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Despite the box-office success of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 Palme d’Or winner, “Shoplifters,” there’s a lingering perception in Japan that Cannes is a playground for filmmakers to indulge the tastes of Champagne-quaffing cinephiles without any care for audiences back home.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” which won the best screenplay award at this year’s festival, seems unlikely to change that view. This slow-burning three-hour drama is the kind of film that critics adore, but despite earning stellar reviews, it seems unlikely to capture the public’s imagination like “Shoplifters” did.

The closest Hamaguchi comes to a commercial concession is in his choice of source material: a short story by Haruki Murakami, featured in the author’s 2014 collection, “Men Without Women.” Far from a straight adaptation, Hamaguchi and co-screenwriter Takamasa Oe use the story as the starting point for a meta-drama that gets more interesting the further it drifts from the original.

Drive My Car
Rating
Run Time 179 mins.
Language Japanese, Korean, English, Mandarin and other languages
Opens Aug. 20

In an extended prologue that takes up the first 40 minutes, stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) discovers that his screenwriter wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is having an affair, only for her to suddenly die.

Two years later, with his grief deeply buried, Yusuke heads to Hiroshima in his beloved Saab to direct a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” On arrival, he’s informed that he will have to be driven by a chauffeur for insurance purposes, and is introduced to the taciturn Misaki (Toko Miura). She’s as emotionally reticent as he is, and doesn’t object to his habit of using each car journey to run through lines from the play, practicing to a recording made by his late wife.

Chekhov’s dialogue begins to function as a commentary on the main story, as Yusuke finds himself auditioning Oto’s former lover, Koji (Masaki Okada), a popular actor of limited talent. When he casts the younger man in the role of Vanya, it isn’t clear if he’s doing so out of inspiration or spite, and Nishijima’s muted performance gives little away.

As they spend more time together, Yusuke and Misaki slowly open up to each other, turning the car into an ad hoc confession booth. It’s all very understated, which makes the stiff line readings in some of the film’s other scenes all the more jarring.

“Drive My Car” runs into problems when it plunges deeper into Murakami territory. The most cringeworthy plot device — that Oto would dream up stories while making love, but needs Yusuke to relay them back to her afterward — actually comes from another of the author’s tales, “Scheherazade,” and it’s so affected it almost capsizes the whole film.

Like Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” — another Murakami adaptation by a director who has done better work elsewhere — there are aspects of “Drive My Car” that simply feel pretentious, which isn’t a word I ever expected to use in relation to Hamaguchi’s films.

Although Yusuke and Misaki eventually find some closure, the polyglot “Uncle Vanya” proves to be more engrossing. Park Yurim is a standout as a mute actress who performs in Korean Sign Language, and she has one scene in particular that’s among the most moving things I’ve seen all year.

That she is one of the film’s original characters says a lot. Hamaguchi does some canny things with Murakami’s story, but he’s better without it.

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