Chilean director Cristián Jiménez’s “Bonsái” is the essence of cosmopolitan provincialism — a superbly grounded, programmatically small, meta-literary tragicomedy of student-boho life.
The movie, which opens May 11 at the IFC Center (and in Los Angeles on June 15) is adapted from Alejandro Zambra’s 2006 novella (or prose poem). This melancholy, cynical, amused but not unaffectionate account of first love (and its “conceited intimacy”), 83 pages in length and somewhat ironically consecrated to the most loquacious of writers (Marcel Proust), made a sensation in Chilean literary circles. Writing in the Nation several years ago, Marcela Valdes reported that one venerable Santiago daily credited the book with “a kind of blood-letting in Chilean literature … It represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation’s letters.” Be that as it may, Zambra’s novel provides the scaffolding for Jiménez’s movie and is in some ways improved by the adaptation.
Like the book, the film “Bonsái” begins by revealing the denouement: “In the end Emilia dies and Julio remains alone.” Whereas the novel is a more or less (or less than) straightforward account, the movie advances in chapters that alternate between the period of Emilia and Julio’s college romance and Julio’s life as a would-be writer eight years later. We see Emilia and Julio meet at a supposed study party and form a couple; we see the now bearded Julio approached by the famous author Gazmuri (named for a well-known Chilean historian) to type the novel the author has written in longhand (and which, of course, begins like Zambra’s). Julio asks too much money and doesn’t get the job so he begins writing the novel himself, as passing it off as Gazmuri’s, mainly to impress his across the hall neighbor Blanca, a graduate student with whom he’s having a desultory affair.
Fictions proliferate. (Zambra may be the Chilean antithesis of Roberto Bolaño but he is no less a child of Jorge Luis Borges.) Julio and Emilia read aloud to each other in bed; Blanca reads and critiques the Gazmuri novel as Julio writes it. We, if not she, realize that he is drawing inspiration from his relationship with Emilia and perhaps re-scripting it. In any case, the stories overlap. Bearded Julio discovers that Emilia has returned to Santiago and makes a half-hearted attempt to call her; beardless Julio gives Emilia a scrawny little plant for her birthday that immediately becomes the signifier of love gone stale; bearded Julio finishes Gazmuri’s supposed novel on the very day that his neighbor leaves for Madrid and cultivates a bonsai. He tries calling Emilia again but her phone appears to no longer be connected …
As befits so self-aware a youth film, “Bonsái” is mildly neo new wave job, replete with jump cuts and abrupt, extended musical interludes. The nouvelle vague is acknowledged but the key precedent would seem to be Argentine indie Martin Rejtman. “Bonsái” is a bit slicker and less stylized than Rejtman’s “Silvia Prieto” but similarly uninflected. The movie is also far less precious than one would expect from a French treatment of the material. Shabby locations, deadpan exchanges, and a lively indie-rock score by the Franco-Chilean band Pánico accentuate the poignancy of Santiago’s distance from Paris: Life may be elsewhere but, as demonstrated here, cinema is not.