Bonsai: Film Review

A youthful film about sex, lies and literature has the awkward charm of first love.

Chilean writer-director Cristian Jimenez makes a youthful film about sex, lies and literature that has the awkward charm of first love.

A youthful, melancholy film that draws on literature and writing for its inspiration, the accomplished, faux-collegiate Bonsai has a lot of the homegrown whimsy that animated Chilean writer-director Cristian Jimenez’s first film, Optical Illusions. Its romantic-sad references and mind-set will reflect the concerns of the more serious high school and college crowd, who could create an audience beyond film festivals for an enterprising distributor.

Any film that starts off with two jokes about Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” can’t be all bad, and Bonsai goes there. In the first of these, a college lit teacher asks his class how many people have read the book, and one by one the lying hands go up; the last to be raised is shame-faced Julio’s (Diego Noguera). Second gag: He conscientiously checks Volume 1 out of the library later but, while reading it on the beach, he falls asleep and deeply tans around the outline of the book.

The strange tan-tattoo on his chest gets noticed during his first date with fellow student Emilia (Natalia Galgani), a bright rebel who, as the opening narration coyly reveals in a deliberate plot-spoiler, is destined to die at the end of the film, while Julio does not. Though her filmic fate is sealed, Julio will never forget his first love, as attested by scenes showing their natural physical feelings for each other and easy-going sex. 

Eight years on, Julio is the same uncertain youth, but now he’s bedding the translator next-door, Blanca (Trinidad Gonzales), with much less passion and even less emotional commitment. After he boasts to her about working for the famous novelist Gazmuri (Hugo Medina), he loses the job. To save face, he stays up every night writing the supposed novel long-hand in coffee-stained notebooks which he passes off as Gazmuri’s, then spends his days typing them up for “the master.” What’s the novel about? His old love story with Emilia, of course

It’s a strange plot even a delicate butterfly of a movie like this, but somehow Jimenez makes it work, going backwards and forwards in Julio’s memory-time through the medium of the written word.  The film itself is an adaptation of a well-known novel by Alejandro Zambra and yes, there are chapter titles like “Lies” and “Leftovers,” as the action switches back and forth from college to eight years later.

When the older Julio’s emotional bankruptcy becomes apparent even to himself, he turns to taking care of a bonsai tree as therapy, a painstaking activity he compares to writing. (The title of Gazmuri’s cribbed novel is “Bonsai.”) More than anything else, it seems to mirror the stunted growth of his two relationships.

Lying is the real connective tissue here; everyone lies to someone, and this hiding behind falsehood is the source of all their troubles. Julio certainly hadn’t read Proust that day in class, but had Emilia? And later, when he passes off his own puerile work as that of a revered novelist, does Blanca guess the truth?  

Thoughfully shot and framed and moving quietly to rhythmic guitar music, the attentive tech work shows the care Jimenez took making the film. As the young reader and later writer, Noguera has a dry, lost appeal that echoes Blanca’s verdict on his fictional hero: “Deep down he’s a poor guy with a broken heart.” Both Galgani and Gonzales are convincing and right on target in very different female roles.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Latin Horizons)
Production companies: Jirafa, Rouge International
Cast: Diego Noguera, Natalia Galgani, Gabriela Arancibia, Trinidad Gonzalez, Hugo Medina, Andre Waas, Alicia Fehrmann, Alicia Luz Rodriguez
Director: Cristian Jimenez
Screenwriter: Cristian Jimenez based on a novel by Alejandro Zambra
Producers: Bruno Bettati, Julie Gayet, Nadia Turincev
Co-producers: Natacha Cervi, Hernan Musaluppi, Pandora Da Cunha Telles
Director of photography: Inti Briones
Production designer: Jorge Zambrano
Music: Caroline Chaspoul, Eduardo Henriquez
Costumes: Mary Ann Smith
Editor: Soldedad Salfate
Sales Agent:  Golem Distribucion
No rating, 95 minutes