Lost in Translation Review
Sofia Coppola’s second feature film followed her beautiful mood-piece, The Virgin Suicides, a rather vague and nebulous film that nevertheless managed to perfectly capture a period of the mid-seventies and that curiously confusing time of growing-up. Lost in Translation shows many of the same characteristics of her debut feature, being more concerned with mood and atmosphere and creating an ambience to work within rather than actually having anything to say or even a story to tell. It’s a technique that has made the film equally as endearing as frustrating for viewers.
American film star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) flies to Tokyo to star in a series of commercials for a well-known brand of whiskey that will earn him a $2million pay check. He finds the whole thing a little bizarre and the cultural gap insurmountable, coming into contact with strange people with unusual customs and a language that is incomprehensible. Unable to return home sooner and unable to venture into the absurd world outside, Bob spends his nights alone at the hotel bar, where he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who is there with her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer on assignment in Japan. Like Bob, she feels lost, unable to do her own thing, she feels like she is just tagging along and not getting anywhere with her own life. Seeing Bob at the bar every night, she recognises a similar lost soul and the two of them inevitably find themselves drawn to each other.
These are characters who are lost, who don’t know themselves what they want – Charlotte has yet to find her metier and Bob doesn’t know where the movie-star Bob ends and the real Bob begins, unable to reconcile a life where he gets paid millions for a few minutes work with a troubled domestic life. Holed-up against their wishes in the Park Hyatt in Tokyo (poor things!), surrounded by a culture and a language that is alien to them, their sense of isolation and dislocation is only further emphasised – neither knowing where their lives are going, they are both lost in translation. The film successfully, but not totally convincingly, shows how two people who on the surface can be quite different, can nevertheless find a connection and thereby find motivation to address what they are missing in their own lives.
We don’t really know very much more about the two lead characters and what we do know about them isn’t particularly appealing. Both are shallow, pampered, insular, insecure, socially and domestically inadequate and neglectful (if not downright contemptuous) of their partner’s needs. Yet somehow, the director manages to sway the viewer to sympathise with and, judging by critical and popular response, even come to love these barely sketched, inarticulate, non-entity characters. How does she do it?
If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to skip the assessment below. Since very little actually happens in the film, any discussion of it is likely to be considered a spoiler and Lost in Translation is a film best to go into without any expectations or preconceptions.
Firstly, and this is probably Sofia Coppola’s biggest secret weapon – she casts Bill Murray as Bob Harris – or to be more accurate, she casts Bill Murray as Bill Murray. Indeed, Coppola has said in interviews that if he had not agreed to play the part, Lost in Translation would not have been made. Couldn't anyone else play this role? No, because who else can be Bill Murray? I don’t blame Bill Murray for this – it’s clear from the script that his character description was somewhat lacking in detail and motivation. Nor for that matter do I blame the director/scriptwriter since the idea clearly works – in fact, it’s a masterstroke. In the same way that Bill’s character trades off his own image as a movie-star to sell whiskey, so too does Coppola use Bill Murray’s image and personality to sell her film. And we’ll buy it, so why not? Take the scene at the hospital where two Japanese ladies are laughing at Bill Murray’s improvisations. They are laughing because Bill Murray is goofing around and we also are laughing because Bill Murray is making them laugh. Bill Murray is funny – everyone knows that! He got an Oscar nomination because he is Bill Murray – and again why not? – Bill Murray is a great character, but not for one second does the viewer see a fictional character up there on the screen.
The second reason to like these main characters for all their faults is because the other characters in the film are so crudely and unsympathetically depicted that they make Bill – I mean Bob – and Charlotte look great in comparison. The Japanese are reduced to caricatures to such an extent that it would almost be racist were it not for the fact that every single other non-Japanese character in the film is treated with the same casual disregard. Bill’s wife is reduced to a disembodied voice that nags him on the phone about mundane things like the children and a new carpet for the house. “Leave him alone, woman!” – the viewer thinks – “Bill’s trying to have a lovely friendship/romance/father-figure/I-don’t-know-how-to-define-it-relationship-thing with Charlotte, and you’re just annoying!”. And Charlotte’s husband – all he thinks about is work and his career and getting on with his life (something that neither of the main characters have the ability to do), yet the film hints that he might be unfaithful to her without ever having the nerve or the ability to actually come right out and say it. This however is all the viewer needs to be glad when he gets out of the way, to justify the blossoming relationship that is happening between Bill and Charlotte. Worst of all, poor Anna Faris is reduced to being a Cameron Diaz-like, anorexic, dumb-blonde, attention seeking movie star. When she is made to look foolish at a press conference, the scene is juxtaposed with Charlotte walking into an ikebana flower-arranging class. It’s a crude and cheap shot to effectively make the weak and ineffectual Charlotte look sensitive and sympathetic in comparison.
The third successful bit of viewer manipulation is one that Coppola has already – in The Virgin Suicides – successfully proved herself adept – the evocation of time, place, mood and atmosphere, enclosing the viewer in a hermetic world of soft lighting and entrancing music. The seduction begins from the moment we see Scarlett Johansson’s delightful rear adorned in pink panties in the opening shot, and it is the viewer who is being seduced. We are similarly drawn into the hotel lobby bar, shut out from all the threatening foreign confusion going on outside. Best of all, the Karaoke Bar scene is depicted with such skill that you just want those people to come together so much - even if logically and scripturally it doesn’t make any sense and nothing has convincingly led up to it. Coppola has created a mood, an ambience and an emotion through a situation and a song (Roxy Music’s “More Than This”) and nothing else matters. It must be right because it feels right.
Through all this Coppola makes the viewer complicit in the film’s development and progression – literally willing for it to happen (because it’s Bill Murray goddammit and he deserves a break from that nagging wife!) to such a degree that she doesn’t even need to write an ending. Bill whispers in Charlotte’s ear and the final line is left unspoken – as it must be because there is no real line that could have been spoken that would have carried it off – and the viewer is happy because they can make up a line that would work for them alone, or they can at least trust that Bill Murray (goddammit!) would say the right thing. So why bother to write the impossible when you can bluff it?
All this can be taken as a criticism of the film, but it actually speaks very highly for Sofia Coppola’s talent as a director. For all its apparent and quite obvious shortcomings, what cannot be denied is the considerable skill of the director to make it all work. Coppola admitted earlier this year in a Sight & Sound interview that she focused on atmosphere and found writing an actual plot rather difficult. Here she certainly plays to her strengths. She doesn’t even need likeable characters – she just creates a situation, chooses the right people for the roles and leaves enough ambiguity there in the story for the viewer to find whatever they want to take out of it. Personally, I found the characterisation thin, the protagonists unsympathetic, the plot unconvincing, and the ending a complete cheat - a reaction possibly influenced by the film failing to live up the disproportionate hype it had received before release and still continues to generate. Perhaps the best way to take Lost in Translation is as a mood piece, and on that level it is certainly successful - even more so than the sublime The Virgin Suicides – another film, albeit a very beautiful one, untroubled by anything resembling a plot.
The Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai however, has shown just what can be achieved with mood in In The Mood For Love – a film with even less of a plot than Lost in Translation and characters who are also unable to articulate or express their feelings. In that case however their inability to express their feelings is given additional tension because of social conditioning and attitudes of the period towards marital infidelity. We sympathise with those characters because their actions are integral and realistic, the circumstances making their fate genuinely moving – something that Lost in Translation lost for me with Bob Harris’ casual fling with the bar singer towards the end of the film. It's not so much the infidelity - which is actually consistent with Bob's character as a failing star and a failing husband still looking for validation - as much as the film refusing to let this affect the outcome. The 'betrayal' effectively tells Charlotte that their relationship is not a romantic one. It's a friendship, a meeting of soul-mates, two people who connected for a short while. Bob realises that he cannot live-up to the idealised inspirational father-figure image that Charlotte has of him and he draws away from it ("More than this - there's nothing more than this", he sang to her at the Karaoke Bar, but no-one, least of all Charlotte, seems to have caught on to the significance of the lyrics). However, Lost in Translation refuses to let any action (or in a film where very little happens, more often inaction) impinge on or contradict the mood that has been created. With the whispered ending Lost in Translation gives the viewer whatever they want - even the non-existent romance - and they don’t have to think too much about it. In adopting Charlotte's unrealistic, dreamy first-person perspective, Coppola cheats us out of any real examination of the characters and their relationship, allowing the mood to say everything and nothing – a gentle narcotic that anaesthetises against any unpleasant realisations. It's an approach which strikes me as being a little too lazy, a little too convenient and not nearly enough.
Lost in Translation is a film where the image and sound need to hit the right note in order for it to succeed, but unfortunately the transfer to the small screen does it no favours at all. The lacklustre transfer to DVD practically kills the film stone-dead. The print itself is relatively free from marks and dust spots, but the overall impression is that this is a lot more hazy, dull and lifeless than it appeared theatrically. Dark interiors don’t come across well, artefacting is noticeable and colours are flat and washed-out looking. As I recall, the film, particularly the Tokyo night-times scenes, glowed with warmth and colour in its theatrical presentation and that is certainly not the case here. In a film where this is vitally important, this is a major failing. This colour problem also seems to be evident in the Region 1 release, which is only slightly sharper. The trailer and music video included in the extra features actually seem closer to the theatrical presentation as I remember it. Comparison screenshot images are included below - Momentum Region 2 top, Alliance Atlantis Region 1 middle and Region 2 trailer bottom.
DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included. There is no noticeable difference between either of them and neither is particularly impressive. The sound is centre focused, with occasional use of surrounds for crowded scenes in Tokyo at night and at the train station. The sound is harsh and loud when it should be warm and seductive.
"Lost" on Location (29:40)
The hand-held video-diary style making of is of a reasonable length and quite good. There didn’t seem to be too much lost in translation between the American and Japanese crew, the impression being given that everything ran smoothly and without a hitch. Apart from the worst typhoon to hit Japan since WWII. Bill Murray is very funny with his all-purpose Japanese phrase.
Matthew's Best Hit TV (4:39)
Only seen briefly in the film and in cutaway to a TV screen, here we have the full version of Bob’s appearance on Japanese TV’s equivalent to the Graham Norton show.
Kevin Shields “City Girl” Music Video (3:00)
The music video is shown letterboxed at 1.85:1, made up entirely of clips from the film.
Five deleted scenes are included – More Aqua Aerobics (0:51), Charlotte With Robots (1:16), Kelly’s Press Conference (4:47), Morning After Karaoke (1:33), Bob in Hospital Waiting Room (2:20). There’s nothing of great interest here – all are extended from other scenes in the film. Presented work-cut fashion with timecodes, letterboxed at 1.85:1.
A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola (9:30)
Bill dominates the conversation here, discussing how the film works and how the cast and crew contributed to “making it all happen”.
Theatrical Trailer (2:08)
The trailer is presented 1.85:1 letterbox and is a good trailer, effectively showing what the film is all about and capturing its mood.
Lost in Translation is a good film taken on its own terms as a slight, romantic, mood piece and it even impresses as a demonstration of the exceptional movie-making skills of the director. If its faults can be overlooked and you are prepared to go with the flow, it’s a very pleasant experience and sometimes that’s all you want from a movie. If you approach the film expecting something more rigorous in terms of characterisation or storytelling you are likely to be rather disappointed. If you haven’t already seen the film theatrically, the poor small-screen transfer of the film to DVD is quite likely to leave you nonplussed and wondering what all the fuss was about.