The deadpan exchange sets the tone for the rest of Bonsai, which cuts deftly back and forth in time between their college affair and Julio’s life in Santiago eight years later. Now an aspiring novelist in an apparently casual relationship with his neighbor Bianca, Julio applies for a job typing a novel for a famous author named Gazmuri. He doesn’t get the job, but instead of telling Bianca, he passes off his own true memories of his first love as Gazmuri’s manuscript. Bonsai takes shape as both a tragicomic love story and a subtle, formally precise meditation on the complex relationship between life and art. Director Cristián Jiménez spoke with Sheerly Avni about Proust, potted plants and the existential crises facing the youth of post-Pinochet Chile.
SHEERLY AVNI: Where does the title of your film come from?
CRISTIÁN JIMÉNEZ: A bonsai has two parts, the pot and the tree. It’s the pot—the artificial—that gives the bonsai its structure. Our lives are the same way. Their raw materials need to be imagined, told, structured through narrative. So the bonsai becomes a metaphor for the complex relationship between life and art. You need both the tree and the pot.
AVNI: Julio lies nonstop—about the books he’s read, the novel he’s writing, even about how he makes his living—yet he seems to do so without malice or duplicity. Is this all part of the “pot?”
JIMÉNEZ: Yes. In Julio’s world, lying doesn’t have that typical Catholic quality of being associated with sin. It’s more about not being fully satisfied with the world as it is. He is trying to find a personal truth, one he might not find by sticking to the path of literal truth itself.
One could think that Julio is not just willing to live as a reader and a writer, but also as if he himself were a fictitious character. He is on a search to make sense of who is, and his “lies” are part of that search, part of that construction.
AVNI: According to the film’s timeline, you and Julio would be about the same age. And you are exactly the same age as Alejandro Zambra, who wrote the book on which your film is based. What do the three of you have in common, and how does this all fit in with Pinochet?
JIMÉNEZ: Alejandro and I are the same age, 36. We were both 14 when Pinochet lost power. The generations before us shared a strong sense of purpose: They were either changing the country, or changing society, and finally getting rid of the dictator. So we grew up in a society with more wealth, and more relaxed social rules, but we were also part of the first generation that lacked a collective project.
Alejandro and I have talked about this—our generation experienced a new kind of loneliness that our parents couldn’t guide us through. When we started college, we were hearing things like “history is over,” “there is no more ‘etiological’ debate,” “it’s the end of the big stories.” Emilia and Julio are also in college at this same moment, when Chile is really buying into that worldview.
AVNI: So they’ve lost a specific unifying narrative and now they have to come up with one of their own?
JIMÉNEZ: Exactly. They have to find out what their story is.
AVNI: Of all novelists, why Proust?
JIMÉNEZ: Proust is both a reference and an anti-reference. As a book, Bonsai was so short that some critics complained it should not even be considered a novel. So in both the book and the film we are working with a certain formal economy that is the very opposite of what Proust signifies.
What is important to me, more than Proust, or Carver, or any of the other authors mentioned in the film, is the power of the idea of them for Julio and the other characters. Literature as an idea doesn’t just give them something to read, it gives them something to hold onto, something that adds up to more than the contents of the books themselves. And that is something very important to me, personally, the idea that art can give shape to your life.
AVNI: So does that mean that like Julio, you’ve also lied about reading certain books in order to impress women?
JIMÉNEZ: I should have an answer ready for this to get ready for promoting the film, shouldn’t I? You know, I don’t think I ever have.
AVNI: You’ve never lied?
JIMÉNEZ: Oh, I’ve lied (laughs). But never about literature.
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco-based writer.
Chile, 2011, 102m
Director: Cristián Jiménez
Adaptation of a novel by Alejandro Zambra