September 12, 2003

Translating Travel

lost.jpgToday Sofia Coppola's new film, Lost In Translation opens in limited release. Cinecultist reprints her following review set to appear in the Sept/Oct issue of Reverse Shot, a symposium issue devoted to French director and critic Olivier Assayas available soon online and in select locations around New York. To put less of a fine point on it all: CC lurved this movie, run don't walk to go see it.

Part of what makes travel so alluring—the bewildering newness of a foreign city—also makes it an alienating by-products of our modern ability to jet about the world at a moment’s notice. The experience of being an American abroad is territory well-tread in literature and cinema, but Sofia Coppola’s sophomore film, Lost In Translation brings a new sense of wonder and delight to the familiar ground.

In her first feature, an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides, Coppola appeared to be dipping into her own girlhood for inspiration, capturing a gold-tinged nostalgia for Seventies suburbia and the hopeful sweetness in budding female sensuality. Yet Coppola made Seventies Michigan much more than we possibly could have remembered, a thinly veiled Breck girl commercial with a purely post-millennium hipster Air soundtrack. The details were just too perfect—Kirsten Dunst’s highlights too honey-kissed, Josh Hartnett’s muscles too cut—but that’s what makes it a movie and not a memory.

In Lost In Translation, Coppola again treads on the cinematic representation of memory, capturing an unlikely friendship in Tokyo more intimately than snapshots or home video ever could. Bob Harris, an aging movie star (played by Bill Murray), has come to Japan for a lucrative licensing, appearing in whiskey ads. In the hotel lounge, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who’s passing time abroad while her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is out shooting rock stars and vapid starlets. Both characters are in crisis—Bob’s facing midlife while Charlotte’s can’t decide how to truly begin hers. In Tokyo’s surreal urban landscape, where English-Japanese communication seems to be filtered, then delivered in an off-kilter and bizarre version, the foreign-ness of their daily existence throws Bob and Charlotte’s angst into relief.

A wondefully melancholy, post-Rushmore Bill Murray does an excellent fish-out- of-water routine—a little mockery and a lot of tenderness. In particular the sequences where Murray tries to comprehend all the broken English come across as good-natured and funny—a lesser actor could have resorted to malicious condescension for easy laughs. A call girl offered to Bob from the Santory Whiskey executives implores Bob to “lip her stockings,” and an intense photographer, trying to elicit the proper sense of cool from a tuxedoed Bob, tells him to embody Roger Moore as James Bond, while Bob remarks that everyone knows Sean Connery is the ultimate 007. With these exchanges, Murray strikes a delicate chord between detached amusement and resigned ennui. I have never thought of Murray as a leading man per se—no Harrison Ford “hunkiness” here—but playing a movie star just past his prime fits him like a gracefully worn-out suit.

Johansson’s Charlotte makes for an unlikely, poignant counterpoint to all of this messing about by Murray. She spends a lot of time staring wistfully out the window of her high-rise hotel room wearing delicate little sweaters and childlike pink panties. Coppola again proves herself to be a director able to coax thoughtful performances out of young girls just treading into womanhood, having very publicly been this drifting young woman herself. As the daughter of one of our vanguard American directors, it’s impossible to watch her movies without thinking of her father Francis (especially when his production company, Zoetrope, figures prominently in the opening credits) and imagining the pressure young Sofia must have felt as she worked on her clothing line, Milk Fed, or began studying fine art at the California Institute of the Arts before becoming a filmmaker in her own right. Therefore, the speech Charlotte gives Bob about how she rejected being a photographer—because every girl goes through a period thinking she can take pictures but probably shouldn’t—feels immediate and genuine. Johansson has mellowed from a precocious child actor (The Horse Whisperer) and a petulant teen (Ghost World) to a graceful adult. The Anna Paquins and Haley Joel Osments of the industry should hope to fare so well.

But Lost In Translation is more than the sum of its performances, by the two leads as well as the delightful supporting cast and extras. Cinematographer Lance Acord captures with equal beauty the bustling humanity in the metropolis and the serenity of a Kyoto temple. In two separate sequences, the camera lingers on Johansson staring out the window of a moving car, taking in the landscape as the lush score written by Kevin Shields and Air, (the same collaborators from Virgin Suicides) envelops the soundtrack. There is something so picturesque and alluring about driving and listening to good music, that these moments made me want to rise from my chair and enter the frame like a wistful Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Posted by karen at September 12, 2003 7:54 AM