Several years of me bashing Sofia Coppola as a talent-less hack have just gone out the window, since she has managed to create such a quiet, penetrating and amazing film that I would’ve never expected. At first you could say that her debut The Virgin Suicides was nothing but a fluke, but in her sophomore effort she’s proven that she’s inherited her legendary father’s talent and finally has shed the curtains that kept her in her father’s shadow and has come to be a filmmaker in her own right.The above has been kept as a point of historical reference at my first stab at reviewing this movie all those years ago, but allow me to start again. There are so many things that you can say about Lost in Translation, that one runs the danger of perhaps reading into the film too much. I guess that was my only baffling mistake during the endless amount of times I watched this film, which was far and away my favorite film of 2003 (and for my money, the best film of 2003, yes even over Return of the King; stone me now.). I guess my problem was that for the most part, I tended to view a film in the most superficial sense, admiring its already impressive mechanics, the mood, the acting, the direction, the photography and editing, the music (especially the music, more on that later), etc. But yet there was always something fascinating and mysterious about this film that it always made me come back to it. Something that I was unable to explain about it back then, which made it all the more frustrating, because it was right there in front of me on the screen talking to me, but I couldn’t make a word of what it was saying. Yet, like dark matter, I could feel it, and it made perfect sense to me; I just couldn’t express it.
"A timeless experience amongst a foreign environment"
This is not a long pun, by the way. It WAS how I felt while watching this film, all those years ago. And now several years later, either due to experience or continuing knowledge and education, it suddenly came to me, the very thing that I couldn’t see or understand, last night when I decided to once again pop this film into my DVD player and revive the magic spell that this film placed on me from the second time I saw it onwards. Writer/director Sofia Coppola composed an intimate film about friendship, but also about love, not a carnal love so to speak, but a love which propels every single aspect of our lives, and drives us throughout them. Thanks to her humorous, reflective and wistful dialogue, her in-tune directing skills and a pair of excellent performances, this film comes to life and manages to capture a microcosm of such a feeling in a brief but everlasting 102 minutes.
The film concerns two people in similar but different stages of their lives: Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a middle aged actor who has flown from the U.S. to Japan to do promotion work for a Japanese Whiskey, commercials and all. Bob seems bored and depressed, and the tiredness and jet lag from the long flight from the US to Japan highlights these problems more intensely. It’s clear that he’s there for the money and also to get away from the miserable sameness that unfortunately has become his family life, yet at the same time he groans about the decision since he feels he should’ve been doing a play somewhere instead. Then there’s Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent University graduate whom is in Japan thanks to her husband of two years, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer that is shooting a rock band at their record label’s request. Charlotte herself is also going through a bad stage of her marriage: Both she and John love each other but have different backgrounds (Charlotte studied philosophy) and thanks to this, a huge void has developed between them (though John may perhaps not admit it or does not know it yet) to such degree that when Charlotte subtly taunts John by erotically walking past him with nothing more than a blouse and panties on, he’s totally indifferent to her. That, and her repeated periods of loneliness in the hotel room due to the fact that John is busy working, along of course with the jet lag and different time zones, make for a crushingly boring and tedious experience, and it makes her wonder if her marriage is even working at all. It’s through sheer chance that both Bob and Charlotte find themselves one sleepless night at the hotel bar, and suddenly, after a couple more encounters, a surprising friendship develops, and it is after several get-togethers and gatherings along the city, where they discover that they both have several things in common, they are soul mates and as the days count down towards Bob’s eventual return to the States, perhaps they actually feel something more for each other.
The brilliance of this film lies not only in the characters themselves, but the location of the story. Coppola frames her two main characters against a background that is completely foreign to us, and thanks to the work of cinematographer Lance Accord, Tokyo, Japan is less like a city in the western sense, and more like an alien metropolis; the customs, the way buildings are built, their technological advances and how they are used in daily life, and lastly, how Japanese people are and interact with each other. It is an inspired decision, for it enables Coppola and editor Sarah Flack to highlight, compare and contrast these customs and traits to the usual western traits of our main characters and see how out of place they are, literally and figuratively. She brilliantly sets tone of the film in the opening scenes when Bob arrives from the plane and is greeted in the most cordial of ways from the Suntory reps, with gifts and their business cards and their brevity. Later on, Bob is given (hilariously, it must be said) firsthand knowledge as to how a Japanese film set is and how it works, and how in the supposed interest of the parties involved, a long rant and request from the director only ends up being a brief sentence from the interpreter asking for more intensity. Later on, Charlotte, in one of her routine trips out from the hotel, notices several things about Japanese life that sometimes overwhelm her, the way people go about their business, their kindness towards strangers, how they work and the wide creative liberties of how they work, and how they have fun, be it with videogames and karaoke bars. But most importantly, after encountering one of John’s clients, Kelly (Anna Faris), whom is an actress in Tokyo promoting her latest film and whom by her attitude represents everything that is so plastic and soulless about western life (she later calls John asking him to do a photo shoot for her, fueling even more the possibility that John’s love for Charlotte is not all absolute as he may claim it is), she later on observes a recently married couple at a nearby park, and it’s in this moment where she suddenly finds something that is the key of what has been lacking in her life with John and seems to find it almost without knowing it and in endless bounds with Bob: Harmony, emotional harmony. Formalities and responsibilities are always things that you do, routines that you have to follow in order to go about your lifestyle, your work and even your marriage, but what are these things to you and what do they mean to you if there isn’t any emotional resonance behind it all? If you lose the love for the things you do, or if you’re unable to find the one thing that you want to do in your life and much less obtain any support from your loved one in finding it, then they just become routines; tiresome, boring routines. This reflects on Bob as well, as his phone conversations with Lydia clearly reflect that any love that was between them is now gone, and all now has been replaced with the chores of dealing with the kids and worrying about what color of carpet she wants for Bob to put in his studio. This, along with the frustrating and (hilariously) pathetic shit that he has to endure during the commercial film and photo shoots for the whisky he’s being paid to endorse, make his life even more miserable.
But when he gets together with Charlotte, he suddenly feels alive, like no other time, and feels in complete harmony and peace with her. It’s this love that he feels for her (and vice versa), this harmony, what gets lost in the translation of our daily and usual exchange of routines.
The poetic final scene not only gives you a sensation of “We’ll always have Paris”, but that there is hope for these two that later on in life, despite their binding lifestyles, that they will fulfill their destinies together in the not too distant future.
Despite the fact that it was released amid the rampant fury of the Lord of the Rings phenomenon, Lost in Translation caught my eye almost by accident. I had read and was intrigued by the amount of reviews that the film received, and upon first viewing I was baffled by its apparent simplicity and shallowness. But upon a second view, the film suddenly opened up to me and took me to a journey of soul-searching that I had not experienced before and which also fascinated me, even if I couldn’t completely understand it. Yet its attention to detail, its emotional range and its use of music had a profound influence on me. It was this film that introduced me to the musical genius that is Kevin Shields, and the crushing and yet beautiful loudness of My Bloody Valentine (his band), The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the remaining realm of the Alternative Rock genre. This musical genre has always been a prominent force in college radio and the mass of listeners whom were tired of mainstream music, because it was music that channeled and echoed the hopes and fears of the everyday person in a more honest sort of way. Sofia Coppola is clearly one of these people, clearly understanding of this emotional current that flows within this musical genre. Therefore, her weavings of songs like the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” or Roxy Music’s “More Than This” into Charlotte’s and Bob’s respective karaoke performances, which end up channeling both of these characters’ deep thoughts and feelings that they have for each other, are strokes of sheer genius. Then, as we see them riding the cab back to the hotel to the sound of My Bloody Valentine’s shimmering “Sometimes”, the apex of their blooming friendship is reached, and it reflects itself on Charlotte’s face. And then their final scene as we hear “Just like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain in the background, their love for each other is consummated, crystallized forever. It’s these magic moments that stayed ingratiated in my mind and in other people’s minds forever, and full credit is deserved for Ms. Coppola, along with Ms. Flack, and Mr. Accord to pull such feats off with such gracefulness and precision.
The other two main threads in this fabric also deserve the highest amounts of praise. Bill Murray is masterful as Bob Harris, for he approaches him with such tact; he never goes overboard as typical Bill Murray does, but rather portrays Bob at first as an empty human being, almost soulless, devoid of any emotions, and you can see his face how it really annoys him being unable to resolve his frustrations while constantly trying to pretend a different appearance to the people that he comes in contact with. And yet when he and Charlotte make contact, he completely transforms himself into a jolly and funny guy, with a sharp sense of humor which is belied by his sometimes painful introspective of his married life. Scarlett Johansson pretty much became what you can call “the Alternative ‘It’ girl” with this film, and it’s clear to see why: She embodies her character with the right amount of intelligence (she’s a Philosophy major, for fuck’s sake!) and vulnerability. Her secret weapon is her own face as she manages to express her character’s feelings and emotions through her façade, and it’s just amazing how she is able to make cutting observations about either the emptiness of her surroundings and the people she meets or the sometimes unbearable hurt and numbness or her loneliness with just a simple look. And when she finally finds happiness and joy whenever she’s around Bob, her reflection of that happiness is simply stunning to watch.
Giovanni Ribisi doesn’t have a ton of screen time but is very reliable as is Anna Francis as Kelly. It has been said that both characters probably represent two people that exist in real-life and were once part of Ms. Coppola’s life, but let’s not get into that.Years ago, I said about this movie that it was one about friendship and human dignity. That is partly true, but it’s actually more than that; it is a movie about literally being lost in a world full of wonders and pits and the finding of friendship and love and being able to channel those feelings with your loved one with dignity, respect and more importantly, in complete harmony. I can’t think of any other film expressing such train of emotions without including being blatantly sexual, nor with such genuine sense of joy and even fun. Lost in Translation stands apart in such regard, and because of that, it is a film that deserves to be ranked amongst the classics and a film that deserves viewing at least more than once, before you die. 5-5
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=8132&reviewer=235
originally posted: 11/17/04 08:51:25