Lost in Translation (2003)
Written & Directed by Sofia Coppola
There’s time in life where you become vulnerable to ennui, the sense of listlessness. From when you are a child to an adult, you will periodically reach points where you question what you are doing and where you are going in life. What compounds that ease would be to feel disconnected from your surroundings, unable to communicate how you feel with others. In this time of social distancing and mandatory isolation, these feelings can be heightened. We don’t know what next year will be much less the next day. Sofia Coppola crafted a story of two people in this state, trying to make sense of life and find a direction.
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging American actor whose career is dwindling. His current gig is shooting a series of commercials for a Japanese whiskey company. Charlotte (Scarlett Johanssen) is a young wife whose husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is on assignment in Japan to film a popular band. Charlotte is left to her own devices and shifts between lying in bed and wandering serene locations in Japan. These two people meet and begin a romance. Now, this isn’t a love story where the two end up in bed but more of a shared emotional connection. They can understand what each other is going through and forge a kind of love.
I think Lost in Translation was one of the first movies that made me realize how much I loved ambient atmosphere in music and aesthetics. The characters’ moods are conveyed through the feel of places, and the music Coppola chooses to accompany these scenes. There’s a strong sense of melancholy throughout much of the movie, and when Bob and Charlotte are finally able to find joy in their environment, the camera goes handheld, and the music is injected with energy. We return to the gentle sadness when it sets in that Bob has to go back to the States, and these two will likely never see each other again.
Lost in Translation isn’t merely about being a stranger in a foreign land, it’s about how we can have that feeling even in our own home. We can infer that Bob and Charlotte’s relationship issues didn’t arise just when they arrived in Tokyo. They brought the baggage with them, maybe they had more things to distract them, something to grasp onto for balance. Now that they are in a land where they don’t hear their language and cultures are different, the personal issues in their lives have risen to the top.
I love how Coppola plays all of this so subtly and with a deft hand. She never lets the story overflow into melodrama but also understands where and where to inject humor. The funny parts provide a release from the misty sadness that hangs over things. Coppola shows excellent skill at knowing when to drop a hard cut to shift the mood; when to linger on a quiet moment to give the audience time to breathe it all in. Lost in Translation is her best film in my opinion and maybe was so good it’s actually hurt the way her following movies were received. I think Marie Antoinette isn’t too bad, but many audiences wanted something more like this.
Lost in Translation feels like a movie that was predicted the existential drift that was coming to our society. This before the explosion of the internet and the smartphone, so there isn’t even the facade of communication with faceless beings on a screen. Coppola does use the architecture and design of Tokyo to get across the way mass media tries to distract us from the internal and personal. Bright flashing neon signs and cacophonous video game arcades overload our senses. Then Coppola will show us silent parks and temples, Charlotte ping-ponging between these two moods. If you haven’t seen Lost in Translation, please do so. It’s a beautiful film about things that are so relevant to us right now.