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Lost In Translation
Dir. Sofia Coppola, U.S. Focus Features
Part of what makes travel so alluring—the bewildering newness of a foreign city—also makes it an alienating by-product of our modern ability to jet about the world at a moment’s notice. Sofia Coppola’s sophomore film, Lost In Translation, brings a new sense of wonder and delight to this familiar ground. In her first feature, an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides, Coppola appeared to be dipping into her own girlhood for inspiration, capturing a gold-tinged nostalgia for Seventies suburbia and the hopeful sweetness in budding female sensuality. Yet Coppola made Seventies Michigan much more than we possibly could have remembered, a thinly veiled Breck girl commercial with a purely post-millennium hipster Air soundtrack. The details were just too perfect—Kirsten Dunst’s highlights too honey-kissed, Josh Hartnett’s muscles too cut—but that’s what makes it a movie and not a memory.
In Lost In Translation, Coppola again treads on the cinematic representation of memory, capturing an unlikely friendship in Tokyo more intimately than snapshots or home video ever could. Bob Harris, an aging movie star (played by Bill Murray), has come to Japan to appear in a series of lucrative whiskey ads. In the hotel lounge, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who’s passing time abroad while her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is out shooting rock stars and vapid starlets. Both characters are in crisis—Bob’s facing midlife while Charlotte can’t decide how to truly begin hers. In Tokyo’s surreal urban landscape, where English-Japanese communication seems to be filtered, then delivered in an off-kilter and bizarre version, the foreign-ness of their daily existence throws Bob and Charlotte’s angst into relief.
A wondefully melancholy, post-Rushmore Bill Murray does an excellent fish-out-of-water routine—a little mockery and a lot of tenderness. In particular the sequences where Murray tries to comprehend horribly broken English come across as good-natured and funny—thankfully avoiding the resort to malicious condescension for easy laughs. A call girl offered by the Santory Whiskey executives implores him to “lip her stockings,” and an intense photographer, trying to elicit the proper sense of cool tells him to embody Roger Moore as James Bond. (Bob remarks that everyone knows Sean Connery is the ultimate 007.) With these exchanges, Murray strikes a delicate chord between detached amusement and resigned ennui—playing a movie star just past his prime fits him like a gracefully worn-out suit.
Johansson’s Charlotte makes for an unlikely, poignant counterpoint to Murray. She spends a lot of time staring wistfully out the window of her high-rise hotel room wearing delicate little sweaters and childlike pink panties. Coppola again proves herself to be a director able to coax thoughtful performances out of young girls just treading into womanhood, having very publicly been this drifting young woman herself. It’s impossible to watch her movies without thinking of her father Francis (especially when his production company, Zoetrope, figures prominently in the opening credits) and imagining the pressure young Sofia must have felt as she worked on her clothing line, Milk Fed, or began studying fine art at the California Institute of the Arts before becoming a filmmaker in her own right. The speech Charlotte gives Bob about how she rejected being a photographer—because every girl goes through a period thinking she can take pictures but probably shouldn’t—feels immediate and genuine. Johansson has mellowed from a precocious child actor (The Horse Whisperer) and a petulant teen (Ghost World) to a graceful adult. The Anna Paquins and Haley Joel Osments of the industry should hope to fare so well.
But Lost In Translation is more than the sum of its performances, by the two leads as well as the delightful supporting cast and extras. Cinematographer Lance Acord captures with equal beauty the bustling humanity in the metropolis and the serenity of a Kyoto temple. In two separate sequences, the camera lingers on Johansson staring out the window of a moving car, taking in the landscape as Air’s lush score envelops the soundtrack. There is something so picturesque and alluring about driving and listening to good music, that these moments made me want to rise from my chair and enter the frame like a wistful Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo. —Karen Wilson