Lost in Translation
Director : Sofia Coppola
Screenplay : Sofia Coppola
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Bill Murray (Bob Harris), Scarlett Johansson (Charlotte), Giovanni Ribisi (John), Akiko Takeshita (Ms. Kawasaki), Kazuyoshi Minamimagoe (Press Agent), Kazuko Shibata (Press Agent), Take (Press Agent), Ryuichiro Baba (Concierge), Akira Yamaguchi (Bellboy), Catherine Lambert (Jazz Singer)
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a beautiful, lyrical cinematic ode to lost souls finding each in an unlikely place. In this case, it is a burnt-out movie star and a lonely young newlywed who strike up a relationship in downtown Tokyo, where they both feel isolated and alone, spiritually and culturally. The location setting in Tokyo—with its technologically overdetermined neon gaudiness and strange-to-Westerners cultural habits—accentuates and heightens the characters’ isolation, and it is only when they are together that they feel some sense of connection to the world.
Bill Murray, in a beautifully nuanced performance that deftly blends comedy and pathos to the point that the line between them is indistinguishable, plays the American actor, Bob Harris, who has left his slowly disintegrating marriage back in the States to pick up a $2 million paycheck in Japan for shooting a Suntory whiskey ad. Murray is a perfect sketch of fading dignity, his once-glorious movie star past fading with age and irrelevance, leaving him in a state of cynical resignation.
At the hotel, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent graduate from Yale with a philosophy degree and a two-year marriage to a professional photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who is defined more by his perpetual absence than by any specific character trait. Charlotte is thoughtful, introspective, and at war with herself over her own lack of action in life. A seemingly unlikely pair, Bob and Charlotte find that they have much in common (including their insomnia) even if they are at different points of the life spectrum; Charlotte’s problems, particularly those with her marriage and her uncertainty about what to make of her life, are like nascent versions of the issues Bob to which has ultimately resigned himself.
Theirs is not a conventional romance, but rather a true melding of souls. There is a precious awkwardness in the way they come together because they seem to sense how odd their relationship is even as it fulfills them in a way their other relationships don’t. As she did in her feature debut, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, Coppola emphasizes the slow passage of time and the importance of small details and little actions. Wordless scenes of Charlotte sitting on a window sill, her small frame dwarfed by the expansive Tokyo skyline, or Bob flipping through TV channels and starring blankly at an image of himself as a young man with his dialogue dubbed into Japanese, tell all we need to know about their characters’ isolation.
Central to Lost in Translation is the idea of culture clash and how, even though we are all human at the core, the ways in which we organize our lives culturally have a profound effect on our ability to connect with each other. The obvious culture clash involves East versus West, and Coppola structures some great comedic moments around it, whether it be a simple shot of Murray standing in an elevator head and shoulders above everyone else or a drawn-out setpiece involving his trying to evade an masseuse’s overenthusiastic and genuinely goofy erotic come-ons.
Coppola establishes the movie’s point of view from the outside beginning with the opening shots of Murray in a taxicab—she never tries to get inside Japanese culture, but rather keeps us on its fringes, thus creating a sense of alienation that mirrors the feelings of her characters. It makes the vast landscape of Japanese pop culture seem almost frighteningly bizarre, but that’s the point: It’s not inherently bizarre, but only seems that way from the outside. When Charlotte makes a genuine effort to take part in the culture she’s visiting, it results in the some of the movie’s most affecting moments.
The other culture clash is more personal, as it revolves around the clash between professionalism and family. Both Bob and Charlotte are isolated from their loved ones because of jobs. Bob’s profession as an actor takes him away from his wife and children, who barely even know him. He tells Charlotte that he and his wife used to travel together and have fun, but that era has apparently passed. Charlotte, on the other hand, still unsure of what to do with her life, finds herself constantly alone because her husband is always running off to another photo shoot. Even though she travels halfway around the world to be with him in Tokyo, she might as well have stayed home.
Thus, both alone, Bob and Charlotte connect in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t have at any other point in their lives. Yet, they do connect, and it is beautiful and sublime. Murray and Johansson develop a tender rapport in a short period of time, their initial awkward encounters slowly giving way to a comfort level that allows them to lie in bed next to each other and convey the doubts and fears that otherwise might have stayed locked up.
The final scenes in Lost in Translation accept that their relationship is of the moment; in that sense, it is wonderfully tragic. In the last, most bittersweet scene, Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear and we don’t get to hear it, but we can only imagine that it conveys the sense of love and affection that so clearly exists between them and only them. I didn’t mind not hearing it because, more than anything, I sensed that the words weren’t meant for our ears. It may be the first time in a movie where not hearing something may bring tears to your eyes.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick