Film 2020: Lost in Translation

A week ago, I would have been suggesting that the Film 2020 season would just about get us through April, but the availability of cheap box sets on eBay and charity shops offering three for a pound means we’re likely going to be here until midyear. And that’s just on what’s stacked up in a corner now: I’ve six months in which to expand my collection.

To begin with I’ve chosen a very recent addition, one I bought less than twenty-four hours ago, Sofia Coppola’s justly acclaimed Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson, in her first major role.

For some reason, this film sticks out amongst the ones we went to see when I was married, perhaps because of seeing it in a cinema we only visited once, perhaps because the film’s awkwardness in its early stages mirrored things we both recognised. But we enjoyed the film, and this is the first time I’ve seen it again since.

Lost in Translation is set in Tokyo over a period of a week. Murray is Bob Harris, a former movie star (in the Seventies) who, like many other actors and actresses, is famous in Japan for advertising their products, in this case Suntory whisky. He’s being paid $2,000,000 to record commercials and advertising, and is being put up at the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel. Also staying there is Charlotte (no last name given), played by Johannson, who has travelled with her professional photographer husband John. She’s a philosophy grad who’s been married two years.

The story is about their relationship. Both are outsiders in the culture of Japan, which Coppola records carefully and without overt comment, both are undergoing stresses in their marriages, both are stuck in the hotel, in rooms in the sky from which each (but Charlotte in particular) can look out over the vastness of Tokyo and feel completely separated from everything, and both are plagued by an inability to adjust their circadian rhythms, spending their nights awake. There’s a gulf of experience between them, Bob, married twenty-five years with three kids, a has-been, rumpled face and retreating hairline, Charlotte, married two years, an appendage to her husband but not needed by him, unsure of what her purpose is in life, red-haired, beautiful, frequently depicted hanging around her hotel room in t-shirt and panties, the film making sure of capturing her bare legs.

The arc of their relationship is simple. They keep bumping into each other each day, around the hotel. They have a brief conversation at the bar one night. Another night, excluded from conversation by Kelly (Anna Faris), an attractive blonde who has been photographed by John, and who is monopolising their conversation, Charlotte wanders over for another chat

The two are outcasts, and outcasts bond. A whole relationship is encoded within the rest of that week. There’s romance to it but not sex: indeed, Bob does get a one night stand but it’s with the red-headed jazz singer (Katherine Lambert) from the cocktail lounge, who’s still there when Charlotte calls for Bob in the morning. Her hurt and betrayal is as plain as if she were Bob’s wife Lydia (whose only appearance is via faxes and as a voice on a telephone).

But the physical connection is so much less than the intimate conversation the two have already shared, on a bed, fully-dressed, in the dark of another sleepless early morning. Both characters are lost, without translation, suffering estrangement in their marriages as they question themselves and their roles. Children, if she and John survive, are scary to Charlotte. Bob agrees that the most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born, when your old life – the fun life, the doing-things life – vanishes utterly, never to return. Lydia has come to care for the kids first and foremost, but to Bob his children are the most delightful persons on Earth. His love for them is deep, but understated.

In fact, almost everything in this film is understated, and in Murray, Coppola has the advantage of the best deadpan of our age. The film slides through on subtleties, at least between Bob and Charlotte. The film has been much criticised, especially in Japan, for its portrayal of contemporary culture as alien, soulless, impossible to understand and fundamentally crazy. I’ve never been to Japan so I can’t comment, but the film was shot entirely in Tokyo, with a minimum of sets (if any) so all of this is real.

In the end, it doesn’t last. The film’s great honesty is that it lets you come to your own, inevitable conclusion that, outside this foreign land where a shared culture becomes so much more important, it wouldn’t work. The difference in ages alone (subtly underlined by the pair’s different song choices at karaoke) would condemn any attempt to continue things on a more permanent footing.

Indeed Johannson gets the film’s classic line: ‘let’s never come here ever again, because it will never be as much fun’. The week of the story is lightning in a bottle.

Nevertheless, when Bob leaves and Charlotte stays, her husband due back that night, the parting is as painful as lovers, brief and awkward. But Coppola is sentimental enough to allow the traditional proper farewell: driving to the airport, Bob spots Charlotte in the crowded street, follows her, surprises her. Alone in the crowd, they have the anonimity in which to say goodbye – and goodbye it will be, not auf weidersehen – and let their feelings into their voices.

There was a lot of improvisation in this film, and in directing this scene, Coppola had authorised Murray to kiss Johannson, but not told her. The reactions are so much more real, and in the end the pair hug. Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear that was also improvised, but which the camera did not pick up. In a moment of great skill, Coppola rejected an overdub. What he said is forever a secret, and it’s fitting at the last that there should be something entirely private to them that we the audience don’t share.

Lost in Translation is a lovely film and the leading performances are brilliant. Murray was a veteran of many films, but he in no way outshines Johannson who, I was astonished to recall, was only 17 at the time. She plays a woman of around 25 with total authenticity, both physically and mentally, as well as emotionally.

There are a couple of criticisms to be made about the film. I’ve already touched upon the outrage the film caused in Japan, and this is exacerbated by the film’s reliance upon the alienating factor of the Japanese language, almost always spoken fast and with volatility (far, far too much volatility among the young). There’s a very funny scene when Bob is recording his commercial, when the director goes off on a long spiel about how he wants Bob to play the scene (helpfully translated on the film’s Wikipedia page as a thoughtful, atomospheric direction) and the translator repeats it as the much shorter ‘he wants you to turn to the camera.’

It’s all good fun, but it does move the film closer to that indefinite boundary with xenophobia.

And whilst I can enjoy looking at Scarlett Johannson for the longest time, like so many other men, the film’s opening shot, a close-up on her bum, in semi-translucent pink knickers, lying on a bed, is a bad start no matter its supposed derivation from rather esoteric art. That, and the film’s determination to get her legs into as many shots as it physically can (and she has nice legs), becomes disturbing, and inimical to the story. Charlotte is being reduced to her physical appearance as the primary aspect of her. Bob will never be reduced to his appearance, and whilst Charlotte becomes a more determined person thereafter, it’s a serious mistake to spend so much time maetaphorically shouting ‘Wow, hey! Look you guys, she’s in her knickers!’

I like the film and it has a nostalgic appeal for me as to seeing it before. I’m very glad I visited that charity shop yesterday.

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