You are here

Lost in Translation

dir: Sofia Coppolla
[img_assist|nid=1000|title=And yet I don't believe for a second that Bill and Scarlett even vaguely liked each other. Bill and Sofia, on the other hand...|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=300]
Considering how little press this film has received and the manner in which it has been criminally ignored, by critics, by audiences, by homeless people, I thought I'd do the greater community a service by bringing this film to the attention of the billions of people out there hunched over and trembling in the cold, shadowy vale of ignorance.

Yeah, right.

Rivalling only Mystic River in terms of overblown ejaculatory press over the last year, Lost in Translation has amazed many people by having achieved such incredible notoriety for what is essentially a low key, small scale film. I mean, it's a lovely little film, but the frenzy surrounding it leaves me utterly perplexed.

The fact that it's competing against films like Return of the King for the Best Picture and Best Director awards shows how truly turvy topsy this crazy world is becoming. After the big budget excesses of films like the last instalment in the Rings trilogy, the oceanic blokey splendour of Russell Crowe, a few hundred men and his massive ego all crammed into a wooden ship on the high seas in Master and Commander: The Far Side of Credibility and the annual Miramax superficial Oscarbait Cold Mountain, perhaps Lost in Translation was the perfect antidote. All the same, the manner in which these films get compared in these arbitrary ways is profoundly mystifying to me. It's like having an event at the Olympics where a weightlifter, a heavy weight
boxer, an ice skater and one of the cleaners all compete for the same gold medal.

No-one has to or needs to tell me how meaningless the Oscars or any awards are, really. All the same Lost In Translation has received a stack of them.

Why? Surely lots of people heard all the buzz and went to see the film wondering what all the fuss was about and came away confused. It's not a raucous comedy, it's not a passionate romance. There is virtually no plot to speak of, and much of the film consists of shots of Tokyo through a hotel or a car window. It's like a quarter of the film, at the very least. One could almost go so far as to say the film plays like one long film clip; beautifully shot, languid, imprecise and indistinct with elusive elements that don't fit cleanly.

That sounds disparaging, but it's not meant to be. It's a different kind of film, even for Sofia Coppola, markedly different from her first film The Virgin Suicides. What is pretty apparent is that there is a personal element to the story as written by Coppola, a certain amount of herself invested in the film. Which is both to her credit and the credit of the people heaping such praise upon it.

Bill Murray has achieved a curious level of respectability at this advanced stage of his career. The films he's been in over the last five years (mostly) represent a significant departure from the roles that started his career. Ignoring the fact that he was in the relatively crap Charlie's Angels movie (and God knows I'm trying to forget), his roles in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and this here little gem represents that he now more successfully achieves laughs through doing less of the manic stuff and more from simply being the
strange guy that he is.

Some of the humour here is still of the pratfall / snappy line variety, but much of it comes from the weird place that his character seems to be coming from. Murray himself and the character he plays here have this same strange reserve, exude this strange vibe which makes for compelling viewing at the very least from my point of view.It comes from a fairly unique place, and the role and the actor perfectly synchronise to elevate the film.

I can't even really pinpoint it further. It's almost like his pride has been wounded irreparably, and it comes out in his tentative interactions with people even when he's at his charismatic best. Also, he has this weariness that goes beyond jetlag and insomnia, a weariness born of discontent with where one finds himself.

The third wheel on this tricycle ride, Scarlett Johansson more than holds up her end of the bargain. She also delivers an excellent performance as a girl unsure of her place in the world. When her character, Charlotte and Bill's character Bob gravitate towards each other, it's not for the usual reasons, and isn't played out in a
predictable fashion.

Japan takes centre stage in the film, as the alien environment where our characters find each other. Whilst they aren't so completely disconnected or helpless as to be in danger, our characters keep finding themselves in situations so surreal that mostly its used to represent how lost they are mentally, as well as for some pretty funny vignettes.

At other times they seem to act as if it's all par for the course. The film moves forward more from mood to mood rather than because of any plot impetus. There are plenty of scenes that don't seem to build to
anything or be connected to anything else, but that doesn't detract at all from the overall enjoyment of the film.

The central relationship between Bob and Charlotte isn't exactly conventional, but it's not that out there either. People describing it as a 'platonic' relationship obviously saw a completely different film from the one I saw. All the same to have reduced it to something as commonplace as two people fucking each other would have detracted from the overall beauty of their relationship. There is a humour and a poignancy here that you're never going to see in any film labelled a 'romantic comedy'.

Ultimately they're two people cast adrift in a strange land that doesn't make a lot of sense to them, at a time when their lives don't make too much sense either. Charlotte is a recent graduate, and recently married, unsure what she wants to do with her life or what her 'place' is in this world. She's in Japan because her husband is a photographer shooting some bands, and she had no reason not to tag along. She also finds the jetlag almost all-consuming.

Bob is a Hollywood 'star' in Japan to collect a 2 million dollar paycheck for promoting Suntory whisky. The scenes where he is being photographed for the whisky ads are worth the price of admission alone. He doesn't find Japan bewildering so much as completely insane. He mostly seems to be getting through with a good grace that attempts to mask his growing frustration but doesn't succeed. His dislocation comes from his feeling of (emotional) distance from his wife, who behaves passive aggressively towards him in their frequent phone conversations because of his continued absences from home due to his work. He also feels like a bit of a shill doing these awful commercials and appearing on bizarre talk shows.

He seems to be at a loose end career-wise, is slowing going mad from being in such a strange place at a strange time and being utterly unable to sleep. Charlotte and he find each other when they most need each other, but the relationship by its very nature is based on a transitory need, a knowledge that it is ephemeral and fleeting. This lack of permanence doesn't detract in the slightest, if anything it intensifies the whole journey and gives it added poignancy.

I've read a lot of comparisons between this and Richard Linklater's talkie romantic masterpiece Before Sunrise. They're completely different films, and I don't feel that the comparison is valid. Except to say that they are two movies that could comfortably wear the label 'romance' without it being a criticism. They are both touching films about people that share a brief period of time together and find themselves inevitably drawn to each other. However in Before Sunrise they fall in love through conversation, a constant flow of words within which they reveal more to each other than they probably revealed to anyone else in years. Lost in Translation is far more languid, and the dialogue is nowhere near as relentless. These two cling to each other because they are lost and need the solace that the other uniquely provides. But they both know that outside of the insane Japanese context, that nothing will remain except for memory.

There is sexual attraction, and sexual jealousy as well (for those that believe it to be platonic), but it is handled perfectly well. Their growing connection occurs through shared experiences, and bizarre experiences at that, though I would have to say personally that the moment where they're all singing karaoke, and Charlotte dons a pink wig and sings that Pretender's song would have to be the moment where Bob would have to have been hooked in.

From Charlotte's point of view perhaps it is more complex. Feeling neglected by her hipster doofus husband (clearly based on Coppola's recently divorced ex-husband Spike Jonze and played here well by Giovanni Ribisi) and emotionally fragile, she isn't exactly swept off her feet by the charismatic and charming Bob. If anything despite the fact that she clearly likes the guy she is as caustic with him as she is with anyone else. Perhaps the additional element is the actual fact of Bob's age, and the life experience he has which she wonders about, feeling adrift and without purpose as she does.

All this theorising shouldn't give the impression that this is a film of staggering depth or weighty pretension. I'm sure a lot of people found it pretentious, but there's little I can do about that apart from smacking them all upside the head. I didn't, in fact I found it pretty light and sweet. The added significance of what goes on comes from the fantastic cinematography and the quality of the performances. It's still, and I hesitate to use the phrase without stabbing myself in the head with a rusty nail, a light romantic comedy that doesn't fall prey to the usual pitfalls that plague the genre.

It is filmed beautifully, and its generally languid feel reminded me most of the mid 90s films by Wong Kar Wai such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. Thematically the stories are nothing alike of course, but there's something about Lost in Translation that reminded me of his work. And that's not a bad thing to be reminded of at all. All the same Sofia certainly has created a film all her own, and were this a year where Return of the King didn't deserve Best Picture so much then I would gladly see her get Best Director (at the very least). But I don't think this is her turn, which is a pity.

Ultimately, a lot of people will see this film thinking that it's the Second Coming of Jesus and Buddha all on the one DVD all because of the insane press that it's been receiving which is only getting more intense since the Golden Globe Awards leading up to the Oscars. They're going to come away from the film saying "hey, what was the big fucking deal?" and they'd be entitled to that opinion. It's a wonderful film, but so subtle and low key (in its non-slapstick moments) that it's going to just waft by some people with high expectations.

It's a truly lovable film, and I enjoyed it immensely. But then again I love practically anything Japanese, anything with Scarlett, and Bill Murray, so maybe I'm not the most objective reviewer on the planet.

8 Japanese guys called Charlie Brown singing Sex Pistols songs out of 10

"Can you keep a secret? I'm trying to organize a prison break. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?" - Lost in Translation