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Avoiding the Cliché

Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’ Is an Unconventional Love Story

By Robin Hauck

Lost in Translation

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola

Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson

Rated R

T owards the end of Sofia Coppola’s new film, “Lost in Translation,” Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson say goodbye in the sleek lobby of the Park Hyatt Tokyo. They stand inches apart, searching each other’s eyes, but cannot utter a word. Longing, regret, and desire pass between them, but they do not act on it. Ardent and resigned, the look stretches on. For a moment we expect this to be like other films. We expect them to rush into a tight embrace, profess their love for each other, or kiss. But they do not. This is Sofia Coppola’s film and she knows better.

“Lost in Translation,” a graceful arrangement of such electric moments, is a patient and careful film that Coppola says is partly about “atmosphere and feeling, people just observing life.” Films like Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” and the music of “My Bloody Valentine” contributed to the mood she created. Tokyo is a central character, its limitless energy a constant contrast to her characters’ pale malaise.

“Lost in Translation” is also about the chance connections people make that last only a short time but change lives forever; the connections that become possible when we find ourselves outside of our home environments and away from safety nets and paths of avoidance. In a place where even language is incompatible, her characters become vulnerable, and their exposed loneliness draws them together.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an American movie star in Tokyo making a whiskey commercial. “I’m making two million for a whiskey spot,” he muses, “When I could be in New York doing theater.” Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, a recent Yale grad who is “stuck,” battling a creeping identity crisis. Charlotte is married to an excessively hip photographer (played brilliantly by Giovanni Ribisi) who disappoints and annoys her; he’d rather hang out with ditzy actresses than spend time with her. Though Coppola resists characterizing the film as critical of marriage, the film’s protagonists are partly drawn together because they are both neglected, discouraged spouses.

Coppola wrote the script based on her own experiences in Tokyo where she says the mania of the city created a surreal background to the sense of displacement she felt as a foreigner who didn’t speak the language or know the culture. In that bizarre situation she says she often felt herself reflecting on her identity and questioning her life.

Coppola says she conceived of Charlotte as someone who felt she could not relate to anyone, like she was speaking a different language. Charlotte wanders the city looking for meaning, but finds she is incapable of grasping it. After visiting a Buddhist temple, she calls her friend in the states and sobs, “I didn’t feel anything.”

As she did in her first film, “The Virgin Suicides,” Coppola proves her talent at coaxing great performances out of her cast. With “Lost in Translation,” this is partly attributed to the flexibility she left in her sparse script and partly to her inspired casting. Opting to forgo the involvement of a large studio, Coppola found her own financing and maintained creative control. This meant a tight budget, a short and demanding shooting schedule, and no rehearsals. “We shot the script from beginning to end,” she says, “So Bill and Scarlett were getting to know each other at the same time Bob and Charlotte did.” By the last days of shooting, the actors had developed an on-screen chemistry that made scenes like the long look in the lobby mesmerizing.

Coppola says it was a “dream come true” working with Bill Murray. She imagined him in the role as she wrote it, hoping to explore more of the troubled sensitivity he displayed in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore.” Coppola cast Scarlett Johnasson because “she does not try to do too much.” She has a sense of inner calm that Coppola saw would contrast with the bustling Tokyo. Johansson’s performance, like Kristen Dunst’s in “The Virgin Suicides,” should propel her career to a new level.

Coppola is drawn to weighty material, stories, which in others’ hands might become corny, overacted, and over-sentimental. But “Lost in Translation,” like “The Virgin Suicides,” is striking for its careful and effective restraint. This restraint is a signature of the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and an element which separates her from her contemporaries.

Coppola described the melodrama, romance, and sadness she wanted to develop between her characters. They are there, but in such a way that they almost give new meaning to the terms, at least the terms as we have come to know them in Hollywood. Coppola allows for a distance between character and audience. She lets the actors inhabit characters and the moments unfold without the anxious pushiness so often displayed by directors.

“I like to let things play out,” she says. “I like to show instead of tell. I didn’t even want to have the characters talk about themselves, I just wanted to let things unfold. What you don’t see is so much more powerful than what you do.”

“Those moments are so important,” she says, “when you connect to someone. People are always so busy, so distracted. When you can make a connection and find an understanding with someone, it’s something you take with you forever.”