Lost in Translation is a
film about loneliness, featuring two individuals drawn to each other partly
by the pull of genuine attraction but mainly by the push of having no other
respite from their loneliness. Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed, tries
as hard as possible to maximise the isolation of her two central characters:
she holes them up in a featureless luxury hotel in Tokyo; disorients and alienates
them with jetlag and the screaming, flashing, neon world outside; confuses them
with incomprehensible Japanese culture, and annoys them with dreadful fellow
westerners in the hotel.
Most devastatingly, however, Coppola gives both of them wedding rings, and
sees to it that their loneliness comes not despite their married status, but
because of it.
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a young bride with rather too much time on
her hands, married to a successful photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who is so
busy that at first he doesn’t pick up on her despair. Later, he simply disappears
altogether to a photoshoot elsewhere in the country, leaving his wife alone
in the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a film star with a wife
back home who’s far to preoccupied with interior decoration and school runs
to be able to lend him a sympathetic ear. While she’s better than he is at methods
of communication – she’s a master of the fax and the FedEx package –
she’s miles away, both physically and emotionally, from hearing his desperate
The hotel itself is a main character in the film, providing comforts and annoyances
in equal measure, and it’s not clear which is more alienating. The self-propelled
curtains and whirring fax machines are bad, and the elliptical trainer with
a mind of its own is worse, but the double glazing and enormous bathtubs have
a much more deadening effect on anybody who – like the protagonists in
this film – is doing little more than hanging around the hotel killing
Bob is an American film star who has travelled to Japan in order to pick up
an easy $2 million for endorsing Suntory whiskey. He hates himself for selling
out, he’s repulsed by the Suntory people he has to deal with, he’s being forced
to stay an extra couple of nights in the hotel so that he can go on a dreadful
Japanese talk show, he can’t sleep, he can’t have any kind of conversation with
his wife; hell, he can’t even go for a swim in the hotel’s pool without having
to watch some ridiculous aquasthenics class. It’s got to the point where the
annoyances are even self-inflicted: he’s set his cellphone to the most annoying
conceivable ring, maybe on the grounds that feeling angry is better than feeling
nothing at all.
Murray’s performance is about as good as screen acting gets. His face is one
of the most versatile instruments in Hollywood: most of the time, in this film,
there’s really no need for him to talk at all. Here is a man who can turn a
bland advertising slogan into an angry and yet hilarious denouncement of what
he has become, filled to bursting with sarcasm and loathing, just by using his
eyes. Johansson can’t compete, but luckily Coppola doesn’t ask her to: the role
of Charlotte is a lot softer, and the 18-year-old actress does an excellent
job in presenting Murray with a yin to his yang.
It takes a long time for Bob and Charlotte to befriend each other. Both have
found a certain measure of miserable solace in their solitude: Bob sits drinking
whiskey at the hotel bar, while Charlotte, a Yale philosophy graduate, has been
reduced to listening to cheesy cod-philosophical spiritual self-help CDs through
world-excluding headphones. When she stumbles across some kind of shinto ceremony,
she’s reduced to tears by the fact that she feels nothing at all.
But because they have nothing to do and no one else to turn to, Bob and Charlotte
end up spending a lot of time together, especially those long sleepless nights
in a strange and foreign land. Tokyo, here, is a noisy, colourful, exotic place,
somewhere it’s nice to be able to have a fellow westerner with whom to escape
from your Japanese friends with a predilection for lap dancers or the vapid
Hollywood actress singing in the hotel bar. The city is shot, by Lance Acord,
with an intensity not seen since The Pillow Book – but here,
unlike in the Greenaway film, there’s chaotic real life, running in the streets,
crazy Japanese youth.
In the midst of all this, something starts to bloom between our protagonists
– something precious, fragile and beautifully doomed, like a cherry blossom.
Thrust together by circumstance, the friendship moves inexorably in the direction
of romance, the very artificiality of the situation intensifying desire while
denying any possibility of a real-world relationship. If you could love someone
deeply, just for one night, without even having sex, would you? And how would
you feel in the morning, when you had to end something which in many ways never
even existed in the first place?
Seeing this very state of affairs approaching, might you get drunk and have
meaningless sex with someone else? While it was happening, would you say that
you never wanted to leave the hotel, the last place on earth you would ever
want to be? Watching it receding, would you go for a walk in the city of your
fugue-like adventure, tears forming in your eyes? Going back to your wife and
children, would you feel impossibly torn between your family and your only hope
These beautiful, painful episodes are expertly interspersed by Coppola with
hilariously funny set-pieces involving Murray at the height of his comedic abilities.
The masseuse, the commercial director, the hotel gym: ask anybody who’s seen
the film about these scenes and they’ll start smiling, if not laughing out loud,
just by remembering them.
But the scene which sticks the longest in the mind is the one where Bob watches
Charlotte get into the elevator as he’s leaving the hotel. Last year, Malcom
Gladwell wrote a piece
for the New Yorker about facial expressions, explaining that some, such as the
one known as action unit
1, can generally only be formed involuntarily. We raise our inner eyebrows
all the time, without thinking, when we are unhappy, but only a handful of people
can do it deliberately. Woody Allen is one; Bill Murray is another. Allen uses
his frontalis, pars medialis to make us laugh; here, Murray uses his to break
our hearts. On screen, shot with an unflinching camera, is a picture of emotional
paralysis to pierce the soul. It’s probably too subtle and art-house a film
to garner Murray an Oscar, but there’s no doubt he deserves it.