This is a reprint of our review from the Cannes Film Festival.
Cannes, more so than other film festivals, feels like the 10 days of nutrition offered in the hopeful attempt to make up for the other 355 days of dessert modern movie going offers us. Abandonment, murder, suicide, prostitution — these are the concerns of all too many films in the competition and sidebars here at Cannes. A film like Christián Jiménez's "Bonsái," in the Un Certain Regard selection — seemingly slight, seemingly light, small in scope and scene — is exactly the kind of film that whispers when other films shout and gets overlooked in the hue and cry. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't speak the truth, or that what it's saying isn't heartfelt, articulate and funny. You have to lean into a film like "Bonsái" so you can see how intricate, simple and elegant it is, even at what seems like a smaller scale.
Based on the novel by Chile's Alejandro Zambara, "Bonsái" is the story of Julio (Diego Noguera). We meet Julio as an unsteady, awkward university student; we also jump forward eight years, on a regular basis, to see him as an unsteady, awkward young man. In the film's yesterday, Julio begins a relationship with Emilia (Natalia Galgani) while they're both at school. In the present, Julio has an all-too-casual relationship with neighbor-lover Blanca (Trinidad Gonzáles). As for the future, a narrator tells us what awaits Julio and Emilia at the outset — but one of Bonsái's many minor miracles is how that foreknowledge quickly becomes less relevant than the smaller moments and details leading up to that known end.
Julio hoped to land a job as a typist for the novelist Gazmuri (Hugo Medina), who writes his novels by hand ("You feel a rhythm between your hand and your elbow …"). He doesn't get the job, but he doesn't want to tell Bianca he didn't — so he begins handwriting his own version of Gazmuri's novel, which is the story of his young love with Emilia, and then typing from the notebooks he's painstakingly filling and forging. The truth — which,in "Bonsái," often comes as a lie, or in a lie, or as a reduction of itself — is that the forgery, which Blanca begins reading, might be the most honest and open conversation Julio's ever had with Blanca, even though it isn't a conversation at all.
"Bonsái" is meticulously framed, and the touches of wit and whimsy in the direction — visual jokes, trips to the shared vestibule with the timing of a dance number — are not over-worked and winking at us as they are in, say, "Submarine." These people live in the real world, our world, and the funny stuff does not come at the cost of the real stuff. There's quicksilver intelligence in "Bonsái"s script, like a running joke about pronoun confusion and about how language can fail us. It doesn't just pop up at random but, rather, keeps bringing us back to the film's central ideas about language and communication, about how falsehood is a cornerstone of the human experience.
Some will suggest that Julio's journey is too passive, too controlled, too hesitant to make for a suitable or engaging film. The movie that kept coming to mind structurally was, oddly enough, Judd Apatow's "Funny People." Yes, there's a gulf of difference between a scrappy Chilean indie and a film starring Adam Sandler, but they both have one thing in common — namely, they end with our protagonist finally doing the thing they've needed to do all along, and that we've needed them to do all along. We have watched Julio work for and earn that moment, so when it happens, it is not like the phony bloat and bright perfection of the cinema. Instead, it is like the small moments and hard-won minor victories of real life that do not come on predetermined act breaks but instead late — perhaps too late — in the course of events.
Jiménez is clearly a talent to watch, his cast and crew are excellent, and he can play clever postmodern games and juggle big ideas without ever losing the simple through-line of the story and or dropping the ball in terms of what he's trying to say. Again, in a film festival that offers shame, pain and crimes against human dignity — and that's just the press conferences, badoomp-boomp — the bigger and rougher films tend to get the attention. But like "Le Havre," like "The Kid with the Bike," like "Oslo, August 31st," "Bonsái" is a film about real people and real life, and how messy those things can be. Alongside those other films, it succeeds without having the vulgar energy of style or genre or sex or violence or controversy to drive it forward. Like the miniature tree-shaping art it's named for, "Bonsái" reminds us that just because something's small and finely crafted doesn't mean it can't be beautiful enough to evoke big ideas. [B+]