Lost in Translation (2003)

2003-09-12 (Limited release)

The frame opens on a young woman’s sheer pink panties. She’s lying on her side, on a large white bed looking on a wide high-rise window; with her back to the camera, the long line of her torso is still, sinuous and graceful. It’s only a moment, a hint of privilege and an invitation to desire, explicit and prepackaged, yet mysterious and elusive. It’s the pop girl made quiet, vague, and not yours.

The shot cuts to Bill Murray, of all people, arriving at New Tokyo International Airport: in seconds, he’s whisked off in a cab, immersed in neon and traffic as he sleeps briefly, jetlagged and bored. In fact, he’s not Bill Murray here, but Bob, an action movie star in Japan, where he’s shooting whiskey ads (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time”) for a couple of million dollars. En route to the Park Hyatt, he passes his own billboard, and rubs his eyes as if startled, which he is not.

In fact, Bob is feeling rather lost, an idea that comes up in repeated and shifting forms in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Not only is he not getting the language or the height or the His contacts with his family back in L.A. produce not yearning so much as weariness, and unarticulated questions. His (offscreen, unseen) wife faxes him, noting that he missed his son’s birthday (adding, “I’m sure he’ll understand”), demanding a decision concerning the new carpet for his study; she sends a box of swatches, which tumble out onto the floor when he opens the package as if beyond his understanding. Fine, he mutters, whatever she wants. When he calls, she’s rushed, taking the kids to school. What does he want, anyway?

This is the film’s question — what to want and how to want when you appear to have everything. Famous, rich, selfish: he couldn’t be a less sympathetic character. On a commercial set, he half-smiles with his liquor glass in hand. “Could you do it slower?” asks the director, “With more intensity?” Fine. At a photo shoot, the photographer insists, “I need mysterious face… You know Lat Pack?” Ah, Bob knows, and contorts his face so it looks swingy: “Sinatra, ring a ding ding.” Less condescending than exhausted, he seeks someone out, someone with whom he can have a conversation.

Early in the film, Bob spots Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, she of the pink panties shot) in the hotel elevator. She won’t recall him later, though they’re the only Caucasians in this tight package of suits. But Bob sees her smile at him, a familiar sign, pale and sweet. What he’ll find out later, when the talk, is that Charlotte is a recent Yale graduate (in philosophy, no less), feeling her own sort of lostness, as she has little to do in Tokyo with her brand new husband John (Giovanni Ribisi, who narrated Coppola’s delicate first film, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides), a high fashion photographer who appears to have no notion of who she is or why they’re married.

They run at different speeds. After collapsing into bed late at night, he stumbles off to work in the mornings, on occasion leaving her alone for days at a time. Later, she’ll ask Bob (so not the right person to ask), “Does it get easier?” When she does tag along with John, for instance, to post-shoot drinks with a perky starlet, Kelly (Anna Faris), Charlotte can only feel superior (I mean, really: Kelly thinks Evelyn Waugh is a girl’s name). But even if Charlotte can’t know it, her snooty impatience is less about the obvious shallowness and compromise that John’s life represents than about her own need to feel recognized, special, deserving.

It’s a small-seeming theme, even commonplace: she feels alienated, foreign, in another country. Dumped into Tokyo, Charlotte and Bob meet at the hotel bar, confess their sleeplessness, and smoke cigarettes. Soon they’re sharing sarcastic glances in the hotel piano bar, exploring the city together, going to clubs, strip bars, and video arcades, eventually spending an evening into wee hours an apartment belong to Charlotte’s friend Charlie (named for a friend of Coppola’s and played by Fumihiro Hayashi). Bob serenades her with a karaoke version of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” She’s touched, and who wouldn’t be?

Their connection is necessarily fleeting, and the movie doesn’t pretend otherwise. It’s not salvation or even resolution that’s at issue here, but rather, investigation, or maybe contemplation. Lost in Translation is clever and refined, it turns perspective inside out. It’s not a structural inversion, as in Virgin Suicides, which had the boys imagining the girls, hopelessly missing all so they might hang onto their imagined vision at all costs, longing for the rest of their lives. Bob and Charlotte also remain poised rather than resolved, but their understanding of desire is more sophisticated, or more jaded, than the collective neighborhood boys. Bob and Charlotte live with unarticulated loss (no explanatory or nostalgic narration here), and the movie doesn’t fix that for them.

Bob and Charlotte also see one another, unclearly, which complicates what you see. Director of photography Lance Acord (who has worked on movies with Spike Jonze, Coppola’s husband) here works with film (not video), maintaining a muted aesthetic, so the film’s evocation of loss is never acute, but composed, quiet, polished. It’s certainly true that the characters’ longing is skewed; they may live with loss, but they live beautifully, in fine hotels with access to swimming pools, cabs, and room service. (That said, when Charlotte takes a day trip to Kyoto, outdoors, observing without speaking or venturing to connect, the scenes are faster, more colorful, less sad.)

In the recent star-making (or more precisely, star-announcing) New York Times Magazine cover article, Coppola admits that she’s dressed Johansson based on her own tastes: “I know,” she tells interviewer Lynne Hirschberg, “How narcissistic” (31 August 2003). Such performative self-awareness is business as usual for Coppola, child of two famous filmmakers and sister to another, Roman (whose 2000 film, CQ also considered the difficulties of expectation and desire, the timidity that comes with class consciousness.

Unsurprisingly, guesses at Coppola’s family dynamics have shaped some reactions to this film as well — Charlotte’s distant marriage, the protagonists’ father-daughter-ish ages, the easy sniping at “Hollywood” when Kelly shows, up all appear to be recognizable touchstones. But such easy allusions can also miss what’s most interesting Lost in Translation, which is its evasiveness. Yes, it’s about alienation (the title alone tells you this), and yes, it’s about rich people feeling alienated (the Park Hyatt tells you that).

But it’s about seeing and not seeing at the same time, a series of incredibly precise, meticulous images of faces and hands and doorframes, images that brush up against one another so you can tease out stories, project your own desires. And that’s why that mysterious first shot of the fantastic pink panties is at once so delicate, so disconcerting and so apparently straightforward. It’s about Americanness, whiteness, and insularity, and it’s about wanting something else.