The bookish young lovers at the heart of the Chilean film Bonsái have cultivated an almost militant seriousness when it comes to literature and a dismissive attitude toward nearly everything else—including, eventually, each other. Both are too terrified to admit they haven’t read Proust, and a short story by the Argentine writer Macedonio Fernández practically dooms the whole romance. “Blah blah blah,” responds Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) early in the film when Julio (Diego Noguera) tells her she looks pretty.
This is one of two formative relationships examined in Bonsái, adapted by director Cristián Jiménez from the prizewinning 2006 novella by Alejandro Zambra. Both involve Julio, and both are mediated, in one way or another, by the written word. Altering the chronological progression of Zambra’s book (but relatively few other major details), Jiménez jumps between the present day, in which our protagonist has begun a placid romance of convenience with older across-the-hall neighbor Blanca (Trinidad González), and eight years prior, when he and Emilia were together at college, thrashing about to loud music and reading aloud nightly from world literature’s Great Works. Big-picture events seem almost secondary: The opening narration declares, forthrightly, that Emilia will die by the story’s conclusion.
A story within the stories materializes. Stuck in what appears to be a protracted post-collegiate lull, bearded bookstore clerk/Latin tutor Julio informs translator Blanca that he has been hired to type up a respected novelist’s latest opus. Meanwhile, the author, Gazmuri, chooses to hire another applicant for the job. Instead of confessing the truth to Blanca, Julio starts writing the Gazmuri novel himself, a text that evolves, despite the displaced credit, into something resolutely his own: a veiled account of his relationship with Emilia (the evolution of which we glimpse in flashback), using the bonsai as a central symbol. Withheld information and outright lies govern the majority of Julio’s daily interactions, while life’s truths get belatedly sorted out on the page. Upon his book’s completion, Julio tends a bonsai of his own and faintly pines for Emilia.
Jiménez, here on his second go-round as writer/director (after 2009’s Optical Illusions), transplants the lightly meta material from the novella to the screen with surprising success—compared with the typical struggling-writer boilerplate, Bonsái seems like a veritable thicket of illuminating references and correspondences. A kind of poetry sprouts up even in some of the inevitable sad-twee flourishes. At one point, Emilia, staring straight at the camera, gloomily sips her morning coffee amid the torrential downpour of her shower—an oddly moving portrait of the budding sophisticate in all her tragic angst.