…and the quest to see everything

Sofia’s Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola‘s choice of indie-trance music on Lost in Translation‘s soundtrack probably blinds me but she  lyrically captures a modern, non-European city that might never be topped by a future film (correct me if I’m wrong, obviously). When slightly washed up action star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) or her heroine Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) look out of the window, there’s a reason. The fluorescent-lit signs and flashing posters depicting a calligraphic language that the don’t understand. Charlotte leisurely walks the scramble crossings in Shibuya, Tokyo and travel the city’s subway system, Sofia making both modes of transportation look less like its notoriously hectic reputation. She also visits Buddhist temples and enjoys a nightlife that somehow involves a fake shootout, in both times having fun without having to fully drain her energy.

I’ve forgiven Johansson in misjudged performances she will have after this but hers here is probably the best she’ll ever give. Charlotte uglies herself up, agonizing in moments when she feels alone,  abandoned by her husband or when around B-list movie star Kelly (Anna Faris). And her rapport with Bob, her being childlike and girly, captures the spontaneous air that Sofia tries to capture. It’s easier to watch her boredom and frustration and her spark that help cure those things. Bob is the only person to make her smile, pulling out her effortless glow.

This is probably the second most beautiful movie Woody Allen never made as both writer-directors have, in their movies, bourgeois pseudo-intellectual misanthropic characters. Charlotte has a disdain for Hollywood – embodied by characters like Kelly or her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). She, when the occasion arises, prefers to sing classic 80’s tunes as opposed to the usual Queen-Journey-top 40 often playing in karaoke bars. (Interestingly enough for Sofia to create a character who is also a Yale graduate majoring in Philosophy but is barely, if ever, seen with a book. On vacation.). Although this quiet snobbery doesn’t stop her from befriending Bob, both of them are in Tokyo for showbiz related reasons, both of them bored and wanting to get out although they’re free to do so anytime.

Most Allen films have characters or devices holding up a mirror against their protagonist’s insanity or at least find someone to cure them. But Sofia, in making these two characters meet, encourage each other’s misanthropy even to a racist level (I’m not the first one to say this) specifically on Bob’s character. It’s understandable to feel anomic in the Japanese urban landscape that equally and inadvertently exclude them as ‘foreigners’ but it shouldn’t excuse their language and attitude. “Why do they switch the ls and the rs here?” I don’t trust my interpreter. I refuse to learn the language. These people like eating body parts of white girls like Charlotte. Murray pulls these lines off with his wit and comic timing but I still feel uncomfortable with his and the movie’s xenophobia.

5 responses

  1. Dan

    Very interesting read. I’m not a big fan of Sofia Coppola’s work but I did prefer this to The Virgin Suicides.

    November 30, 2011 at 6:19 pm

  2. For me, Coppola’s finest film was her work last year on Somewhere which I find particularly underrated. I think Lost in Translation is fairly good, but I never found it to be the beacon which most seem to. And, then, even though I suppose I’m a bigger fan of Scarlett Johansson than most I don’t LOVE her performance here either. I’d have nominated her, but I don’t find it stupendous…of course, what is?

    November 30, 2011 at 7:40 pm

  3. Dan: Me too. Her adaptation just gave away too many answers and conclusions instead of leaving it as ambiguous and complex like the book did.

    Andrew: I know I gave Somewhere a 3 but that’s just because of Elle Fanning. The rest of it is just a pointless exercise of rich people complaining and complaining more when other people tell them to stop complaining. And I agree with you about Scarlett. It’s a vulnerable performance but neither she nor the material doesn’t push her harder. She here is part of a palatable yet problematic film.

    November 30, 2011 at 11:35 pm

  4. I think I liked this film when I saw it. Although it was back from a time when I wasn’t really into movies that much. I always liked them, but never really watched them…if you get me!

    Maybe a rewatch is in order?

    Thanks for the read Paolo

    December 1, 2011 at 4:50 am

    • I still have a part of me that likes it too but some of the movie’s treatments just kill me. I was just having a conversation with a friend and what I called a “lyrical” portrayal of Japan she called exoticism. She knows how to paint an environment, it’s just the characters within it that are the worst not just because of the bad things that they do but the things that they don’t do.

      And a rewatch is in order. I was rereading some of the criticism for the movie and some of them said that they want to visit Japan. I kind of did.

      December 1, 2011 at 3:36 pm

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