Brave New Worlds: Lost In Translation

Have you ever seen a film where you’re utterly sad to have to leave the two main characters behind? What you’ve seen of them, and the bond that forms between them, is so superbly, honestly rendered, that it leaves you moved, fulfilled, and more than a little shaken. You’ve gotten to know these people, these creations so well, yet they’re so deep, complex and real that you feel you’ve only been offered a mere glimpse into their consciousnesses. This glimpse offers a well of emotion, facial expressions, moods, quirks and the like, but 100 minutes or so can only give you this little glimpse. You’ve been granted just a peek into their lives, but this peek is enough to leave you transformed, to feel your life has changed just for briefly knowing these people.

Lost In Translation’s two leads are both Americans stranded in Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray), a former star of action movies is in Japan, alone, to do a few television and print ads for a local brand of whiskey. You get the sense that his celebrity status is slightly higher there than at home, as we see his face constantly (and often comically) appearing on billboards, talk shows, and dubbed versions of his movies on TV. In contrast, Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is a young, recent Yale grad. She has traveled to Tokyo with her husband of two years, John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer busy shooting a local rock band. His job gives him no time to spend with Charlotte. She spends some of her days sightseeing, but most of them alone in her hotel room, flipping channels, listening to self-help tapes, sitting at her window, looking out on the magnificent, tacky urban sprawl of the city below.

Eventually, Bob and Charlotte notice each other at the hotel’s swanky lounge. They flash each other a sly, inviting smile, and, despite their obvious differences, have an instant rapport. They’re both lonely souls in a foreign environment, each of them in less than perfect marriages. You can see the disconnections between Charlotte and John; early on she admits to herself that she barely recognizes him as a soul mate or friend. They hardly spend any time together in the whole film, and even though they say phrases such as “I Love You” to each other often, you question how much they are means to an end, or just something to say. Meanwhile, you can hear the sense of disconnection between Bob and his wife of many years, Lydia, back home, through their phone conversations, which sound tense, strained, and obligatory.

What’s intriguing here is that you don’t feel these two couples are entirely devoid of love. However, the relationship that gradually develops between Bob and Charlotte possesses something those marriages lack. It begins as a friendship, two partners in crime, a person to share a drink or visit karaoke bars or just hang out with. Unquestionably, this friendship strengthens to a point where it becomes love, but it’s a complicated, mature expression of love. Thankfully, there’s no obligatory sex scene or even any suggestion of sex between them. What Bob and Charlotte discover in each other transcends mere sexual attraction, although it’s there; in one poignant scene, they lie next to each other on a bed and talk about their feelings, their lives and marriages. At one moment, Bob understatedly pays her a sweet compliment and touches her foot. It’s less erotic and more a simple term of endearment, suffused with tenderness and an almost unbearable longing. They spend the night in separate beds, because both they and us know how perfect that small gesture was, and how anything more would simply cheapen and ruin it.

As Bob, Murray gives his strongest, most complete performance since Rushmore. He could have been arrogant, sarcastic, and depressing in this role, but instead is genuinely funny, wry, relaxed, and appropriately world-weary. His movements, whether dealing with an out-of-control exercise machine, rattling off a series of Rat Pack and Roger Moore James Bond poses for a whiskey ad, or sprinting through throngs of traffic to hail a cab, is always graceful and almost ballet-like. As Charlotte, Johannson is a revelation after showing promise in Ghost World; only Sarah Polley could’ve arguably brought as much depth, finesse, and lack of pretension to this character. For being only 18 when this was filmed, Johannson has a startling dramatic range and a keen sense of how to come across between the lines, knowing the importance of what’s implied rather than said.

This is director Sofia Coppola’s second film (after The Virgin Suicides), and it’s a major, surprising achievement. It refracts Tokyo through a foreigner’s eyes and finds both poetry in its landscapes (especially in a still shot of the city illuminated only by blinking red traffic tower lights) and a documentary feel as it observes and briefly focuses on the city's denizens in clubs, video arcades and the other public spaces Bob and Charlotte inhabit. Coppola, who also wrote the script, has told a story about two kindred spirits and co-conspirators who find not only each other but also themselves in what is for them the most unexpected of places. What’s heartbreaking is that they know that they can only be together like this in that space. This kind of closeness can’t last forever, and no matter how they may try to revive it elsewhere, it will never, ever seem as singular or profound. But the beauty of Lost In Translation is that they made this discovery, and saw something unique and startling in each other. That we're invited to discover it, too, and can truly sense and feel how touching it is, well, that's simply extraordinary.