Oscar Vault Monday – Lost in Translation, 2003 (dir. Sofia Coppola)

I first saw this movie in 2010 in preparation for the release of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (a film that I love dearly), but I wasn’t really sold on its merit at that time. I think some of that had to do with my dislike of Scarlett Johansson (I’m warming up to her a bit these days, but I could still take her or leave her). However, with every rewatch of this film I find more things to love about it. It’s kind of a distant film, but when you warm up to it, or rather it warms up to you, you’ll find it’s a real gem.  The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one: Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Actor Bill Murray, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit and winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

I wrote extensively about Sofia Coppola in 2010, but I think if I were to write that article again today, it would be much less love/hate and almost solely love. It’s interesting how you can warm up to an artist like that. I don’t think it always works, but it has the more I try to understand her aesthetic and point of view. For her work on this film, Coppola became only the third woman to be nominated for Best Director; the first was Lina Wertmüller for 1975’s Seven Beauties, the second was Jane Campion for The Piano. However, Lost in Translation was only the second, behind The Piano, Best Picture nominee directed by a woman. In 2006 Little Miss Sunshine became the third film to be nominated for Best Picture directed by a woman (well, co-directed). Three years later, Kathryn Bigelow became the forth woman to be nominated for the prize, winning Best Director and Best Picture for The Hurt Locker. Actually, 2009 was a great year for women director; a second film directed by a woman, An Education,  was also up for Best Picture. In 2010 there were two more films directed by women up for the top prize, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone. Here’s hoping last year’s lack of a woman-directed film is a fluke and this gap continues to close.

I have to take a minute before I delve further into the film to complain about the film’s R rating, which solely because of this scene with a stripper (you will stare at this screencap longer than she appears on the screen). Also, because of the use of the song in the background (“Fuck The Pain Away” by Peaches), but I bet you even if she changed the song, the film would remain rated R for these strippers. I mean, that is some bullshit.

There was a lot of talk at time (and I’m sure there still is) about Coppola’s portrayal of Japan and the Japanese in this film. She often juxtaposes Murray’s gigantic size with people and objects that are a lot smaller as a sight gag. We are also introduced mainly to Japanese people who are caricatures of the Japanese culture and stereotypes, both in ridiculous manners and in “zen” ways. But I think it’s important to realize that is exactly what Coppola intended to do; she’s showing Japan from the gaze of an outsider, from a business person who only sees the veneer and doesn’t stay long enough to really understand the culture. I think you are supposed to be upset by the way she represents Japan, but I also think there’s a greater respect for the country and its people hidden in the film if you stay long enough to see it.

Which brings me to Murray’s pitch-perfect performance. It’s mostly in his looks, his long stares and listless eyes. It’s in the way he holds his body and what he doesn’t say. Murray’s Bob Harris reminds me of  Johnny Marco in Somewhere; they’re both actors who are in an unhappy place in life. Coppola is often derided for telling stories about privileged people who are sad for apparently no reason. The reason, though, is what the French like to call “ennui” or “spleen.” It’s not something only the idle rich feel, it’s something lots of us feel every once in a while in life. Coppola is clearly interested in this idea of world-weariness. She explores these ideas through the rich because that is the sphere she knows; that’s where she was raised. I really don’t see a problem with this. If you look at the films of the 1930s, so many of them take place in this same sphere; it’s just the problems that have chained. In the 1930s it seems the only problem the rich ever had was marrying the wrong person. Now, we see them going through the same pain as the rest of us, but heaven forbid they have existential worries; they’ve got money! Everything is roses and sunshine! I just don’t think that’s a fair judgement. Although, I can see why many a person would not want to watch a sad rich person, I think a character like this connects on a human level. Murray was up for Best Actor (his first and to date only Oscar nomination), but lost to Sean Penn in Mystic River.

I still don’t really buy Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte, who is supposed to be in a post-college life crisis kind of state. She was 19 when she filmed this and I just don’t think she carries herself like a twenty-something. Regardless, at the time this film was released there was much speculation as to whether Johansson would be nominated for Best Actress, which would have made her the youngest nominee to date. Ironically, 2003 was the year of the youngest nominee ever, but it wasn’t Johansson, but rather Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was just 13 when she was nominated for her work in Whale Rider. Although I don’t quite buy Johansson’s performance, I do completely relate to the feelings her Charlotte is going though. The early twenties is a strange time when you are figuring out who you are and what you want out of life. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be going through all of that and be married to someone at the same time. Sometimes I wish we got a little more of Giovanni Ribisi as her husband, so we could understand why they are together. But maybe that is the point Coppola is trying to make. Maybe they don’t even know why they are together.

I do really love Anna Faris as the vapid actress Kelly. Faris is such a  great comedienne, I wish she got to do more roles in films like this. It also makes you wonder who exactly Coppola based the character on, because you just know there’s some starlet that inspired this role.

I read somewhere that this film is considered a “postromance” film. Meaning that the characters in the film reject traditional ideas of romance, including monogamy and that the film showcasing the negative aspects of romance rather than idealizing sex and dating. It’s an interesting way to look at the film, especially considering the relationship between these two people. It’s one that is insanely intense, yet never once crosses the line into sex and traditional romance. Yet, it remains one of the most romantic films in recent cinema. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray have amazing chemistry together, but in quite an unusual way. It’s not a father-daughter type relationship and it’s not really a May-December romance either. It’s friends, but it’s more than friends. It’s just a true connection between two people that defies traditional labels. While so many things in the film get “lost” in translation (meaning communication between two people in every sense of the word), this connection is the one thing that transcends.

Which brings us to the handful of more direct ways in which Coppola represents the idea of things that get lost in translation. The whiskey commercial  Bob has come to film is the most obvious representation of it. What is so great is that you know and Bob knows that what the director tells him and what the translator tells him is not the same. Coppola doesn’t tell you what is said, so you are just as lost as Bob. Luckily for us, some kind sir translated the scene and it makes it that much better:

Director [in Japanese, to the interpreter]: The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.
Interpreter [in Japanese, to the director]: Yes, of course. I understand.
Director [in Japanese, to Bob]: Mr. Bob. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whisky on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in Casablanca, saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid,”—Suntory time!
Interpreter [In English, to Bob]: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
Bob: …Is that all he said?

At one point Charlotte and Bob watch Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita on television. Here we have an Italian film (with Anita Ekberg speaking English and Marcello Mastroianni speaking Italian) presented with Japanese subtitles. In the film Mastroianni plays a journalist (also named Marcello) who comes to Rome for a week on a business trip. There are more than a few similarities between the two films and it’s the kind of intertextuality that is only understood by those who’ve seen both films. It’s also one that makes more sense after you’ve seen the entire film.

The ending of both films contain unintelligible spoken words. They are both endings that leave you wanting more, by giving you less. La dolce vita is a film that essentially says meaningful connections are fiction, thus you get an ending with the girl and Marcello separated and unable to understand each other. With Lost In Translation‘s ending, you see that for Coppola, although it is rare, this kind of connection can happen. So we get Murray and Johansson embracing – literally connecting – and it is we, the audience, who doesn’t get to connect, who is denied access to their conversation. We are looking in and they are finally found. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 3, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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