Lost in Translation (2003)

Directed by Sofia Coppola


Lost in Translation is steeped in melancholy.  It’s a lonely story about lonely people in a foreign land.  They are affluent, mostly spending their time in an expensive hotel that rises above the rest of the city, and this affluence suggests a failure of the soul to identify what really matters.  They are successful but unhappy.

The film is often shot at night or in the twilight.  All the colors are faded pastels, like they live in a world once vibrant that has been left to rot.  The film is incredibly silent, with only the occasional pop song there to break up the muted conversations that will soon give way to slightly less muted conversations between the two main characters, Charlotte and Bob (Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray).

Charlotte is the young wife of a photographer, John (Giovanni Ribisi), who is in Tokyo for work and brought her along.  While he’s away during the day she has nothing to do and nowhere to go.  She spends most of her time staring out the window, listening to self-help books and decorating a hotel room they won’t live in long enough for it to matter.  She’s trying hard to make the best of a lonely, temporary situation.

Bob is a famous actor, not unlike Bill Murray himself.  He’s older than the versions of himself he finds on tv reruns or on large billboards.  He’s in Tokyo to make a quick $2 million to pose in an advertisement for suntory whiskey.  Just as Charlotte is questioning her 2 year marriage, Bob has questions about his own 25 year marriage.  To put it simply, he’s experiencing some kind of midlife crisis.

Charlotte and Bob will soon develop a friendship that keeps them both sane and is incredibly heartwarming.  Like the other interactions in the film, their conversations are subdued, using what feels like very little dialogue.  The converse with the comfort of old souls who have known each other for decades.  We see them meet for the first time, but we never see them exchange names, adding to the sense that they’ve known each other on some level for quite some time.

They’re kindred spirits, and they latch onto each other, helping the other open up to what the world has to offer.  And that’s about it.  Lost in Translation has little to no plot other than the exploration of this friendship, but other than a brief sort of falling out, as you’d expect to find in a relationship movie, they are mostly on the same page.  The only thing pulling them apart is real life, which will pull them each back home from Tokyo once their stays are over.

When they part, we get the sense that they will never see each other again (despite the fact that they both live in Los Angeles), but the beauty of their relationship is that it is fleeting, a time out from real life that will remind of instruct them what to look for in the rest of their lives.

Lost in Translation is about a feeling and little else.  It’s a quiet, lean film like Coppola’s later film, Somewhere.  She seems to be after this feeling of isolation and loneliness in the middle of chaos, touched on in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette as well, though Lost in Translation is straight to the point.  It’s about nothing but this feeling.

For the most part the film feels honest, though at a certain point it does strain believability with the depiction of other characters outside of Charlotte’s and Bob’s bubble.  I found this to be a little more grating than the last time I saw this film.  John runs into an actress, Kelly (Anna Faris), he has previously worked with, and she’s meant to represent everything that is shallow, loud and wrong with Hollywood.

Only Charlotte and Bob notice Kelly’s over the top behavior, but she feels like a familiar Anna Faris character from a movie more like Scary Movie or Van Wilder than the one we have here.  The point works, I suppose, insofar as we look at Kelly the same way Charlotte does, but it feels cheap, her character too easy to dislike.  So while Charlotte and Bob are presented with depth, Kelly (and John too) are viewed at from a distance, not giving us any reason to empathize with them, either because Charlotte and Bob don’t have that opportunity or because director Sofia Coppola doesn’t want us to empathize with them, which feels a little unfair.

We’re supposed to identify with our two heroes, and we do, but despite Kelly’s unlikeable qualities, Charlotte’s easy dismissal of her feels quite rude, as John points out.  And maybe this highlights the isolating quality of loneliness, how it not only makes you feel alone but also allows you to push away those around you.  Charlotte isn’t an innocent, passive victim of her own life circumstances.  She has helped fan the flames that make her feel this way.

So maybe that’s what a character like Kelly or John are here for.  They present a sign of life, but it’s a life Charlotte and Bob would want nothing to do with.  And when you feel depressed, as Charlotte and Bob very much are, the whole world starts to feel a little unappealing.  On some level you want to join in the fun, but you have no real interest in that brand of fun.  Whatever they’re smoking, you don’t want any of it.

Lost in Translation is touching, and it’s a nice reminder that there are others out there who feel like you do.  The film has a few similarities to Coppola’s own life, the marriage between John and Charlotte perhaps a comment (as many have noted) on her onetime marriage to director Spike Jonze.  It’s also not hard to imagine that Coppola, the daughter of famous director Francis Ford Coppola, has spent plenty of time in her own life in hotels like the one we see in this film.

Sofia Coppola is an amazing director, and this was only her second film after The Virgin Suicides.  She is very self-assured, and her stories always seem to cut deep into something we all feel.  She knows what she wants to say, the feeling she wants to convey, and she puts everything into creating that feeling, no matter how oppressive or hard to bear it might be.  You really get the sense that each of her films is deeply personal, a representation of who she was at one point in her life.  With some directors you can point to a piece of work and say, “so this is how (s)he sees the world,” but with Coppola you really feel what she seems to have felt, and not many people can so carefully preserve that emotion from a movie’s conception all the way through the editing process.

Up Next: Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Lady Eve (1941)

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