Why I Love… #77: Lost In Translation

Year: 2003

Director: Sofia Coppola

Stars: Bill Murray (Bob Harris), Scarlett Johansson (Charlotte), Giovanni Ribisi (John),  Catherine Lambert (Jazz Singer), Anna Faris (Kelly), Fumihiro Hayashi (Charlie Brown).

Genre: Romance

Lost In Translation saw me fall in love with two women. Allow me to try to organise my thoughts on how to express these binding affections, which have grown and mutated over the years as they have both continued to change, surprise and beguile me. The first, Sofia Coppola, I was already fairly smitten with. Her debut directorial effort – 1999’s The Virgin Suicides – I had already chalked up as something of a minor miracle; somehow transferring my favourite novel at the time into a satisfying movie in its own right (and we all know how hard book-to-screen adaptations can be).

I had been impressed with Coppola’s eye. How she was able to present scenes from a detached perspective that was also, somehow, extraordinarily intimate. Her gaze seemed voyeuristic, in a sense, but that voyeurism was tempered by a poetic consideration and respect for the objects of her attention. The Virgin Suicides set in place a number of visual sensibilities and recurring themes (isolation, growing pains, affluent detachment) that have dappled her movies ever since. Working to the beat of her own drum for Lost In Translation, Coppola was able to expand her creativity in these areas, sculpting a film which feels at once intensely personal and beautifully universal thanks to its jetlagged, fragile, but perfectly judged storyline.

The film remains the apex of an imperfect career, and its reasonable to say Coppola hasn’t equalled it since (though this downplays the merits in all her subsequent features; the unfairly maligned Marie Antoinette and Somewhere and her most recent effort The Bling Ring). Here, in the vertical skies of Tokyo, Coppola found the perfect location for a tale of outsider ennui as disenfranchised young wife Charlotte befriends middle-aged film star Bob Harris while he films a whisky commercial at the expense of his family and artistic satisfaction. The city itself becomes a physical counterpoint to Bob and Charlotte’s societal and emotional dislocation.

All around them the world bustles; it is noisy, vibrant, inconsiderate and unfeeling. The hotel becomes a sort of embassy for their respective fatigues. Tired as they both are, neither can sleep. Disjointed even from ‘normal’ biometric rhythms, Bob and Charlotte find one another sharing the same physical and emotive plane. Instead of compounding their situations, their connection revitalises both of them. They are never better than when they are together. In a sense they are entering a pact of pure escapism. But what is a romance of not a perfect, mutually agreed delusion perpetuated by both parties?

And while Murray is fantastic as Bob Harris (arguably never better / certainly robbed at the Oscars), it is Scarlett Johansson who became – kind of immediately – my second great love of the movie. I’d been aware of her as a second-fiddle presence in the likes of Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t There, but Coppola single-handedly launched her into a much greater sphere of opportunity with Lost In Translation… something she hasn’t shrunk from capitalising on since. And while a great many young, pretty actresses turn out to be mere flashes in the pan of Hollywood’s taciturn system (still in crucial need of reform), Johansson has perpetuated success through juggling shrewd popular pictures (the Marvel films) with more refined artistic choices (Her and Under The Skin most notably and recently). But Charlotte is probably her defining performance.

Murray gets deserved credit, but Johansson is often unfairly left out of the conversation. Charlotte is fully formed. And while her directionless plight may seem discernibly weak by some arbitrary grading curves, it’s wholly relatable. Shit, at 32 I feel like I’m drifting in a world of possibilities shrinking as quickly as they expand. Coppola lets us feel her restlessness, her yearning for more, however intangible that ‘more’ might be. Husband John is oblivious, lost in contentment as he lives an effervescent young trendsetter’s lifestyle. It’s comparatively shallow when compared to Charlotte’s deeper existential longings for completion and fulfillment. Bob Harris may not be the answer to her quest, but he understands it. The romance here is as much about the treasured discovery of friendship – of kinship – as it is for any secondary sexual connotation.

But Charlotte is undeniably very sexy. Aside from Johansson’s own eminent features, she is sexy for her tentativeness, her yearning and thoughtfulness as much as for her wit and wiles. Her rendition of ‘Brass In Pocket’ during a karaoke session (pictured) frizzles with sexiness. Bob Harris is understandably bewitched. But it goes both ways. Check the look in her eyes when he sings Roxy Music’s “More Than This” back at her. They are very sexy together (that scene in the bar near the end when they share a table for the last time?). Romantic films live or die on the chemistry between their leads, and Johansson and Murray have it in spades. None of this would work if one player was holding more than half the deck. I’m not trying to take away from Murray’s hugely charismatic performance here by harping on about Johansson, rather I’m trying to underline that Johansson is absolutely his equal, creating a character I’ve looked for across hotel bars ever since.

But my love for this movie extends beyond the wistful crushes of my 20-year-old self watching it in the cinema (no matter how they might perpetuate). Coppola’s assemblage of the material is exemplary. The soundtrack choices are pitch-perfect, from Death In Vegas’ dreamy “Girls” ushering Bob Harris into Tokyo’s day-glo metropolis to the never-finer use of My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” underpinning Charlotte’s gaze out of a similar taxi window during their odyssey through the night midway through the picture. The shoegaze-y choices harmonise with the reflective nature of the two main characters, directly hitting the sense of longing coursing between them. Lance Acord’s documentarian-style cinematography lends the film a sort of transitory weight. Nothing may be permanent in Lost In Translation, but the moments are magical.

The surest example of Coppola’s opportunistic genius in this regard comes early on when, alone in her room, Charlotte steps off of the bed and stubs her toe. A genuine moment and mistake caught and kept and later captialised on to charming comedic effect (that trip to the hospital); it encapsulates Coppola’s magpie sense of capturing moments of truth within her beautiful everyday fictions. And the film is a feast of moments. I’m absolutely mystified by those that dismiss it as ‘dull’. Every scene has some gorgeous element to savour, making repeat visits irresistible.

The flashing lights of Tokyo out of the hotel windows are like a myriad set of beacons, reminiscent of the one Tony Soprano sees in his near-death dream in the last season of The Sopranos. Except, for the characters in Lost In Translation, potential salvation is not found without but within. When Bob and Charlotte separate – an ending that is both triumphant and heartbreaking – one senses that they will carry one another within themselves wherever they go. And again the soundtrack choice is perfect; The Jesus And Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” blazing the film out with one final celebratory flourish.

Perhaps her later works have failed to capture similar widespread affection for their increasing focus on the rich or socially elite. And while Bob and Charlotte are hardly average-Joe blue-collar workers, their relatability makes them feel as though they’re at the tips of our fingers. Lost In Translation makes me reach out even as they slip away in front of me. I keep watching hoping for a better chance at holding onto them both; the bittersweet truth is that I never will.

3 thoughts on “Why I Love… #77: Lost In Translation

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