Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation” (2003)

Notable Festivals: Telluride

Academy Award Wins: Best Original Screenplay

I first saw director Sofia Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) in college, and like several other films I saw at that time, the experience of watching had an immediate, profound effect on my own artistic development as a filmmaker.  I tried on certain aspects of the film’s stylistic sensibilities with my own work and found they suited me, but it wasn’t until my most recent viewing of the film for this essay that I became acutely aware of just how integral LOST IN TRANSLATION was to the backbone of my aesthetic.  As someone who spent a substantial portion of his early 20’s traveling back and forth across the country for college, the core of Coppola’s emotional message– the alienation of being a stranger in a strange land– resonated deeply with me.  

Coppola too spent a great deal of her 20’s engaged in travel, although her status as the daughter of a wealthy film legend enabled her to voyage to farther-flung locales than people like me.  She had a particular affection for the city of Tokyo, Japan, citing the city’s luxuriously labyrinthine Park Hyatt Hotel as one of her favorite places in the entire world (3).  That hotel would serve as the setting for LOST IN TRANSLATION, her second feature following 1999’s THE VIRGIN SUICIDES.  Beginning with a series of short stories and personal impressions about the hotel and her experience in Tokyo, Coppola labored for six months to craft a screenplay about an understated love affair between a man nearing the end of his career and a woman just about to start hers– if she could only figure out what she actually wanted to do (4,5).  Coppola wrote the story with comedy icon Billy Murray in mind, even going so far as to leave hundreds of messages on the actor’s private voicemail box and enlisting her friend and fellow director Wes Anderson to make a personal overture (6).  Reportedly operating off of only a verbal agreement from Murray, Coppola and her producer Ross Katz risked $4 million in financing and untold professional humiliation, and moved to Tokyo to begin production without a firm contract from their lead actor.  Much to their relief, Murray did show up on the first day of production, and as they say, the rest is history.

Much of LOST IN TRANSLATION may be predicated on the absurdities that arise from the culture clash between east and west, but in endeavoring to make a film about a brief moment of romantic connection rather than a conventional plot or story arc, Coppola had to create a sustained mood of subdued emotional tension.  The film’s storyline is the faintest of sketches: a quietly inquisitive newlywed named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) travels to Tokyo on a business trip with her husband, but spends most of the time brooding alone in her hotel room.  She’s coaxed out to experience the magic of the city by Murray’s Bob Harris, an aging, downwardly mobile American movie star who’s there to shoot a whiskey commercial.  During their various misadventures across the city, Bob and Charlotte develop a unique bond that allows them respite from their individual marital troubles.  

It’s easy to dismiss the film as a story where “nothing happens”, but to do so misses the point entirely– Coppola’s narrative is about those fleeting moments that make us see the world in a different way.  A glance, a brush of fingers, a barely audible whisper in the middle of a crowded plaza.  It’s a film where every subtle interaction contains emotional magnitudes; the performances are the events.  The chemistry between the melancholic Murray and the contemplative Johansson (only seventeen years old at the time of shooting) is as sublime as it is unconventional– the marriage of an old soul and a young heart.  While Wes Anderson’s films RUSHMORE (1998) and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) foreshadowed the “Sad Bill Murray” persona, LOST IN TRANSLATION is the film that cemented it, fueling a late-career resurgence that would yield several similarly-sensitive performances that continue to this day.  Johansson’s work here put her on the map, paving the way to A-List stardom by acting as a fictional avatar for Coppola herself.  The supporting characters further point to the personal nature of Coppola’s story, with Giovanni Ribisi’s busy, disengaged performance as Charlotte’s husband, John, allegedly serving as a veiled reference to Coppola’s own husband, director Spike Jonze (they would ultimately split later that year).  Anna Faris’ bubbly turn as the aggravatingly ditzy actress, Kelly, is generally considered to be a swipe at Cameron Diaz, who had worked with Jonze in his 1999 feature, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.  You’ll notice that all these familiar faces are almost exclusively white– a peculiar choice for a film set entirely in Tokyo. While there are Japanese actors throughout, they exist almost exclusively in the periphery, confined by the bounds of their stereotype by The Anglo Gaze– a sore point of contention for the film’s many critics that lent ammunition to their argument for Coppola as an over-privileged rich kid with nothing meaningful to say.  

While LOST IN TRANSLATION’s main cast may not be Japanese, the film’s approach to cinematography falls very much in line with the observational, interior nature of Japanese filmmaking espoused by such directors as Yasujiro Ozu.  Lance Acord, who shot Coppola’s 1998 short LICK THE STAR, joined Coppola on her trek across the Pacific to serve as the film’s cinematographer.  LOST IN TRANSLATION’s visual style is simple, but deceptively so– every shot is deliberate and thoroughly considered, even in the haphazard-seeming documentary-style setups achieved via guerrilla filmmaking techniques in stolen, uncontrolled locations.  Because the cinematography is so minimal, every composition and the action contained within it has a specific narrative purpose.  This begins with Coppola’s choice to shoot on 35mm film stock for its organic, romantic qualities– despite her father and executive producer Francis Ford Coppola’s insistence that she shoot on high definition video because it was “the future” (5).  Sofia and Acord draw a marked distinction between the tranquil, refined Tokyo contained within the Park Hyatt and the buzzing urban sprawl just beyond its walls.  The hotel scenes are often locked off into wide, observational compositions with a shallow focus that throws the surrounding city lights into the shape of glowing incandescent orbs floating in a sea of black.  Bob and Charlotte’s forays into the city are rendered in the aforementioned handheld, documentary-style photography– partly as a directorial decision, but also because the modest budget precluded Coppola from obtaining permits for every exterior locale she wanted to shoot in.  This meant keeping the crew to a minimum (a challenge compounded by the predominantly-Japanese crew’s linguistic barriers), but the effort results in a film that properly captures the vitality, vibrancy and unpredictability of urban life.

Despite this bifurcated approach, Coppola and Acord maintain a visual continuity by establishing a few visual constants like color, light, and compositional framing devices.  Coppola’s Tokyo is a megalopolis rendered in dusky blue skies, imposing grey monoliths, and garish neons.  She and Acord routinely shun artificial film lights, using the soft ambient light of the surrounding city as much as possible– an approach that gives the nocturnal exteriors in particular a distinctly textured immediacy.  Many shots, especially those of the up-close variety, use transparent or translucent framing devices and abstractions– glass, reflections, prisms, lens flares, etc– to break up the image’s natural lines into smaller segments, evoking the emotional barriers between the characters while reinforcing a subtle thematic undercurrent about the compartmentalization of modern urban society.  This idea arguably informs the evolution of a unique shot that Coppola would claim as a personal signature, akin to generational peer Quentin Tarantino’s iconic “trunk shot”.  This particular composition, which also pops in her later films, is captured from the back seat of a moving car.  THE VIRGIN SUICIDES contained an earlier iteration of this shot, assuming the characters’ POV looking out on the neighborhood as it rolled by.  LOST IN TRANSLATION flips the angle by mounting the camera to the car’s exterior and peering in on her characters caught in a moment of lonely reverie.  They’re moving through the world, yet they are also removed from it– enclosed in an alienating bubble of glass and steel.  Indeed, Bob and Charlotte can only truly connect with their surroundings once they engage it on foot.

LOST IN TRANSLATION’s musical landscape reflects the interior nature of Coppola’s story, sculpted by My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields using a variety of New Wave and Tokyo dream pop tracks.  Just as Air had crafted an original song for use as the theme for THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, Shields contributes a downbeat shoegaze track named “City Girl” in addition to My Bloody Valentine’s iconic song “Sometimes”.  Also boasting contributions from Death In Vegas, Jesus and Mary Chain, and her current husband Thomas Mars’ band, Phoenix, the soundtrack is more reflective of Coppola’s personal tastes rather than the cultural setting of her story– nevertheless, the cumulative effect of the chosen tracks is a sublime experience that resonates in perfect harmony with the story’s emotional truths.  

To this day, LOST IN TRANSLATION remains the prime example of Coppola’s distinct voice as an artist.  The quiet, navel-gazing nature of her aesthetic is crystallized here in her treatment of a story that shows subtle growth through observation rather than direct conflict.  The air of detached emotionality and feminine mystique that pervades her filmography is embodied in Johansson’s performance as the disaffected and lonely Charlotte, often seen languishing in her hotel room in nothing but a t-shirt and panties.  The controversial opening shot is another example of this, imbuing the film with a lingering sensual charge as well as a youthful vulnerability by shooting Johansson’s butt in close-up while she sleeps– the contours of her shape just barely visible through her translucent underwear.  The emotionally distant protagonist (both Bob and Charlotte in this case) is a staple throughout Coppola’s filmography, but with LOST IN TRANSLATION she uses the archetype to begin another career-long thematic exploration: the malaise of privilege and the ennui of the entertainment industry.  Being a successful (albeit fading) movie star, Bob can have anything he wants.  However, the materialism of his profession leaves him longing for a profound emotional connection that he can only find with a complete stranger in a foreign land.  Coppola’s upbringing as a member of one of Hollywood’s royal families gives her a unique “inside baseball” perspective that fundamentally informs LOST IN TRANSLATION, as well as later works like SOMEWHERE (2010), THE BLING RING (2013) and A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS (2015).  Just as much as it is about the cultural landscape of Tokyo, LOST IN TRANSLATION is also about the emptiness of commercial Hollywood.  As such, the film is peppered with winking in-jokes to the film industry, like the aforementioned Anna Faris being a veiled jab at Cameron Diaz, or any one of Bob’s frustrating Suntory shoots.       

The whirlwind shoot for LOST IN TRANSLATION spanned just 27 days– but in that short amount of time, Coppola managed to capture more emotional truth than three or four Hollywood films combined.  This can be attributed in part to her encouragement of Murray and Johansson to deviate from her script and improvise– a technique that, funnily enough, would net her first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  Coppola’s emphasis on improv would also result in perhaps the film’s most memorable and dissected moment– Bob’s inaudible whisper into Charlotte’s ear during their final embrace, just before a kiss that’s both anticlimactic and cathartic at the same time.  The dialogue is inaudible because it wasn’t planned for– it’s a fleeting, beautiful moment of improvisation on Murray’s part that fits perfectly into Coppola’s established tone while also conveying the novel idea that audiences aren’t always entitled to the complete bypassing of a character’s privacy.  While technically-oriented fans of the film have spent years analyzing the specific audio bite in a bid to parse out Bob’s exact words, we can’t know what he said with 100% certainty.  That ambiguity, however, is the key to the film’s profound emotional resonance– occurring at a register just below our conscious awareness.

After premiering at Telluride, LOST IN TRANSLATION quickly accumulated a high regard amongst critics.  Many felt the film’s sensitive, nonjudgmental approach to the otherwise-unsavory theme of infidelity represented a new wave in cinematic depictions of love.  Academic Marco Abel called it “postromance cinema”, a subgenre that offers up a negative view of love and sex while rejecting the romantic ideal of “soul mates” (2).  The negative reviews (of which, admittedly, there were many), tended to fixate on Coppola’s treatment of Japanese culture from her “outside” (read: white) perspective, citing her depiction of Tokyo’s native inhabitants within stereotypical constructs as a patronizing choice that undermined her core message.  Ultimately, a film like LOST IN TRANSLATION is going to be polarizing– I personally know several people who hate it because “nothing happens”– and any given individual’s impression of the film is going to differ from the next.  By conventional metrics, however, LOST IN TRANSLATION was a success, scoring $120 million in worldwide box office receipts and four Oscar Nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Picture, and Coppola’s first nod for her direction.  With LOST IN TRANSLATION, Coppola fulfilled the promise she showed with THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, delivering an achingly beautiful portrait of longing and discovery while consolidating the formal aspects of her artistic aesthetic.  

LOST IN TRANSLATION is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.

 

Credits:

Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Director of Photography: Lance Acord

Production Designer: KK Barrett, Anne Ross

Edited by: Sarah Flack

Music by: Kevin Shields

References:

  • Via Wikipedia: Abel, Marco (2010). “Failing to Connect: Itinerations of Desire in Oskar Roehler’s Postromance Films”. New German Critique. 109. New German Critique, Inc. 37 (1): 77. doi:10.1215/0094033X-2009-018.