Lost in Translation
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi
I need to say this straight off the bat: I can’t write a normal review of Lost in Translation. Expect precious little of what’s to follow to be my typical attempts at any sort of analysis of the filmmaking techniques, production design, or story symbolism. Apologies if that’s what you wanted.
Right. On with it then.
I’ve only seen Lost in Translation twice; once, in 2004 after it came out on DVD, and just a few days ago for the 1001 Movies Blog Club. Despite the decade since I last saw it, I vividly remember that initial experience. It was late at night, I was a little tired, my then-boyfriend-now-husband had gone to bed, and I sat down to watch this film that my friend Dyami had been gushing over. I really enjoyed it – I knew I would – but as it came to a close, I remember being overcome by incredible emotion. I remember sobbing my way through the final scenes, then continuing to sob rather uncontrollably for at least another thirty minutes. Something in this film had touched a nerve, a very raw nerve, that the lateness of the hour and my tiredness only exacerbated. In seeing it for a second time, that nerve was not quite as exposed, but still there nonetheless.
Bob Harris (Murray) is a middle-aged washed up movie actor being overpaid to promote whiskey in Tokyo, Japan. He forgets his son’s birthday while his wife FedExes carpet samples to his hotel room. Charlotte (Johansson) is a college grad who majored in philosophy and now finds herself married to a photographer (Ribisi) and without any idea what to do with her life now that she’s tagged along with him to Tokyo. Both Bob and Charlotte feel completely alienated by not only Tokyo but their lives, and this is enough of a commonality for them to strike up an unlikely friendship.
Bill Murray is so wonderful in this film, and I remember, at the time, that it was such a BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL in the media. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, was all “holy F*%@ Bill Murray can actually act and express emotions and everything!” He was nominated for his one and only Oscar for his role as Bob Harris, but something I’ve been thinking about is that no one should have been THAT surprised. Frankly, Murray’s filmography for the ten years prior to Lost in Translation was building up to this, a perfectly seriocomic role. In my opinion, it all starts with Groundhog Day in 1993, then goes on to Ed Wood with Tim Burton in 1994, then most significantly on to Rushmore in 1998 and The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001, both with Wes Anderson. The fact that Murray was specifically choosing work that defied his early slapstick routines (he also managed to be in a Shakespeare movie before Lost in Translation) was apparent. Since Lost in Translation, he has continued his relationship with Wes Anderson, becoming in some ways a grand duke of the indie film scene, and has also cultivated a relationship with Jim Jarmusch of all people. I give Murray all the credit in the world for clearly seeking divergent film roles, because he is just wonderful when he tones down the stupid comedy and allows the sadness to peek through. I’m not surprised at all that a generation of younger filmmakers have wanted to use him in their work.
I don’t often write about it on my blog, but back in 2004, I was in a PhD program doing biochemistry research. I was utterly miserable, but I hadn’t yet realized I was miserable. (It would take another 18 months for me to finally face the issue and leave the program, moving on to something that DIDN’T take a jackhammer to my sense of self-worth.) Like Charlotte, I was in my early to mid-twenties and I felt adrift. And that night that I watched Lost in Translation for the first time, this film was an enormous trigger that managed to convey some of the hopelessness and lack of direction I was drowning in. Although I still could not completely admit it to myself at the time, now with 20/20 hindsight I have no doubt that the minor breakdown this film gave me was because I identified a bit too much with the emotional message here. When I watched it just a few days ago, the tears at the end were caused not by a current sense of angst in my life, but of remembrance; recalling just how emotionally draining and numbing those years in the lab were, recalling just how pathetic I felt then, how utterly useless and ineffectual I thought I was because my experiments never worked (not once, not ever, not even the goddamned controls did what they were supposed to do), how much of a failure I thought myself. Quite frankly, this film isn’t the easiest thing in the world for me to watch, not because it’s bad or horrific, but because it has a way of pulling all those old emotions out to surface.
Which is definitely a bit of a testament to the film, because I was working in a biochemistry research lab and Charlotte was in Tokyo for a few weeks. Not exactly the same thing.
It’s very difficult for me to be objective or analytical about this film. This is a much more subjective experience for me, as I just watch this and feel. I feel Charlotte’s depression as she tries to tell her friend she doesn’t know who she married only to have the friend blow her off. I have also had a friend during this time in my life who was a bit like Bob Harris, someone who, although a generation apart from me, I connected with and who I got along extraordinarily well with and who made me forget, albeit for short periods of time, how much sadness I was really hiding. Although an argument can be made, depending on your frame of mind, that Coppola pushes the relationship between Bob and Charlotte to the brink of sexual tension, and I honestly do not think that I ever had *that* kind of relationship with my friend, I relate yet again to understanding the feeling of respite caused by an unlikely friend.
This movie. This movie was my early to mid-twenties. The deep seated denial that I was sad (I wasn’t supposed to be sad, I was in biochemistry PhD program for crying out loud), the feelings of hopelessness and uselessness that almost consumed me, Lost in Translation brings it out in a beautiful, sadly poignant way. On the surface, my story is not at all like Charlotte’s, but Sofia Coppola knew what she was doing, knew that her particular story of cultural alienation could really strike far deeper.
This is not a movie I can watch lightly or “have on in the background.” I’m in a much better place now than I was ten years ago, but the experience in the lab was a bit emotionally scarring and I still struggle with some of those feelings of loss of self-worth (and I have a feeling I will always feel like something of a failure). Lost in Translation is a film that reminds me of that phase of my life, for better or for worse, and while it makes me happy to know I’m not there anymore, this movie has a way of reminding me just how painful those years were.
For the record, I think this movie is awesome. It just strikes a bit too close to home for me to watch it with any regularity.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10, and apologies if you actually wanted me to talk about the movie rather than whinging on about myself.