An Appreciation – Lost in Translation
The beauty of life is that it is not made up of plots. We don’t go through our daily routines in three act structures where our actions slowly build up to a climactic peak. Most times, we move within our own bubbles not knowing where we’re going but eager to see what we find. Life is often simply observation, regarding the world as it operates all around us. There’s so much we’ve learned about each other but there’s still a lot about humanity waiting to be discovered. It’s mystifying, tragic, and wonderful. It’s also boring. Only a few really great filmmakers can depict life in all its simple complexity. Sofia Coppola is one of them.
Lost in Translation (2003) does so much without necessarily trying to do anything. Your average moviegoer may come out of it thinking nothing happens, that it’s only two people talking and nothing more. But Coppola’s success – both in her writing and directing – is by making this simple interaction the heart and soul of the whole piece. The relationship between Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) transcends traditional film mechanics. This isn’t interested in your usual narrative. In fact, while there is plenty of romantic elements, in truth this is not a romance as we’ve come to understand it. The connection is not based out of lust or sex, but out of empathy.
On the surface, it might have appeared that way. Bob is a veteran actor visiting Tokyo to shoot a whisky commercial. He is married with kids, but they’re back in the U.S. and he interacts with them sparingly over the phone. Charlotte is tagging along with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) who is constantly seen running out on assignment, leaving her on her own. In a lesser film, these two would have hooked up early and often. But Coppola molds them to be much more interesting than that. Both Bob and Charlotte know that – once they share a connection – what they have is unique, and that sex would only ruin it. They don’t even speak to each other until a half hour into the run time. Coppola patiently develops their backgrounds so that when they finally meet, we can see how they would relate to one another.
That relationship is based out of loneliness. Neither Bob nor Charlotte is alone, but they are certainly lonely. They’ve each entered a phase of their life where they feel stuck in a haze, wandering through the muck to grasp some kind of purpose or direction. It’s fascinating to note how Coppola makes them relatable to the other, even though they are in completely separate stages of their lives. Bob is much older, with a life’s worth of experience on his shoulders, yet through his mind he thinks, “Is this it?” His dreams of being a legitimate actor never included doing whiskey commercials for a foreign market. He has very little interest in what type of burgundy carpet his wife wants to put down in their house. Bob is so adrift that he even forgets one of his kid’s birthdays.
Charlotte is much younger, going through the anxiety of not knowing what she wants to do. Her young marriage to John appears to be a loving one, but little hints cause us to wonder if they’ll last. She understands little about his work – when they run into John’s friend, the actress Kelly (Anna Faris), Charlotte finds nothing in her that she can attach to. John’s subtle neglect has built up inside of her. It’s not that he’s cruel, but they exist on different wavelengths. When his work calls him away, Charlotte spends her time exploring the city, or visiting a nearby temple or garden. She wants to break out and discover different things and go to different places, but when asked what she desires specifically, she can’t really say. A key scene has her calling a friend from her hotel room, and breaking down in tears. It’s a quiet moment, but gives insight into her character.
Bob and Charlotte meet in the middle, which is why their dynamic works so well. Under Coppola’s steady hand, their interaction works as a respite from their lives. When together, they can forget about all the troubles plaguing them, and to live the moment here and now. They are together in this strange place, but they are experiencing it together, right now, just as you are reading these words at this precise moment. The camerawork (from cinematographer Lance Acord) gazes in on their conversations, as though we are eavesdropping on them. The topics they cover and the things they do go in all sorts of directions, never progressing linearly, like real life. Whether it’s in the hotel lounge, in a karaoke bar, or arcade, they move around in spontaneous fashion. Coppola does an excellent job of maintaining this freewheeling tone during these stages. The nightlife shown suggests that anything can happen.