Posted: 09/24/2003


Lost in Translation


by Barry Meyer

Everyone wants to be found.

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After her freshman attempt with The Virgin Suicides, it seemed apparent that Sofia Coppola had a good understanding of filmmaking. But many questioned if it were due to her genetics - her father being a celebrated director, or if it was by acquaintance - her marriage to another capable indie director, Spike Jonze. With her second film Coppola lays all doubt to rest. Lost in Translation is a beautifully crafted film in which Coppola draws brilliant performances out from her original script, and layers them with wonderfully poetic visuals and soundtrack.

The title of Coppola’s new film is teasingly ubiquitous. On one hand it seems to refer to the comedy of manners experienced by the ambivalent travellers in a foreign land - Japan, a place where, through Coppola’s eyes, good decorum appears to have gone farcically amok; and the mixing of Rs and Ls in fractured sentences make for comical misunderstandings. On the other hand it could imply that the characters, though in different stages of their separate lives, still have a hard time trying to connect with others, as well as themselves.

The title also seems to be a suggestion by the director to the audience that they should look beyond obvious boundaries and trappings for a deeper understanding of the story they are about to see. With the opening sequence Coppola treats the audience to the pleasant backside view of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) lounging leisurely in her underwear, with the film’s title superimposed just under her. The obvious first reaction is of the sexual possibilities that lay ahead. But Coppola lets the camera linger on, casually moving beyond the point of voyeurism and into familiarity and comfort. There is a sentiment of intimacy at play here, but not of mere physical intimacy. It’s more the kind of intimacy that couples grow into, when they become so natural and easy with, that they can lay about casually uncovered and unguarded. It is with this brand of subtlety instilled in her film that Coppola skilfully allows the story to simply unfold, and her characters to just become.

After this informal introduction to Charlotte we find her counterpart, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), stirring awake in the back of his limo just in time to find himself looking back at him from a huge billboard flanked high in the twinkling nighttime landscape of a busy Japanese city street. Bob is an aging action movie star in town to shill Japanese whiskey for a shamelessly hefty paycheck, and he seems almost embarrassed at being reminded of that. And he’s just as much embarrassed at the attention he is lavished on by the posse of Japanese advertisement company press agents, and hotel staff who shadow his every move. Yet, despite all the many people tending to his every whim, he still sits alone and lonely in his room, exhaustingly bored with everything, even sleep.

Charlotte and Bob bump around the hotel separately, on their own nocturnal journeys, never really figuring out where they should be or what they should do with themselves. They’re like two lost souls who haven’t quite recognized that they’re lost yet, until they find each other in the hotel lounge and connect in a simple fish-out-of-water type of way. They’re both married, so neither one invests anything more in the other outside a newfound acquaintanceship. And it’s with this unmeasured distance between them that they find it so easy to open up to each other about their “lost” feelings. Feeding off each other’s energy, the two fish decide to go and explore life out of the water. It is during their adventures in the bright lights and gadgetry of Japan that they begin to discover that there is something of weight to their kinship. What it all means they don’t understand, but they enjoy it nonetheless.

It would be too easy peg this as a May/December romance, with youth invigorating age, or as a father figure substitution, where age informs youth, but Coppola does good by not clearly defining Charlotte and Bob’s budding relationship, mainly because the characters themselves have no clear grasp on it. And that is the beauty of it. Coppola avoids having her characters even discuss their relationship, leaving the whole thing entirely uncomplicated, and wholly innocent, and free of guilt over professed desires, or justifications of any ill approached actions. There is just the gentle unspoken understanding that their souls have somehow connected.

This film, at long last, heralds in Bill Murray as a bona fide actor, worthy of the accolades his fans have showered on him. He’s made several attempts at non-comedic roles, and has demonstrated an ability to temper himself, but his “Bill Murray” persona always seemed much larger than the characters he was playing. It is very satisfying to finally see him let the role envelope him for a change. Coppola was so confident that Murray was the only one for this part that she pursued him vigorously for the role. And so confident was she in his abilities that she allowed him to do what has proven to be dangerous to other comedic actors - she allowed him to improvise. It would seem a natural choice to allow Murray to improvise within the scenes where he interacts with the locals and their confusing language barriers, but when he peppers the dialogue with spontaneous quips in scenes he shares with Scarlett Johansson, the results are marvelous. Her giggles at his jokes aren’t just cues from the script or the director, but a sincere joy at being smitten by Bob and his humor.

There seemed to be surprise in the comments of some that Johansson was able to pull off being a Yale philosophy graduate in her mid-twenties, while only barely being eighteen, herself. Much more worthy of praise would be Johansson’s lack of flair for the melodramatic. Through numerous roles in small films, Johansson has learned, unlike many of her peers, that it’s not always so good to wear your acting on your sleeve. It was with her more quiet, subdued nature, that she proved to be the perfect match to Murray’s cheekiness. Their chemistry seemed to be out of sincere admiration and less from any sexual attraction, giving their character’s relationship that indefinable ambiguity.

At the end of the film the two part ways, but not before Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear. We hear nothing of it, only her reply, “Okay.” What does he say? To be honest, we really don’t need to know. It’s private, and between them. Hearing it would only leave us to judge whether it be satisfactory enough for our own sense of closure. Besides, by this point we know the characters well enough to understand that whatever was said, it allowed them to part without sorrow or remorse. Not hearing the words is almost like being awakened from a pleasant dream. We don’t know what the outcome would be, but we had an enjoyable time nonetheless.

Barry Meyer is a writer from Jersey who would love to get lost in the dream of insurmountable success.

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