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Lost In Translation – Coppola’s Hollywood movie with European sensibility

a distance defined by time

a distance defined by time

Sadly, the fears I expressed in this review four years ago about Scarlett Johanssen have been realised.

Lost In Translation – Sofia Coppola

We can categorise films constructively in order to validate aesthetic comparisons. We more often do so lazily in order to file them away in ill-fitting pigeon holes to decide which Oscar they are up for. Film as product, not art.

Good films defy this process, not by argument or polemic but simply by aesthetic aspiration and achievement. Lost In Translation is such a film. It is both very good and subversive in its challenge to lazy categorisation. It is very funny at times, but it is not a comedy. It is not a comedy because our laughter flows naturally from the truth of character and context not clever scripting. Its warmth and sensitivity is the consequence of truthful writing and film-making not their self-conscious intention. Indeed the broader funny moments in this fine film are its weakest artistically, as at times some of the humour cannot escape a legitimate qualm about racial stereotyping. They are less truthful. It is also not a love story in the traditional sense, still less a romance. The ultimate misunderstanding of this film would be to pigeon-hole it as a romantic comedy.

LIT is a film about, among other things, intimacy and longing. It is about the marvellous randomness and inexorability of attraction. Its supreme aesthetic achievement is to show us true intimacy with no hint of voyeurism or prurience. We share but do not intrude, on the privacy of the two main characters. Even in the poignancy of the inevitable ending, their final intimacy is shown but not revealed. Aesthetically respected as private. Our characters keep this for themselves and from us. And it works beautifully. This is film-making of unusual sensibility and satisfying in its reticence and sensitivity.

Bill Murray’s Bob Harris loves his wife and children and is never in fact, unfaithful to them. But one senses a longing in him for what it was to be in love. His relationship with his wife is defined by his role as parent. His attraction to Scarlett Johanssen’s Charlotte is irresistible but layered with ambiguity. How this deep attraction plays out is the moral core of the film and to her credit Sophia Coppola nimbly avoids all the yawning pitfalls. What distinguishes this film is the absolute consistency of its artistic and moral vision. It is here that the Japanese setting for the film enriches its texture. The flashy, tawdry, neon-lit images of Tokyo, indistinguishable in many ways from say Las Vegas, dwarf and marginalise the individual human beings with their shallow pastimes. The translation of the worst of American culture to post-war Japan is vividly displayed even down to the several indistinguishable hamburgers that you have to cook yourself. The ephemeral and alien setting is also critical: for at the heart of the film is an intimate relationship with a place to be but nowhere to go.

Against this shallow, clamourous, transient cultural backdrop, Coppola allows her characters to develop a relationship of sensitivity and depth. It is a dangerous balance to sustain. Harris’s relationship with Charlotte teeters between considerate father figure to uneasy longing, with an undeniable sexual undertow. Apart from critical casting, of which more in a moment, Coppola keeps this emotional dilemma perfectly balanced, partly through editing as precise as a heartbeat. As if each, discovering a shared love of the beauty of cherry blossom, came to realise that to grasp it, or try to preserve it would be to destroy it. And they choose beauty over possession. The ineffable beauty of a flame lies in the seeing, not the touching. But the heat and warmth is still there. Close enough comforts with warmth; too close burns and destroys. Love sometimes demands a distance that passion always lacks.

The paradigm of casting is when one feels that no one else could have done justice to a part. This is true of both Murray and Johanssen but for very different reasons. Technically Murray is slim, fit and looks sufficiently within calling distance of Charlotte’s age to avoid queasy unseemliness. But he is so much more. Those droll, blank, Jack Benny eyes seem to cry out for something to spark them backto a lost and longed for life. And could any other actor’s body language better display the accepting but slightly bemused resignation to fate and the way things must be, than Murray? The impressive surprise is his capacity to play what we might call innerness. We spend as much time inside the heads of the players here as watching their overt behaviour. Murray, with the minimum of fuss and apparent effort convinces us we’ve got it right.

And so to Scarlett Johanssen. This much praised young lady is a luminous presence on screen. This is being, not acting.; instinct, not technique, though she obviously knows what she’s about. Be gentle with this natural talent dear Directors, replace the uncertainty of instinct with the certainty of technique and you’ll destroy the magic. Wild flowers can’t live in vases. It is not superficial to say that this actress has the most expressive mouth in movies. It conveys wryness, amusement, pleasure, attraction, irony, an eloquent, simple grin, and much more. When this girl smiles, the world lights up. Her lips, natural, but a paradigm of collagen aspiration, are quite simply eloquent. Usually one’s focus is drawn to an actress’s eyes or body language. But here it is the lips, not the eyes that have it. Also, unlike many beautiful actresses, Johanssen has a marvellous voice: clear and uncluttered; sexy and intelligent. Physically she has a casual, unconscious, almost adolescent defiant grace. From skateboard to bedroom with no break in step.

The greatest compliment one can pay Murray and Johanssen, let alone Coppola, is that one simply cannot imagine this film working with other actors. Technically Murray’s ‘performance’ is the more professional achievement but it is Johanssen’s instinctive playing that gives credence to his technique, however subtle. One senses a real mutual respect and honesty, critical to the believability of their characters’ relationship.

There is an emotional sensitivity and subtlety about this film that is far more continental than Anglo-Saxon in tone. It flatters rather than patronises its audience by displaying faith, in the way it was shot and edited, in their intelligence and perceptiveness in seeing the point. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Coppola from within the Hollywood tribe, financing and getting critical distribution for such an individual, unclassifiable movie. And boy does she make it work. Both in terms of its director and its characters, this is a quietly defiant movie. Coppola rejects the assumptions and lazy expectations of mainstream movies. Her two main characters do precisely the same in response to the unremitting cultural clamour of endless diversion around them. They are in it but not of it – both the idiocy of Karoake and stickiness of candy store sex leaves them gently amused but untouched. They see, smile, and simply choose to walk away. Thanks, but no thanks.

LIT has received deserved critical acclaim. However, one especially stupid qualification was that “not much happens.” Wrong. Two people listen to each other and discover each other and themselves in the process. They connect. My God, a movie for grown-ups? Whatever next. These two people decide to act in certain ways and accept responsibility for that choice. They assert: this is a possible choice, painful but necessary, and it makes sense. Actually making this choice demonstrates the reality of a possible way of feeling and loving. And for Coppola, the form and more importantly, mere existence of the film, testifies to the same belief.

(February 2004)

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