Ever been alone in a foreign hotel, city or entire country? There’s a mournful feeling of simultaneously being saturated in another culture and also being terminally disconnected from your surroundings, it’s a curious sensation. In Sofia Coppola’s brilliant Lost In Translation the two main characters find themselves awash in nocturnal Tokyo and marooned in a sea of aching unfamiliarity. Add to that the fact that both of them are at a place where they feel sort of stalled on the freeway of their lives and you have a sadly hued romantic drama that feels like no other.
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a washed up movie star who’s in town to endorse a Japanese whiskey label, constantly harried by superfluous phone calls from his wife (Nancy Steiner) who he’s clearly growing apart from. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a newly married girl whose husband (Giovanni Ribisi) neglects and almost seems to resent her, tied up in his own work while she wanders aimlessly from her hotel room to the bar and back each night. It’s there that these two find each other, find companionship, conversation and yes, romantic chemistry but that is something that Coppola handles in an infinitely more realistic and mature fashion that one usually gets with Hollywood scripts.
Last night was my first ever viewing of this film so I’m a bit late to the party and still basking in the warm glow of the initial first impression but I can already tell I’m in love with and will revisit many more times. Translation is definitely the key word here; Bob and Charlotte speak very little Japanese and as such must find other ways to converse with those around them, be it body language, a laugh or other. But they also kind of need to get used to their own personal vernacular and how it relates to the other. There’s a fairly sizeable age gap between them and they come from different backgrounds so they must adapt to each other, and watching these two actors do so is a joy. Murray is quiet, soft spoken and his comedic edge is almost reined in of his own volition, like he wants to be funny but he’s just too sad to pull it off other than the occasional ironic flourish. Johansson is quiet, contemplative but blessed with a keen intellect and intuition, it’s the perfect role for the actress who, lets face it, sometimes gets cast on her looks and we forget what beautiful charisma she has as well. Coppola lets the friendship between them happen as it probably would in real life: awkwardly at first until they’re comfortable with each other, then with easy and enthusiastic abandon. My favourite scene of the film is where they attend a karaoke party and we get to see them at their happiest and lowest of inhibitions. They sing their hearts out, laugh, steal glances at each other and live in the moment. It’s the most romantic scene of the film and they don’t even touch each other, but the energy is there, carefully guided by their performances and Coppola’s direction. Few mainstream films get the complexities and ethereal realism of this type of situation right, but this one nails it for a dreamy, hypnotic, bittersweet story that you don’t want to end, until it does on a questioning note that we as the audience were never meant to know the answer to. Amazing film.