LOST IN TRANSLATION (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

For some time now I have hankered for less sex, more romance, in films, and I’m always complaining about there being too much plot in American films. Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, comes then as answer to my pleas. I’m pleased with the result, the vibrant humor and delicate, intangible feelings that Coppola has been able to conjure. Little has been lost in translation.

Two Americans meet in a hotel bar in Tokyo. Both are married; we hear his spouse on the phone, and we briefly see her spouse, a photographer, before he abandons her for his work. The man, middle-aged, was (like Don Johnson) something of a movie star in the 1970s and is now in Japan shooting a whisky commercial; the woman, who is young, has just earned her degree in philosophy and hasn’t yet found her path in life. The two connect and become friends and, short of sexual relations, kind of romantic partners. The man cheats on his wife in a one-night stand with somebody else, and this makes the young woman jealous; but it’s precisely because he truly loves her (and his wife) that the man won’t bed with the young woman. (Rationalization, this.) Meanwhile, she has restored his emotional life, tentatively at least, to fullness and she has a clearer sense of her own vitality from which her self-involved spouse, John, had carelessly removed her.

The man is Bob Harris. The woman is Charlotte. Coppola is so good at what she does here that we never once anticipate the pair’s having sex. Their making love would break the enchantment of Coppola’s exquisite (and very funny) sophisticated comedy.

Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford, won an Oscar for an original script that’s no great shakes to me. (Coppola also won Independent Spirit and Golden Globe Awards for her screenplay, and the Golden Satellite, and writing prizes from the Southeastern Critics’ Association and critics’ groups in Canada’s Vancouver, Chicago, and Florida.) I would call her writing serviceable. It’s her filmmaking that matters. (Her father, who I understand has at last found his forte in winemaking, has never made a movie that’s even half as good.)

This filmmaking, abetted by Lance Acord’s beauteous, brilliantly dim color cinematography (honored by the Chicago critics), achieves a paradox: within the confines of a city, a kind of road picture, as traveling shots at night from cabs, and Bob and Charlotte running through Tokyo streets à la nouvelle vague, masterfully merge ideas of activity and stasis that are correlative to the alienation and the sense of being lost in their own lives that both characters are experiencing. In the film’s greatest shot, against the distant backdrop of an awesome mountain (Mount Fuji, perhaps?), Bob putts, playing solitaire golf. It’s a shot that deliciously confuses outside and inside as correlative to the film’s idea of stasis-motion, for, likely, Bob is putting inside the hotel against a simulated backdrop. This putting of his is his respite from the faxes with which his wife inundates him concerning family matters, the fabric samples she sends from which he is expected to choose for their home redecorating (about which he cares nothing), and the children we hear in the background of telephone calls from home (about whom, we eventually learn, he cares a great deal, accounting for the quarter-century mark of his marriage). Meanwhile, he is extending his business trip, turning it into a holiday from marriage (“Should I worry, Bob?” his wife asks on the phone), in order to immerse himself longer in the refreshing springs of Charlotte’s youthful, responsive personality. In Tokyo, this is their Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953).

A moment that promises to become classic occurs when Bob is finally about to leave for home. He and Charlotte kiss, and he whispers something in her ear that we can’t hear. Reviewer Roger Ebert is possibly indulging Coppola’s own fatuous notion of the “reality” of her fictional characters when he states that the couple are entitled to their privacy. Whoa; like heavy, man. On the contrary, I believe we can guess the gist of Bob’s parting words even as our inability to hear these underscores the couple’s intimacy rather than any “privacy” they might merit. Bob is telling Charlotte how dear she is for having given him, just by being herself, a new lease on life. He is telling her that he loves her. We certainly know from her expression after they part that whatever Bob has whispered has transformed Charlotte, giving her confidence and quiet joy. However much they know about movies, sometimes commentators seem to know nothing about life.

Bill Murray, a fine comic actor, plays Bob. He has drawn a sack of best actor prizes for his wry portrait of a very lonely, dissatisfied man—the British Academy Award, the Independent Spirit Award, the Golden Globe, the Golden Satellite, and from the National Society of Film Critics, the Southeastern Critics’ Association, and critics’ groups in New York, Toronto, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. His acting, then, is the most widely rewarded of 2003, and Murray is indeed up to the measure of his relatively simple part. (His work doesn’t approach the level, though, of Rémy Girard’s bravura work as a man dying of cancer in Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions.) The more remarkable piece of acting is young Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, a role plainly drawn from Coppola’s own shy, modest personality and invested with richer, if muted, colors and feelings than Murray’s performance shows. (Coppola is about a decade older than Charlotte.) Johansson won the British Academy Award, the Golden Globe, and the best actress prize of the Boston critics. She is lovely, and she is likely to be as much of a tonic for the middle-aged men in the audience as Charlotte is for Bob. I left the theater with added spring to my step.

The principal weakness of her direction is how irritatingly inhuman Coppola makes John, Charlotte’s spouse. Nor does it help that Giovanni Ribisi gives another of his paper-thin performances. To get the point across that Charlotte ought to leave her husband, it isn’t helpful to make him be such a way as to make it impossible to believe that Charlotte ever would have had anything to do with him in the first place. (Charlotte’s lame line, “I don’t know who I married,” seems a lame attempt to paper over the filmmaking mistake.) Coppola should mull this over over a bottle of her father’s cabernet sauvignon.

Otherwise, Coppola builds beautifully on the promise of her Virgin Suicides (1999). I appreciated that in her Oscar acceptance speech Coppola cited Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard as influences on and inspirations for her work. Having seen the film, though, I am reminded how great Jack Nicholson is as David Locke in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975)—a character whom Murray’s Bob echoes, but without the same force or depth. Fellow Keanúdians, please note: we hear Reeves’s name mentioned in the bar hubbub, and it appears on the list of those to whom Coppola expresses her gratitude at the end of the picture. Mysterious, this.

Lost in Translation won the Independent Spirit Award as best film, the best film prize at São Paulo, and the identical accolade of the critics’ groups in Vancouver and San Francisco. The National Board of Review accorded Coppola a special prize for her writing, directing and producing. Coppola’s direction won the Independent Spirit Award, and prizes from the critics’ groups in New York, Boston and Seattle. Coppola also won for her filmmaking at the Valladolid International Film Festival, where she took the International Film Critics’ Award for the film as well. The citation reads as follows: “For the cool detachment and freshness with which she observes the antics of various American and Japanese television and communication industry people in the anonymous surroundings of a large Japanese city, and for the sensitivity with which she modulates the atmosphere of the film from comedy to melancholy.”



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