October 2, 2003

Lost in Translation

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Have you ever traveled to a country where you don’t speak the language? Where your words are worthless, and the native tongue hits your ears like jabberwocky? Everything from your innermost feelings to your food order becomes inexpressible. Essentially, you are reduced to a series of frustration-wracked gestures. What if this sense of alienation was the way you felt about your life? In her latest film, Lost in Translation, writer and director Sofia Coppola confronts this haunting feeling of dislocation through the connection forged by two lost souls amidst their discomfiture with not only the unique cultural backdrop of modern-day Tokyo but also their own lives.

Bill Murray stars as a former red-carpet Hollywood actor, Bob Harris, whose career has fallen by the wayside, and now has resorted to appearing in a high paying advertisement campaign for a Japanese whiskey company. Murray plays the part to a tee, possibly because in some ways, the waning line of his character’s career once resembled that of his own (it’s comeback time now). His daytime entourage of Japanese photographers and translators never understand his acerbic wit and sarcasm, but the audience hears Murray loud and clear, leading to some hilarious scenes. With showerheads too low for his frame, hotel fax machines that ring out in the middle of the night, and automated curtains opening without his control, Bob is terribly out of sync with the Japanese cultural fabric — not even able to sleep.

His comedic difficulties are the least of his problems. The entire premise of his troubled cultural interactions serves as a visual metaphor for his estrangement from love in married life. The only correspondence he has with his wife revolves around carpet samples she Fed Ex-ed to his hotel, as the two rely on a thin blanket of materialism to mask deeper marital conflicts. On sleepless nights, Bob retires to the swanky bar on top of the hotel to drink away his mid-life crisis. This is where he first meets Charlotte, a character similarly out of place.

A Yale philosophy graduate and young newlywed, Charlotte (played by Scarlet Johansson of Ghost World fame) would seem to know where her life is headed, but her aimless wanderings through the maze of the Tokyo cityscape demonstrate just how deficient her sense of self actually is. Nothing turns out as it should for her: neither does she seem to be in love nor does her intellect help her realize the kind of life she wants to lead. Charlotte accompanies her husband, a photographer played by Giovanni Ribisi, to “shoot a band” in Japan, but her husband’s consuming devotion to his career leaves Charlotte alone in the Tokyo Hotel. Idleness allows Charlotte time to lay in bed, where Coppola depicts the squandering of her youthful fecundity and beauty, as she lays half-naked on an unmade bed. When Charlotte walks the bustling city streets, her muted red hair setting her apart from everyone else, we see her continually placing items in formal arrangements — for example, dried flowers in a vase — mirroring her struggle to find her direction. No doubt Coppola’s own stays in Japanese hotels during the making of her father’s films endowed her with the ability to make Charlotte’s experience feel authentic.

Bob and Charlotte exist in entirely different points in their lives, one in the worn shoes of fatherhood and the other in the flexible mold of youth, but they are equally lost. Their mutual desire to break free from the everyday, to feel alive as they never have before, leads them on late-night benders across Tokyo, including a hilarious karaoke session. Even their intimate, introspective conversations move beyond the bounds of a standard relationship. The audience feels elated by the growing connection between two kindred souls, but their relationship, teetering on the brink of infidelity, also draws potent feelings of conflict. This poignant duality between the platonic and the romantic leads the audience through happiness and heartbreak.

Visually, Translation shines. The camera does much of the talking for the characters, as certain angles and scenes capture their essence without the aid of dialogue. Coppola uses high-speed film, which comes across as slightly grainy, to allow her to shoot with relative ease in light or dark situations. The wide-panning shots of Tokyo from the high perch of the hotel windows, the sleek sexiness of the Park Hyatt, the neon chaos of the Japanese streets all exist in the moment, but also hold a timeless, romantic appeal. Additionally, the film boasts a near-perfectly crafted soundtrack. With the help of Air, My Bloody Valentine, and The Jesus & Mary Chain, the fuzz-fed, dream-pop soundtrack depicts the heart of Bob and Charlotte’s lost but found condition. Through sight and sound, the audience is guaranteed to find some part of themselves in Lost in Translation.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman