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CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: Lost in Translation

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson

Tired of tossing and turning, Bill Murray leans over and takes an exhausted glance at his bedside clock. This time though, he isn’t on the set of Groundhog Day. This time, he’s outside the United States: in Tokyo, caught uncomfortably in a prolonged moment of insomnia. He spends most of his nights, and days, battling jetlag in the comfortable facilities of a flashy hotel, biding his time between photo-shoots for a series of Japanese TV commercials. His character, Bob Harris, is a movie star, looking to reap the benefits of international advertising – think George Clooney and Nespresso – and the good news is that he’s more relatable than you might think. The similarity between the troubles of Murray’s characters in Lost in Translation and Groundhog Day, despite the difference between the roles themselves, is striking: staring at the time, he dreads living his days over and over and over, without purpose and long-lasting fulfilment. In Tokyo, the big shot Harris is just as unsettled as any tourist in such a disarmingly dynamic city. Against this cute backdrop, writer-director Sofia Coppola gives us an even cuter chance meeting between two people at completely different stages of their lives, but who are united by a shared uncertainty about what to do with themselves.

Harris is the grumpier of the two. It’s not quite that he’s fed up with life, or even that he laments his earlier decisions as serious mistakes. Life has given him unanticipated complications, especially a difficult relationship with his wife of twenty-five years, and his trying effort to navigate his way through them has worn him out. He isn’t inspired, especially for an actor, and it shows. But he isn’t boring, dull or uninteresting – how could Bill Murray ever be? The sadness of his character, instead, comes from his strained manner. Although his sarcastic humour has a natural warmth and loveliness, it’s undercut by exhausted body language and an unshakeable feeling of detachment. This is why Murray is the perfect actor for this part: we know he’s hilarious, we know he’s vibrant and brilliant and colourful, we know he can give us more, but his better days and better qualities are hidden from view, only occasionally reappearing.

For certain, he’s less adventurous than his new acquaintance, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), with whom he shares several brief encounters before striking up a charming friendship. She’s much,
much younger, but has a measured maturity about her that makes their communication seamless and natural. What ensues is the cool marriage of a mid-life crisis with post-college-graduation anxiety. Charlotte is also lost in her own personal dilemma, and she’s looking for the way out: the correct path out of so many – maybe too many – options. Her self- perceived, needle-in-the-haystack search for career and life direction is captured by the image of her gazing out a large hotel window, marvelling at a truly colossal city: a crazily contoured landscape scattered with roads, bridges, lights and buildings as far as the eye can see.

Where Bob elects to stay indoors to deal with his quiet desperation – by swimming in the pool, watching in-room movies, sitting at his regular spot in the hotel bar – Charlotte takes routine outdoor excursions, looking for inspiration as she visits spiritual attractions and makes local friends. Where Bob feels that he’s seen it all, Charlotte is concerned that she’s yet to discover the beautiful things in life. Her reason for being in Tokyo is her husband John, a photographer who follows celebrities. He’s something of a Ray-Ban rock-star: very friendly, maybe too friendly, with all the A-listers. But even he doesn’t provide the excitement Charlotte is looking for. Even worse, he seems to remove excitement from her life: Charlotte is bored by conversations with his seemingly shallow friends, and she seems annoyed when he – rock-star John – tells her to stop smoking. When he leaves her in Tokyo for a few days to take a quick trip elsewhere in Japan, she tells him she doesn’t want him to go, but it’s not clear that she’ll actually be happier with him there.

Bob’s crisis is different: unlike Charlotte, he’s had plenty of experiences, and he doesn’t go looking for more – at least until he meets Charlotte. His feelings are conveyed beautifully by his subdued, forced reaction to his commercial director’s passionate endorsement of old Hollywood movie stars. He declines another opportunity to talk about an industry and a famed lifestyle that no longer excites him. Hollywood, for Bob, represents the dull ache of routine. In a central scene wherethe director’s detailed instructions which refer to emotional tenderness and Casablanca are completely omitted from the translator’s hilariously brief communication with Bob (Bob asks: “Is that all he said?”), a similar message is even clearer: all that glamour, all that happiness doesn’t register with Bob; he can’t understand it anymore. The predicament of being lost in translation punctuates his time in Tokyo; for instance, when Charlotte and Bob watch the Italian film La Dolce Vita in a hotel room. One might hope that the characters would take some emotional insight from Fellini’s masterpiece, but it would be difficult for them to, for the movie is screened with Japanese subtitles.

The great, and ultimately inspiring, thing is that both of these characters have warm qualities that flourish as their friendship strengthens. The more they are open with each other, the more adventurous Charlotte becomes (karaoke and pink hair, for starters), and the more Bob removes himself from the safety of comedy and routine – the more he is comfortable with giving Charlotte candid advice about life that genuinely excites her. She is particularly thrilled to hear him deliver the film’s most honest, moving line about having children:
“Your life, as you know it, is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk… and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.” Their lives don’t become any easier – if anything, their friendship complicates things – and Bob finds himself struggling to speak with his wife on a basic level – poor telephone reception is a reason on the surface; a deeply troubled relationship is the more important one underneath. But Bob and Charlotte’s short time together proves to mean the world to each of them. Sure, they don’t sort out any of their problems, and they both return to complicated relationships, but they have given each other an implausible boost of confidence: a quiet affirmation that, as Bob says, they’ll “figure it out”.

This is a slow-paced, carefully-detailed and moving film. It has a simple plot, minimal dialogue, and a restrained but influential soundtrack: the marks of a great story about dealing with the complexities of life. It celebrates the potential for connecting with different people, but it doesn’t shy away from dealing with loneliness. At the start, Bob’s solitude is upsetting. At the end, when he takes his leave – alone – there’s something comforting about it. With the image of a lonely man, Coppola generates an unexpected emotional response of calm acceptance. It’s beautiful, genuine, and pretty weird to describe in words. It’s just one of those things you have to see for yourself.

Duncan Wallace

The author Duncan Wallace

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