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Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái

Cristián Jiménez, Bonsái, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Julio (Diego Noguera).

BONSÁI STARTS with the conclusion. “At the end of this film, Emilia dies and Julio remains alone,” an offscreen narrator announces at the very outset of Chilean writer-director Cristián Jiménez’s Ouroboros-like second feature. Stated twice more, the fate of the movie’s two main characters is incontrovertible, yet “the rest,” the brief prefatory voice-over playfully insists, “is fiction.”

A faithful adaptation of compatriot Alejandro Zambra’s acclaimed 2006 novella, Jiménez’s droll coming-of-age story uncovers a series of fabrications: the original lie that brings Julio (Diego Noguera) and Emilia (Nathalia Galgani) together as college students and the falsehoods that Julio perpetuates in his fledgling career as a writer eight years later. Bonsái may be tender in its portrayal of first love, but it is never sentimental; the frequently deadpan exchanges between the central couple preclude treacle. Much like the plant of the title, Jiménez’s film is modest and small-scale yet intricately structured: Broken into six chapters, Bonsái flashes back and forward, balancing clever metaliterary devices with moving empathy for its young protagonists.

Classmates in a modern-lit seminar at a university in Valdivia, in southern Chile, Julio and Emilia have their first encounter at a group study session that quickly devolves into a dance party with booze and dope. An ice-breaking conversation about coffee leads to making out; Julio removes his shirt to reveal a chest sunburned save for a rectangular patch of white flesh, the result of having fallen asleep at the beach while reading Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. (One can’t help but think of Dennis Oppenheim’s 1970 body-art work Reading Position for Second Degree Burn.) Julio fibs and tells Emilia that he dozed off while finishing the last book of Proust’s magnum opus; she also lies, saying she read all seven volumes during summer vacation years ago.

Julio and Emilia’s shared deception, born of college-age insecurity and the desire to prove their intellectual bona fides to each other, proves to be the lie that tells the truth. Genuinely committed to books, Julio and Emilia develop as readers as a way of strengthening their bonds, both emotional and carnal, as a couple; their bedtime ritual consists of reading aloud from a roster of classics before having sex. Just as Swann’s Way (which the two, toward the end of their relationship, decide to read “again” together) leaves an actual mark on Julio’s skin, Macedonio Fernández’s short story “Tantalia” irrevocably punctures the carapace of the couple’s relationship. When Julio buys his girlfriend a clover plant for her birthday, Emilia’s roommate mentions the Fernández work, which then provides one of several layers of metanarrative: In “Tantalia,” a woman gives her boyfriend the same plant as a symbol of the love that unites them. But after they discover clover’s fragility, they break up; similarly, not long after Emilia receives her present, she starts to complain of Julio’s “lousy kisses.”

The end of Julio and Emilia’s relationship is treated elliptically: Before bed one night, she simply says to him, “Tomorrow we must talk.” Eight years later, Julio, in search of his own lost time, uses his university love affair as the source material for a novel he pretends was written by someone else. In his late twenties (and now bearded), Julio meets with the famous author Gazmuri (Hugo Medina) in Santiago to discuss a position typing up the writer’s latest work, handwritten in four notebooks. Julio’s fee proves too steep for the novelist, but the would-be amanuensis persists in pretending he holds the job. Why he carries on this charade is never quite clear—perhaps to give his life a sense of purpose (Julio’s writing career consists of two unfinished novels and occasional forays into poetry; he works part-time at a bookstore and as a Latin tutor for a wealthy teen) or perhaps to impress Blanca (Trinidad González), a neighbor across the hall with whom he’s having a desultory relationship.

The “Gazmuri” notebooks, which Julio shows off to Blanca—after distressing them with teacup stains and cigarette ash to make them look authentic—are, of course, the young man’s own. Using Gazmuri’s one-sentence description of his just-completed novel as a starting point (“The main character hears on the radio that his first girlfriend has died”), Julio fills the pages of his recently purchased cahiers with memories of Emilia—whose death he discovers only later, after he’s completed his manuscript, titled Bonsái. What began as a lie, a ruse, a fiction, becomes real, tangible—or at least a record of certain emotional truths. And this becomes the central metaphor of the film: Just as the lie about Proust that brought Julio and Emilia together revealed a deeper truth, so Julio’s laborious pretense of transcribing someone else’s novel makes a writer of him. Growing up means growing into the lies we’ve told about ourselves.

Jiménez’s film, which startles by beginning with the end, closes just as powerfully, with a legendary introduction: the opening lines of Swann’s Way. When Julio reads (in voice-over), “But my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book,” the words are not only those he had shared with Emilia in bed eight years earlier but also a touching assessment of his own adult, artistic accomplishment.

Bonsái is scheduled to open in the US this spring.

Melissa Anderson is a regular contributor to the Village Voice.