I can’t fucking stand films about writers. It’s like smelling my farts after a night of whiskey-drinking in a room with no windows, no air, just pure stink. Watching a filmmaker attempt to portray something you do in your head, at home, alone, picking your scalp, deleting and self-loathing for hours, in a ‘romantic’ or ‘whimsical’ light, is pretty much the most disgusting thing ever. Writing is boring, writing is awful, writing is embarrassing. It is not sexy. Unfortunately, most films try to make it sexy, and they’re all bad liars. The gems that do make it work — Adaptation, Barton Fink, The Squid and the Whale, and the best monster of them all, The Shining — offer the subject some redemption, but ultimately the life of a writer is about as boring as dating one. And here we have Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái, a film about two writers/literature students who meet, fall in love, and break up. Snooze.
Based on Alejandro Zambra’s novella by the same name, Bonsái is the story of Julio (Diego Noguera) and Emilia (Nathalia Galgni), two students who meet in a literature class, lie to each other about reading Proust, and end up making cute love with copies of Carver, Flaubert, and Perec littering the apartment floor. Fast forward eight years later and Julio is a struggling writer who occasionally fucks his neighbor, Blanca (played with beautiful subtlety by Trinidad Gonzalez), to whom he fabricates a lie about transcribing a famous writer’s novel, when in reality, he is writing the story of his relationship with Emilia.
Despite the film’s overwhelming tendency to shout ART IS SEXY as Emilia orgasms loudly post-bedtime readings of Proust, there are moments of genuine weariness as Blanca indirectly (and directly) acknowledges the cliché of fetishizing young literary love. “It’s a youthful search,” Julio says in bed, after she tells him that the characters of the novel he’s supposedly transcribing for someone else are “stuck-up kids.” To his reply, she answers, “Right. In search of their own belly button.” She entertains his lies, reading and listening to the awkward prose she knows is his own, and there’s a kind of grace in this acceptance, albeit of the self-hating, coddling sort. Not every woman is strong enough (or miserable enough) to sleep with indulgent idiots who are oblivious to the love and affection thrown their way by women who could crush graduate school muses between their thighs but, more often than not, are just too damn tired, and lonely, to care. In one scene, Julio takes Blanca to see a band in a club he used to frequent with Emilia, and Blanca sits down, asks to leave early, and ends the night throwing up at home. The film’s obvious point is that Blanca is not Emilia, and that Julio will never find another Emilia, but what I found more interesting was Blanca’s refusal to be Emilia for Julio, and the disgust (cue puking) at such an attempt to recreate a love on the page, when all you’re really doing is putting words next to each other and barely making rent every month as you turn 30. Writing a novel is not a noble act, and any attempt to suggest so is as flawed and self-serving as this review you’re reading right now.
Bonsai’s cheap cinematic sentiment of ‘because what really matters is that he let the only woman he loved go away’ is obnoxious in its own right, but my hostility also comes from a nastier place reeking of ‘life imitates art,’ and that is my own experience with eroticizing writers and literature. My relationships attempted to survive Nabokov’s entire canon, a directed readings on Finnegans Wake, Infinite Jest, 2666, Europe Central, and yeah, Proust. Just as Julio and Emilia try to make things ‘last’ by embarking upon the entirety of Proust’s seven volumes (they only make it through Swann’s Way), my relationships also turned to books to weigh us down, anchoring us to a life of bedtime reading and little talking, pages and pages of language offering nothing but a reminder that even art can’t save you from certain tragedies: no matter how romantic and hopeful it might seem, it’s all just filler for our eventual boring death. Not to mention that kind of anchoring can transform itself into an overcoat full of stones as you do your best Virginia Woolf imitation.
Now, I find myself to be like Blanca — worn, old, annoyed by readers and writers but still preferring that act of creation to most other things in my life, still spending Saturday nights re-organizing my bookshelves, and dating young writers who try to pick up women in front of me so they can recreate James Joyce’s Stephen Hero, in which Stephen attempts to bed two women at once. I watch from the other side of the room, the sidelines, smiling bitterly, all for the sake of literature. It’s a dirty existence. It’s a lie we tell ourselves — that art makes life mean something, that art means anything at all, when it’s just another distraction from acknowledging our existence in the abyss, an utter absence of significance, a layer upon nothing. Emilia’s preferred utterance to Julio’s pronouncements of love is “Blah, blah, blah” — three words that do infinitely more for the film than Julio’s tears as he re-reads Swann’s Way after hearing news of Emilia’s death. This kind of easy faith in art is a well-lit corridor of sentimentality and obvious emotion. Then again, what else is there to do but continue to lie, continue to read, continue to write, continue to create? It’s the only pursuit we have, other than the death drive. Just once, though, it’d be great to see a film about writers that is as dull and pointless as my sitting here has been for the past two hours.