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‘Bonsai’ an odd, elegant look at love

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Set the scene: Sunbathing Julio (Diego Noguera) sparks the interest of a classmate
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An emotional sizzler it isn’t, but the melancholy Chilean comedy “Bonsai” qualifies as eccentric, impressively constructed oddball cinema. Writer-director Cristian Jimenez keeps the convolutions comprehensible and inspires smiles in this tale of love and literature and the sexy link between them.

Based on the novella by Alejandro Zambra, the film tells a story of first love, how it shapes one’s sense of self and how it endures in memory — all presented with a droll tone in an mildy existential atmosphere.

The central character Julio (Diego Noguera) has a universal quality, suggested in his deadpan demeanor with angsty undertones. He also has a habit of fibbing.

In an entertaining early scene, Julio, a Chilean college student, falsely claims to have read Proust, and subsequent efforts to acquaint himself with the author fail when he falls asleep after cracking open “In Search of Lost Time” while sunbathing. The resulting white patch on his chest sparks the interest of classmate Emilia (Natalia Galgani). Their relationship blooms.

Flash-forward eight years, and Julio is an aspiring writer involved in an affair with Blanca (Trinidad Gonzalez), a neighbor. Lying again, he tells Blanca he is transcribing a novel by famed author Gazmuri (Hugo Medina). Truth is, Julio didn’t get the job.

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The book Julio is penning, in fact, contains Julio’s own writing, drawn from Julio’s years-ago relationship with Emilia.

Jimenez (“Optical Illusions”), who has cited Finnish drollery master Aki Kaurismaki as a filmmaker he admires, creates funny, gently sad deadpan surfaces but delivers little emotional current for his seemingly passionate characters.

But at the same time, the movie is a consistently amusing and complex look at the workings of love, memory and need.

Jimenez’s intricately interlinked stories, involving Julio’s Elena period, Julio’s Blanca period, the plot of the Julio-penned novel, the themes of Gazmuri and the writings of Proust, unfold with grace and clarity. The question of whether the Elena scenes are fact-based flashbacks or fictitious passages from Julio’s novel is constantly
intriguing.

Also noteworthy is the film’s focus on literature, which is presented as a source of erotic as well as intellectual stimulation. Scenes of Emilia and Julio reading to each other in bed are particularly memorable.

The title refers to the name of Julio’s novel, and to a plant Julio treats with a commitment he doesn’t have for his own well-being. Though  Jimenez goes overboard with the symbolism, he and his in-sync lead actor bring a touching oddness and elegance to this theme.

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