“By the end of this movie Emilia dies and Julio ends up alone”. These are the first lines we hear in Bonsai, the second feature directed by Cristián Jiménez (Optical Illusions). This device has been used many times in literature and film, to varying degrees of success. Bonsai’s narrator is very much aware of this trope, repeating himself and making sure we heard right, in case we might confused as to who dies. This feeble attempt at cutesy humor sums up the film, adapted by Jiménez from the novel by Alejandro Zambra.
Bonsai is a self-conscious movie about self-consciousness that brings up a bunch of ideas without having anything interesting to say about them or any compelling way of expressing them. Julio (Diego Noguera) and Emilia (Nathalia Galgani), two awkward and heavily affected young college students with literary aspirations, meet one day and start dating. Their awkward courtship starts with both seemingly lying about reading Proust, whose work and style is meant to provide the film with context and a thematic backbone. They fall in love and proceed to have one of those quirky relationships creative types in movies often have. Fast-forward eight years and a now bearded Julio is still laconically dragging through life while having a casual affair with his translator neighbor (Gabriela Arancibia). True to form, Julio lies to her about typing up a manuscript for a famous author. This forces him to actually write the novel in longhand, which becomes the framing device by which we jump from the present to Julio and Emilia’s relationship. These segments are, of course, divided up in numbered and titled chapters, again letting us know this is a literary movie.
Neither past nor present is particularly interesting as Julio tries to make sense of his failed romance. The bonsai of the title refers to both the plant and the metaphor (another literary reference) that eventually kills Julio and Emilia’s relationship. The film alludes to naked, emotional honesty without really managing to pull it off on the screen. The female leads are both likeable and energetic, though are not really given much to do. Noguera’s Julio is too passive and restrained, he mostly seems confused, though he does hit a couple of comic beats. The film itself is too wrapped up with its literary references and cute affectations to bother to tell a compelling story. The direction is blandly competent, with the odd moment of beauty, but not enough to make us care about anything that happens on screen. At the end, it doesn’t matter that they tell us who will die and who will live. They could have summarized the whole movie, beat by beat, and it wouldn’t have mattered.