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Translation problems

Culture

Issue: "Earthquake in Bam," Jan. 10, 2004

Quite a bit has been written about Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation (rated R for some sexual content, including several shots of a nearly naked female posterior). Given that the film garnered five Golden Globe nominations last month and likely will find its way into wider release, we can expect to hear quite a bit more.

Ms. Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford, has made just one film previously, 1999's The Virgin Suicides. Here, she continues her exploration of disillusionment and alienation, focusing on two drifting souls holed up in a posh Tokyo hotel.

Bill Murray plays Hollywood film star Bob Harris, in Tokyo to film a Japanese whiskey commercial. His family, a wife of 25 years and two kids, remain in the States, leaving him adrift in an alien and alienating city. When not shooting the commercial or being photographed for ads, he's completely without purpose. Yet idleness does not lead to sleep, and Harris wanders the hotel aimlessly.

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Staying at the same hotel is Scarlett Johansson's much younger Charlotte, who is accompanying her photographer husband on an exotic location shoot. He's off every day to photograph a rock band, leaving her alone at the hotel with nothing to do. And, like Bob, she can't sleep.

These two rudderless vessels gently collide, striking up an easy friendship based on a similar disaffection with their surroundings. Bob and Charlotte remain physically platonic, and the relationship is sweetly gentle, but not innocent. Both parties are in different stages of estrangement from their spouses, and both are longing to get out of their ruts.

Nearly every scene is mesmerizing. Nothing is overplayed or overdone, and Ms. Coppola often delicately confounds our expectations for a scene. Mr. Murray is given ample room to exercise his comedic gifts, but the comedy is simple and subtle, relying primarily on Mr. Murray's wonderfully expressive face.

But the biggest problem with the film is its unwillingness to anchor the characters' feelings to anything concrete. The value of Bob and Charlotte's relationship, and what distinguishes them from the people around them, seems to be primarily wrapped up in a vague concept of authenticity.

It doesn't seem to matter what motivates these characters, or where their feelings ultimately lead them, as long as they (themselves or their feelings, take your pick) are "real." As if to drive this point home Ms. Coppola has Bob sleep with a lounge singer.

Although Bob resists the urge to consummate a relationship with Charlotte, this isn't an honorable impulse, at least not one born out of fidelity to his wife. Ms. Coppola doesn't want us to assume that Bob acts out of any sense of duty or morality-perhaps because this would impinge upon his authenticity.

And this is where Lost in Translation falls short: Authenticity as an end in itself is hardly fulfilling. And, despite two deeply involving and charismatic performances by the leads, we're not given any real indication of what exactly makes them so much more authentic than the plastic figures around them.

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