Chilean director Cristián Jiménez mixes a heartfelt appreciation for literature and young love in the ingeniously crafted Bonsai, capturing how tightly life and art entangle themselves, both reflecting and defining one another. The film feels as if it unfolds in rapid, brief, arbitrary scenes. At first, the array of quick vignettes seem too shallow and cute for the film’s own good. However, as the film barrels towards its last scene, it explodes in an exuberant instant of all-things-are-connected with a masterful subtlety I have not seen since the best films of Eric Rohmer. Those with an appreciation for both living-life-in-the-moment and subtle art films should find Bonsai a delight.
The film Follows Julio (Diego Noguera) as he transitions from lackadaisical literature major to novelist. In an effort to weed out the “delinquents” from the “students,” a professor asks his class, who among them have read Proust. As his classmates raise their hands in gestures loaded with varying degrees of knowledge and bullshit, Julio looks about and joins in with hesitation. It makes for a slight but brilliant set-up of character. Bonsai continues to unfold in similar dense but brief scenes filled with meaning and characterization. The film flip-flops between Julio’s life as a student to his older self as a writer until the moment arrives when he learns that Proust does matter … on a wholly personal level.
Fittingly to his character, Julio practically comes into writing his book by accident. He takes a job transcribing long-hand notebooks for a well-known local novelist, only identified as Gazmuri (Alejandro Zambra). However, the writer bails on him, complaining Julio had been over-charging him. In order to impress his neighbor/lover Blanca (Trinidad González), who expresses an interest in Gazmuri, Julio pretends to continue the job. He goes as far as purchasing the same blue notebooks and blue ink Gazmuri had used to pull off his ruse. When Julio tells Blanca that Gazmuri keeps postponing things as they work, she rationalizes that Gazmuri must have a fear of failing. “I think failure is underestimated,” Julio replies, defensively. Indeed, here is a work (be it the film or Julio’s book) whose inspiration seems to be failure. Julio’s story is about a failed relationship and its possibilities. He is the product of a failed eduction, which grants him the audacity to take on the writing of a novel. Soon enough, an original story forms based on Blanca’s criticisms of the text and Julio’s memories of eight years back to his relationship with a classmate in his literature class.
The director does an ingenious narrative trick in Bonsai. He starts the film when Julio meets Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), the person who would become the muse of his book. The film then jumps ahead eight years to the meeting between Gazmuri and Julio. After Julio decides to continue writing the book in order to fool Blanca, the director explores further flashbacks. As the names in Gazmuri/Julio’s book are interchangeable with his past life, it loads these flashbacks with the implication that these are now more than memories. They carry a sort of nostalgia that may well exist in another dimension, one of memory mixed with fiction. As only the magic of cinema can conjure, the arrangement of the splices of the film breathe a depth into the story regarding memory and experience.
In one of the earlier flashbacks, Julio helps Emilia move into the home of a friend, Bárbara (Gabriela Arancibia). The flashbacks occur only a few times but last long enough so that when Bonsai moves ahead or back, it feels a bit discombobulating, as the viewer is granted enough time to grow attached to the characters during each turn forward or back. During these few trips back in time, the director takes his time exploring Julio and Emilia’s relationship, offering many beautiful shots out in nature as well as the bedroom.There is one resonant shot of a muddy, shallow brook under a bridge loaded with symbolism. The waves rush over the small lumps of rocks just below the surface of the cloudy, brown water: the passage of time rushes over the solid but obscured and therefore amorphous memories of the past.
Just as Jiménez knows how to capture resonant, little details, he knows how to maximize the slightest of scenes. During one brief vignette, Julio searches for a book at the top shelf in a book store. He stands at the top of a rolling ladder as someone at the bottom moves the ladder a little too fast. He tells him to stop after he overshoots the book he was seeking and then asks the man at the bottom to move the ladder back again. Once again he overshoots. The scene only lasts a moment and seems to come out of nowhere. It offers a slight, little moment of slapstick in a mostly serious film but also captures the random quality of memory. In the scene that follows, Emilia tries to talk to Julio as he reads a book. She asks him why he bothers to study Latin. “There are things that have value because they serve no purpose,” he responds. The same can be said about these slight moments in the past that define a life and bring value to memories, his source for his future book.
By the same token, Jiménez also leaves out certain details. During the first flashback, it just “feels” as if Julio has moved in with Emilia and Bárbara. Maybe he has or he has not physically moved in. Such a detail would only bring out the banal and pander to the superficial need to explain the action. None of the moments on-screen in Bonsai are banal; they are resonant, like memories worth remembering. The trio eat at home together and share the bathroom, much to Bárbara’s annoyance. The lovers catch up on Proust by reading the aptly named In Search of Lost Time aloud before going to bed. As Julio reads lines by Proust describing how, in sleep, his own work seems to entwine with his unconscious, Emilia protests that the “heavy” words make her feel tired.
When Julio finishes his book, eight years later, he has an epiphany during the maintenance of a Bonsai tree. Only after he finishes his book does he realize that “the point of [Bonsai] is imitating nature,” similar to his approach to his novel. Around this time Julio bumps into Bárbara on the street. She will soon reveal just how grimly prophetic his book is. When he goes back to read the lines from In Search of Lost Time that Emilia had complained put her to sleep, they finally move him. In the end, the director not only illustrates how life and art entangle, but also how both bring meaning to one another. Art is personal, and there lies its beauty.
Bonsai is not rated, runs 95 minutes and is Spanish with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida on Friday, May 18, at 4:15 p.m. at the Tower Theater in Miami and at 8:40 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a screener for the purposes of this review.