Lost in Translation (2003): Sofia Coppola’s Original, Cool, Offbeat Tale, Starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray

There are many ways to approach Lost in Translation, one of the artistic highlights–and enjoyable films–which opened this year, after a splashy world premiere at the Venice Film Fest.

As a follow up to Coppola’s debut, it proves that The Virgin Suicides of 1999, which played in Cannes Fest, was no fluke.  Coppola may be the new voice for the Y generation, bringing an innately female vision and aesthetic to her work.

Lost in Translation, which benefits from an apt, ironic title, was also conceived and written by Sofia. It’s an original, cool, offbeat film, offering a smart look at a jet-lagged world.  Sofia has said that it’s a personal work, in which the female character is inspired by her own experience.

In Lost in Translation, Sofia proves that she is an astute observer of psychological behavior as it is exhibited in public and private locales. In fact, the first reel of Lost in Translation is almost silent, with dialogue limited to few “pleasantries” exchanged by Bill Murray, playing a movie star in Tokyo to shoot an new commercial, and his formally polite and insistent Japanese hosts, who place him way up in a huge fancy hotel from which he can see nothing (another of the film’s ironies).

The film is set in Tokyo, based on Sofia’s personal love of that city. She explains: “For me, in the end, the real star of my film is the city itself. I had spent a lot of time in Tokyo and I just love the way it looks. The city puts you in this extreme, and you inevitably end up contemplating your own existence. Tokyo is so culturally different that you feel removed. I had spent some time in the very hotel I shot in and I had thought it was so weird the way it sort of floated over the city.”

Thematically, Lost in Translation could be described as a serio comedy about tourism and jet-lag, a film about disorientation and even alienation in what has become an increasingly globalized world. Sofia captures vividly the feelings and meanings of being a tourist in a foreign country. And the impressive way in which Murray embodies his role, you may think he is an alien in a sci-fi film.

Going beyond the issue of American-Japanese culture clash, Lost in Translation also works as a subtle romantic comedy in which two disparate characters, each engaged in soul-searching, connect with each other under the most bizarre circumstances.

In one of the first scenes, Murray’s Bob Harris attempts to deliver a commercial tag line in a way that pleases the director. “For relaxing times, make it Suntory times,” Harris says over and over again. The Japanese ad director shouts detailed instructions of how to read the line, which Harris’ translator then renders briefly in two or three words, “more intensity,” or “more cool.” Harris works through one take after another, and finally gets it right with a slightly over the top version.

Taking risks, the film not only lacks “plot” but also features only two characters: Harris and a young American woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, the up-and-coming actress from from Ghost World), whom he meets in his hotel. A graduate of philosophy of an ivy leagues college, Charlotte is just as lost as Harris; she’s married but doesn’t really know what to do with her life.

Stuck in Tokyo, where he’s shooting the whiskey ad, Harris knows that his career is in decline, that he’s selling out. He should be at home with his wife and children, he should be doing a serious play, and yet he’s both locked and blocked.

Sofia concentrates on the contrast of characters and milieus and, she does it in an admirably unhurried manner, allowing each scene to take its time and plays itself to the fullest. In the process, she evokes the loneliness and humor of two solitary souls surrounded by the noisy vibrant world that is modern Tokyo.

At first, Harris can’t make a connection with anyone or anything, but he can’t go to sleep and shut it out either. Buried deep within himself, Harris is lost in some bizarre realm of melancholy, too jet-lagged even to get angry. Similarly, Charlotte is just as disoriented and needy. Married to an insensitive husband, a busy, aggressive photographer, she’s neglected and in need of (male) attention.

The middle-aged actor and young, bright woman, each unhappy with their spouses (Harris’s wife is never seen but her voice is heard on the phone) are caught in emotional limbo, a bad position to be in at any city let alone a big threatening one like Tokyo. They both need and want change, but they’re unable to achieve it. Stranded and sleepless, they hang out together–an odd couple if there ever was one. The movie contains some suspense in arousing audiences’ anticipation of what direction the relationship will take, or more specifically, when will Harris respond emotionally to Charlotte and will it be an erotic response.

As director, she doesn’t punch up the scenes with tension or action–her interest and forte are in creating the right, precise mood for each scene. What the movie lacks in conventional drama, it makes up for in witty observations (including slapstick humor) and casual, graceful charm. Utterly delightful, Lost in Translation is the kind of movie that most people, especially frequent travelers, will find easy to relate to.

Here is a love story between an aging movie star and a young confused femme, which is platonic, morally and emotionally ambiguous, and most important of all, devoid of creepy undertones, and not in the least bothered by lacking a clear narrative resolution.