Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)


We have seen the future and it is a date movie set in Tokyo. Sofia Coppola’s second film, which begins to assert her freeform mastery, is an exhilarating, seductive poem of lonely wife Scarlett Johansson stuck in a hotel room, gradually forging a bond with culture-shocked, emotionally exhausted actor Bill Murray. That an American movie so personal, plotless and quietly lyrical found so much success gives the lie to assumptions about dunderheaded audiences, but it’s not a difficult film to intuitively understand or love –the director’s rhythm and sense of place is just that arresting. Like all of her work, Lost in Translation turns on a notion and a mission so delicate that it’s hard to break it down intellectually; it is less a film than a mood. She’s made a warm, bracing, and exceptionally moving film that dares to be indulgent but conquers it, makes it count. Anybody else could have ruined it, but Coppola knows precisely how to tell her story. Though she won the Academy Award for her screenplay, a script for Lost in Translation must be a pretty odd thing — there are only a couple of full-on dialogue scenes — but nor is it a tale told wholly in visual terms. It’s more about the fusion of mood and music and reality, despite the wisdom of the camera’s undaunted, curious eye.

On seeing this again, I was struck by the repetition of the words “I love you,” invariably said in an empty, obligatory or unrequited manner except when Kevin Shields sings them over the credits; there’s a general impression that the entire film casts a pessimistic pall over romantic love as a whole. I think it’s more cautionary than cynical, which doesn’t make it any less unsettling. Though our two disconnected heroes never say the words and never consummate their affections, are indeed virtually platonic, the comfort and calm, accepting rapport they exhibit together is everything people need from a loving relationship and that neither of them are finding in their marriages. And so they both are trapped, Murray especially.

It’s easy to forget, but the film’s also effortlessly funny, with broader and more physical comedy than you might well anticipate from such a sensitive work; there are some odd bits of ’60s-style “Claw”/”Craw” racism I wish had been more carefully thought over, but generally the wonder and alienation the two leads feel in Tokyo isn’t condescending but just a fact of life when traveling (back in 2005, the last time I saw this, I had pretty much never been anywhere; now, certain scenes in this remind me of time I’ve spent in Australia and New York and even Columbus, Ohio!) — the harnessing of a kind of drunken bliss or dread you only get when your homebase is a hotel room and a moving vehicle. It is a highly specific film nevertheless; the peculiarities and loudness of Tokyo are engaged with by Coppola and Lance Acord in a manner that plays up its beauty and its overwhelming nature at once.

Murray is brilliant, but that’s nothing you didn’t already know; you could suggest he’s become a cult darling since Rushmore, but that would miss the point, which is the off-kilter fusion of comedy and sadness he’s exhibited since the beginning of his career. The ingredient that I believe turns this from an interesting and emotionally rich curio to something of a treasure is Johansson. She plays her part in a manner that makes the viewer want to reach out and reassure her as much as Murray clearly does. The film is the story of Murray’s character but also of an unrequited love, and unlike basically every other film ever made on the subject, the sensuality and desire comes wholly from non-physical human qualities. Yes, Johansson is beautiful, but that’s hardly the point.

In essence, Sofia Coppola has captured things on film that no one (in America, at least) has been able to unveil previously — the beauty of conversation, the chasms between people. In Wes Anderson’s films, the photography is distant from its characters in a fashion similar to Lost in Translation, but very little Anderson’s done has this kind of poignance, perhaps because he seldom gives us such a luxurious opportunity to breathe. Coppola has the audacity to spend several minutes at a time with nothing but a feeling and a lot of pretty pictures mixed up in a city symphony, recalling the almost inexplicable sadness of something like Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

For a movie that makes so much of being in an unfamiliar place, Lost in Translation carries a lot of resonant commentary on the feeling of being truly at home with someone, and of being utterly stagnant and restless. We can’t avoid how much this feels in retrospect like a cry for help from Coppola, who was at this time in a marriage that — in her words — didn’t end well. She was married to director Spike Jonze, a relationship with whom she began when she was kind of a minor-key fashion “it”-girl in the ’90s. (It’s almost forgotten now, but she regularly modeled back then and hosted a bizarre extreme-sports TV show on Comedy Central with, of all people, Zoe Cassavetes.) Years later she would say that friends told her she would “know what to do” about the aloofness and loneliness after she completed this script, though part of its subject is the way a bad relationship isolates us from the rest of the world, friends included.

Giovanni Ribisi, who narrated Coppola’s previous effort The Virgin Suicides, portrays an obvious caricature of Jonze, down to the overexcited stuttering and nasal speaking voice, while Anna Faris amusingly embodies a vapid movie-star stereotype (the antithesis of Murray’s character), whose favorite conversational subjects include total body cleanses and Keanu Reeves’ two dogs. She’s rumored to be modeled on Cameron Diaz (who starred opposite John Cusack in Jonze’s Being John Malkovich) and Ribisi’s character makes it all but explicit that he’s sleeping with her, yet their connection seems so empty and primordial when compared to the one central to the film. The same goes for Murray’s short-lived liaison with a terrible redheaded jazz singer — everything seems stale and false when measured beside the friendship that really drives the story.

Lost in Translation, which I thought was a funny and sweet if slightly overrated romance at the time, now seems like a painfully honest portrait of an unraveling relationship; its surreal displacement and bits of unencumbered warmth invaded my dreams the night after I returned to it. There’s a truly haunting moment in a DVD extra, compiling a half-hour or so of footage from the movie’s chaotic, freewheeling shoot, when Jonze is holding the camera while Coppola walks down the street. We join them mid-conversation; apropos of seemingly nothing they’re saying at the moment, she very quietly (so subtly you almost can’t tell) starts to cry, and immediately lifts her head up and forms a fake smile while talking about working with Bill Murray. That sensation of being stuck in a box despite being surrounded by stuff that should be bringing you joy is what this movie captures flawlessly. It’s a pity Coppola had to go through that to express it so lovingly, but then again, so must we all.

At the end of everything, this movie is about what The Graduate referred to as “drifting”; despite their age, experience and lifestyle gap, the two leads are desperately sad for virtually identical reasons. Johansson’s Charlotte has the added agony of not yet finding a direction in her life, whereas Murray’s self-portrait Bob has been on a set path for years but still seems absent from himself. Neither of them can talk to their spouses without getting wound up in a web of miscommunications and resentments. The film presents no solution because there isn’t an obvious one, not in the limited framework it sets for itself. In the final scene Charlotte and Bob have together, we’re not permitted to know what’s said or concluded or how they leave it — most of us will inevitably project our own wishes. What we know is that there’s something faintly hopeful poking through the sad closing shots of Bob’s ride out of Tokyo. Maybe the hope comes from just knowing he and all of us can still feel these things and forge such a deep bond, maybe it’s all empty and will come to nothing. But the impeccable beauty and restraint of this film’s finale clinches it as the rare sort of movie that, if it can’t change someone’s life, might very well cause them to start to rethink it.

I wrote in 2004: “The one conclusion I feel comfortable reaching is that Sofia Coppola is a more extraordinary talent than anyone imagined. Where she will go after this is anyone’s guess.” The three films she’s made since Lost in Translation are all rich, provocative and extremely divisive, which only validates one’s faith in her. Thanks undoubtedly to her family’s long-running presence in the film business and to the liberating success of this picture, she’s one of the few American directors of our era who’s been permitted to essentially do what she wants with no compromise, which is a secondary reason why she very well might be the finest working filmmaker in the country today. The major reason is that she is just brilliant. Money can give you resources, but it can’t make you magically capable of crafting what will stand always as one of the most devastating, knowing portrayals of deep friendship in cinema.

[Includes some material from a review first posted in 2004.]

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