.

Film summary: A laid back, ludic literary romance (of sorts) that sets past against present and story against story. Cristían Jiménez (Optical Illusions) directs.

Review: “At the end of this film, Emilia dies and Julio remains alone,” insists the voice-over at the beginning of Bonsái. “The rest”, we are assured, “is fiction.”

In fact, the play of fiction has already begun. Julio (Diego Noguera) – for it is he speaking – may promise a film, and in an obvious way that is exactly what we get, but Julio’s medium, whether studying literature in university, reading each night to his fellow student and lover Emilia (Natalia Galgani) or, eight years later, working in a bookstore, coaching Latin and penning a novel, falls entirely within the domain of the written word.

Indeed, the opening credits of Bonsái (which is also the name of the novel that Julio writes) present the titles as typeface on thick, creamy paper, while the very last word spoken (or, more strictly, read) in the film is “book.” Although we are watching a film, the only actual reference to film in this adaptation from the poet Alejandro Zambra’s debut novella comes in Julio’s first line. Thereafter, this is a decidedly literary affair ““ and a ludic, modernist one at that.

As a student in Santiago, passive, aimless Julio fails to read the two pieces of writing that are destined to shape his own lifestory: Marcel Proust’s seven-volume monument of memory and loss À la recherche du temps perdu, and Macedonio Fernández’s short story Tantalia. Julio starts a relationship with no-nonsense Emilia that is rooted in a mutual lie about having read Proust, and soon both are moving in together to a room borrowed from Emilia’s best friend Barbara (Gabriela Arancibia) ““ but if their relationship is full of promise, it will eventually fade like the clover plant he gives her for her birthday.

Eight years later, when he fails to get a job typing up the latest novel (handwritten in notes) of established author Gazmuri (Hugo Medina), Julio lies once again to save face with his neighbour and sometime lover Bianca (Trinidad González), claiming that he is still working with the famous novelist ““ and he then maintains this fiction by passing off his own hastily hand-written novel as Gazmuri’s.

Drawing on his memories of Emilia, Julio begins to find his own voice as an author, even as his retreat into the past makes him lose sight of what he has in the present ““ and then, when all is lost once again, lonely Julio buys a bonsai for company, and the fictive plot that Gazmuri had originally outlined for his novel unexpectedly (but inevitably) intrudes into Julio’s real life, leading Julio back to Proust and to a deep melancholy that he can at last appreciate and inhabit as his very own – no matter who originally wrote it.

“It will be impossible to recover it,” comments Julio’s grandmother (Alicia Fehrmann), after a book, first borrowed by Barbara from her teacher and then passed on through a succession of loans to Emilia, to Julio and to his grandmother, ended up with the grandmother’s elderly neighbour ““ who died reading it. This game of bibliophilic pass-the-parcel encapsulates the elusiveness of a story that similarly ends in death, but along the way creates such a convoluted series of narrative layers and literary borrowings that by the finish its underlying truth has itself become irrecoverable.

For as Cristían Jiménez’s film switches (in alternating chapters, each with their own formal heading) from Julio’s past with Emilia to his present with Bianca, the narrative becomes a Moebius strip of parallel tales “with”, as Julio puts it, “no cause-effect relation, but which somehow have a meaningful link” ““ and that link is forged both by other people’s writings and by Julio’s own unreliable memoir, written in someone else’s name and inspired by someone else’s (fictive) premise.

The result is a tricksy, if charming, tragic anti-romance (or two), delivering an ending that, though prescribed right from the opening line, is still unexpectedly moving in all its literary resonance. For at heart this is a story about how we find ourselves in stories, becoming the subjects of the books that we read – and the films that we see.

In a nutshell: A paradoxical anti-tragedy that dramatises the impossibility of originality and yet somehow still manages to be a true original, Jiménez’s ludic film is the right kind of precious.

Anton Bitel