Lost in Translation

(Sofia Coppola, USA/Japan, 2003)


1. Review (2003)

Picking a title that is at once pithy and true to the film it heralds often seems to be an abandoned art in these test-market-driven days. But writer-director Sofia Coppola hit the jackpot when she stumbled upon the label Lost in Translation. Not only does this title announce her film’s comic premise of culture clash – Americans trying in vain to cope with Japanese customs – but it perfectly encapsulates its dominant mood and theme: the sensation of being lost, unmoored in both a particular, foreign place and in one’s emotional life.


Bob (Bill Murray) is an actor coasting through his career. Like so many American celebrities, he is brought to Tokyo (at a fabulous fee) to appear in commercials for whiskey. Bob is ushered through a bewildering array of photo shoots and TV guest appearances. In between barking at his agent on the mobile to get him back home as quickly as possible, he examines the frosty messages from his wife that snake out of the hotel’s fax machine. In that same vast, airless hotel resides another displaced American, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), not long married to John (Giovanni Ribisi) – and from whom she feels increasingly estranged.


Of course, as in the classic romantic comedy formula, Bob and Charlotte are drawn together like mirror images: both their spouses seem soulless and materialistic, indeed everyone around them seems petty and vacuous – while they share the spark of a deeper, more authentic affinity, despite their evident age difference. (University-educated Charlotte is especially withering about Bob’s signs of mid-life crisis.) But Lost in Translation offers, in several respects, an unusual modern romance.


First of all, it is a resolutely chaste movie, in which any eroticism sparely expresses itself in lingering looks, boozy conversations and the occasional held hand. Second, it is a realistic and even moral story, which does not bank solely on the thrill of the fling, but also encourages both its characters and us to grapple with the complexities of life’s relationships. (A scene in which Bob movingly eulogises his kids is crucial in this respect.)


Lost in Translation is about what anthropologists call the liminal experience, poised between two phases of life. Cinema typically evokes the realm of the liminal in its hormonally-charged stories of teenagers, full of violent desire and longing for a better world. Coppola brings a slightly precocious ambience of world-weariness to this in-between state: for her, it is not about being ecstatic, but about being lost, dazed and confused. (She had already turned the teen formula on its liminal head in what remains her best film, the slow-burning directorial debut The Virgin Suicides [1999].)


In this luxury hotel – a seemingly airless vacuum underscored by the maddening low-volume buzz of Muzak and air-conditioning – Bob and Charlotte roam like vampires, unable to sleep. Their insomnia takes them out into the night streets for flashes of groovy bars, strange strip clubs and private karaoke rooms. The feeling of spaced-out, low-key intoxication they share has no relation to drugs; instead, Bob’s embarrassed, drawling rendition of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This” registers as indirect personal revelation.


If there was ever a film to prove that cinema can sometimes get by solely on the sheer loveableness of its actors, Lost in Translation is it. The role of Bob is the apotheosis of Murray’s career. It brings together every aspect that the actor has laboured, over the years, to add to his persona: a cynical sensibility, triumphant superiority, an air of sadness, plus befuddlement in the face of a rapidly changing contemporary world. Spinning all of that with a perfect sense of comic timing and a camera which clearly adores gazing at the star’s craggy but still attractive features, Coppola produces a beautiful homage to an often under-appreciated performer.


With Johansson, the process is somewhat different – but no less respectful. She is an actor still at the beginning of defining her on-screen personality, and Coppola turns that tentativeness and fuzziness into the very definition of Charlotte’s character. We are given poignant glimpses of the displaced heroine’s confusion and desperation (especially in a long-distance telephone conversation with her mother). And, from the stunning opening shot, Coppola cultivates a casual but rich appreciation of her understated glamour.


Coppola has made an ingenious career choice with this project. The Virgin Suicides was a complex, haunting piece that placed a large ensemble of characters within a hyper-stylised format. It is a fine film, but one that risked imprisoning its director within the school of decorative cool, showing off her eye for wallpaper and her ear for a great soundtrack song collage over her ability to tell a solid, classical story. Given its location and another superb soundtrack assembly, Lost in Translation does not exactly come up short on cool. But Coppola has somewhat stripped away the fussiness of her style here in order to squarely concentrate on a simple, linear tale and on her superb actors. When she does pull out a self-conscious, aesthetic effect (as in the film’s final shots), its force is judicious and direct.


Lost in Translation is not a perfect film, and its spell tends to diminish on repeat viewings. Some of its comic-relief gags are laboured. And Coppola is a little too fond of using an us-against-the-world equation for presenting her would-be lovers: where they are special, sensitive, self-aware and funny, everyone else (such as Anna Faris in an otherwise amusing cameo as the starlet Kelly) is an uncultured moron. This extends, somewhat unwisely, to the film’s presentation of everything Japanese: the sense of Bob and Charlotte’s alienation from this culture is crucial, but Coppola never gets beyond showing it, through their eyes, as ceaselessly wacky and weird, an easy butt for jokes (especially from Murray).


Coppola also needs to refine her grasp of narrative structure: stranded between Hollywood “indies” and the Euro-Asian art film (Olivier Assayas and Wong Kar-Wai count among her influences), she keeps the story simple and dreamy, but does not avoid the trap of repeating situations and leaning heavily on atmospherics in order to fill out the running time. These flaws aside, Lost in Translation almost manages to live up to the enormous hype which surrounded it on first release. It is the kind of film which seeps back into your consciousness when you least expect it – or when you’re sipping whiskey and listening to Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey”.



2. Excerpt from “Empathy Connection” (2005 essay)

Sofia Coppola’s much-admired Lost in Translation, set in Tokyo, is a comedy – not least for the scene in which the local interpreter hired for movie star Bob (Bill Murray) renders long Japanese speeches in a few cryptic English words, while expanding his English questions into great torrents of Japanese speech – but it leaves a sour impression, especially on repeat viewings.


The key image of the film, in every respect, is the first encounter of Bob with the much younger Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in the elevator of the plush hotel where they are both staying. Their eyes meet – partly because they are both taller than every Japanese person in the lift. This is a fine “fish out of water” sight gag worthy of the great romantic comedies of Lubitsch. But it also sets the slightly unpleasant tone of the comedy throughout – “racist” would be far too strong a word to describe the many jokes at the expense of the Japanese and their seemingly inscrutable customs, but it is faintly demeaning.


What irks here is the assumption that these white Americans, in their touchingly tentative love story, are naturally going to be the central focus of the film’s, and our, attention – while everyone else in Japan can figure as a background mass, as eccentric, local colour. The film offers, on this level, a striking illustration of cultural commentator Nataša Durovičová’s take on American monolingualism: that it “reduces anyone who wants to speak to it into a condition of the always-imperfect” (Movie Mutations).


Any attempt at translation – in either the everyday, linguistic sense or the deeper sense of an immersion in and reciprocal give-and-take with another culture – is, in fact, conspicuously missing from this movie. A series of vignettes shows the melancholic Charlotte, who is suffering a marital crisis, wandering about and exploring the “real” Japan. But these are superficial, picture-postcard views: a temple, a bonsai plant, a traditional wedding. Even when Charlotte drags Bob along to party with the people whom she refers to as her Japanese friends, no communication of any sustained sort seems to take place: it’s all dancing, laughing, drinking and karaoke. What happens in the film is a fair mirror of the situation on the set, if the behind-the-scenes extras on the DVD are anything to go by: there, both Coppola and Murray boast that they learned scarcely a word of Japanese in their time on the project.


But surely Sofia Coppola, of all people, is hip to a bigger world than the one traced by the worst instances of American monolingualism? Isn’t she an internationalist, tuned into what is increasingly celebrated these days as global pop culture? Well, yes and no. Coppola is in essentially the same boat as Quentin Tarantino who, when asked if he had any problems directing – without even a smattering of Chinese – the large Asian crew who worked on his Kill Bill (2003-4), responded effusively: “No problem at all. I’ve seen a lot of Chinese martial arts films, so I share with them a certain empathy connection”.


Empathy connections are not entirely to be sneered at – at least they are preferable, on the present world stage, to gestures of paranoid or murderous aggression. But Tarantino’s fantasy of a communication beyond words (nestled, instead, in the lingua franca of action movies!) points to a strange paradox inherent in contemporary “globalised” pop culture. Durovičová puts this well: in the age of Internet, of instant purchasing through Amazon, and of television stations with titles like World Movies, “the more the world became accessible, the less it began to matter to access it, other than on our own terms”. The One World promised by so much pop culture turns out to be a rather shrunken Western – more precisely, Americanised – perspective.


MORE Coppola: On the Rocks

© Adrian Martin December 2003 / October 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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