The first time I saw Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), it was after a 34 hour all nighter. Naturally, I fell asleep about 25 minutes in. But what I had seen during those hallucinatory minutes, drifting in and out of consciousness before falling into slumber, had been enough to enchant me, so that when I awoke, like a fairy tale, I immediately watched the film. Spellbound, it became one of my favourite films, a film of intense subtlety and desires.
Re-watching it again recently on a big screen, reminded me just why I loved it.
Lost In Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) stars Bill Murray as an ageing middle career actor, Bob Harris, arriving in Japan to shoot an advert for one Suntory Whiskey. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a recent graduate from Harvard married to a man she’s not sure about (one of my favourites, Giovanni Ribisi), while Bob’s marriage has arrived at a point in time where the functional has taken over completely. Both of them are alone, both of them in a country they find alien, both of them wanting intensely that they had someone who understands.
All of this becomes accentuated by a gorgeously shot Japan. Credit where credit’s due, Lance Accord cinematography presents a world both stunningly beautiful and incredibly jarring in its complexity and stylistic differences to the Western world. The rich vibrant colours of Japan feel tactile here, subtle but luxurious, and the visual presence of scenes is one of deep intensity, constantly pulling you into the world these characters are in.
One of the things that has been raised about the film is about its portrayal of the Japanese culture, how often it seems like it is played for cheap gags at the expense of the Japanese people, how their isolation relies largely on their inability to integrate or understand the Japanese way of life. Which is a deeply frustrating and misguided criticism, because it seems to stem from such a place of malice. Culture shock is a very real phenomena, and very rarely does one have the opportunity and experience and luck to be truly exposed to another culture in a way that someone who has lived it would understand. The Japan they experience is alien to them because it’s a completely different way of life, and the vast chasm of culture is bridged throughout the film, haphazardly and awkwardly, but bridged because they get out and see some of Japan, even if through the eyes of a foreigner.
Anyway, it is not the film’s primary concern to bridge that gap. The location becomes a character in the film because it helps to visually reinforce and explain the inner turmoil of the two lost characters. If that relies on a construction of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, then that’s precisely the aim and driving message behind the film. The translation errors are not just in the language, or the culture, they’re in the ways we lie to ourselves, lie to each other, warp things around us to help avoid some of the more painful burdens we carry. The film seems to carry a warmth for the land they’re in, and presents many facets of the Japanese way of living, from the traditional (Geisha sequence) to the new at the time (Pachinko Parlor, Arcades) to the isolated bubbles built up in every culture to avoid the homeland’s culture (the Hotel itself, which could be anywhere in the world). To suggest that it relies on making fun of the Japanese people is to miss the point entirely, something cruelly ironic in regards to this film.
Bill Murray is nothing short of a modern enigma, one of those actors who simply is employed time and time again over, simply for his persona but also his ability to act. Half of it seems to stem from being Bill Murray, the other half being his genuine astounding ability to fill the impressions of whatever role he’s in. He is Bob Harris in this film, never once are you plagued by that searing doubt mid film where you go “Oh, that’s Bill Murray playing someone”, he is consistent and constantly believable in an achingly painful role. Exactly the same can be said for Scarlett Johansson, at the time still a relative unknown. I’ve already waxed lyrical about its cinematography, but again the way the frame allows the characters room to breathe, to be mellow, to allow for those natural pauses in dialogue which makes it feel more intimate, more well real.
Finally of course, as all great films, its strength lies in its story. The writing is sincere, honest to the point of painful, as we see how relationships might really fall apart, even for those who live up in ivory towers of wealth and fame and fortune. How the dramas of life often unfold in those subdued, quiet longings rather than those great dramatic explosions we’re so used to. How those relationships we build drift slowly downstream, sometimes into a different current, pulling us away from what we were so sure about moments ago. How our inner worlds only barely peek through at the light on the surface, the attraction growing between them through snatched glances, despite everything surrounding them. It’s a dream, played out away from the reality of the consequences that follow it. The story beyond it is probably filled with pain, heartbreak, probably a messy divorce on both sides (who knows?) But in the moment, it’s a beginning, and it helps to keep in mind the beginnings that our main characters had before with their partners who they’re so dissatisfied with at the time of the story, and that while its painful to acknowledge that things aren’t right anymore, at least for Bob Harris and Charlotte, that’s because they’ve found something that is right.
But who knows, maybe that will get lost in translation too.
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