Lost in Translation: Sofia Coppola’s Dreamy Meditation

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

First and foremost, the movie establishes Sofia Coppola as a major talent to watch. One is always suspicious of the careers of children or relatives of famous directors (Francis Ford is Sofia’s father, and she’ married to Spike Jonze, of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation’s fame). It is easier for descendants of Hollywood celebs to break into the business than for outsiders. However, at 32, showing maturity well beyond her age or experience, Sofia has directed not one but two interesting films. Her debut, The Virgin Suicides, world-premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and later enjoyed a successful theatrical run.

Sofia spent her childhood on film sets around the world, meeting the likes of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. She made her first screen appearance in 1972, as the baby in the christening scene of The Godfather. This was followed by playing the romantic lead in The Godfather Part III (1990), as a last-moment replacement to Winona Ryder, a traumatic experience that almost scarred her for life due to the critics’ hostile reaction.

She decided to go her own way creatively, trying her hand at art, photography, and fashion–she designed the clothing line for the campaign of “Milk Fed.” It was not until the age of 27, when she released her short film, Lick the Stars, that she contemplated seriously a filmmaking career, following in the footsteps of her famous father.

Indeed, after exhibiting her short, Sofia was hooked. “I had found what I wanted to do,” she recalls, “I had done all these other things, but I wasn’t really great at anything.” Out of this candid realization came a fruitful notion, as Sofia says: “Film was a combination of all the things I liked to do, but you don’t have to be an expert at any one area, because you get to work with experts in each area.”

“I always wanted to write an original story,” says Sofia about the origins of Lost in Translation. “Filmmaking is always a challenge, and for me the challenge was, can I write from scratch and then go and try to figure out how to make it in Japan.”

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 key to why the film is set in Tokyo is in 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.

Taking risks, Sofia realizes that her film not only lacks “plot” but that it also features only two characters: Harris and a young American woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, the up-and-coming actress from Ghost World), whom he meets in his hotel. A recent 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.

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.

It’s to Sofia’s credit that 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.