Everyone has a few movies that they can endlessly re-watch — the bottomless cups from which you can sip deeply and endlessly without them ever letting you down. There are a few that come to mind immediately for me: Heat, Apocalypse Now, Serenity, Grosse Point Blank, Dope (a relatively untested newer entry, but one already baring the hallmarks of this type). They all occupy slightly different neighbourhoods in my heart: Heat is, purely and simply just my favourite movie; Apocalypse Now was the first movie that really turned me onto appreciating and thinking about movies; Serenity I could frankly just watch every other day and still not get bored (‘We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode!’) But Lost In Translation is the one that really plucks at something very fundamental within my core. I’ve already described what the perfect ending of the film does to me, but there is so, so much more to this sublime package.
In terms of casting, it really is one of the most inspired creations ever committed to celluloid, with both Bill Murray (who is rightfully praised for his performance to this day) and Scarlett Johansson (who is sometimes unfairly underserved in retrospectives — it’s easy to forget how phenomenal she is as the fiercely intelligent and disillusioned Charlotte) being as essential to the success of the film as the script or director. The two actors absolutely nail portraying everything that is required of them: the loneliness of two souls stranded in a world they are not familiar with; the suspended emotional animation that comes with an honest appraisal of your choices; the joy and humour that can arise from a wonderful new connection; the painful restraint that is sometimes necessary in life. There isn’t a nuanced angle to their characters that they do not embody perfectly.
The story of their casting is well known, but it bears repeating here. Wiki tells it best:
Coppola wrote the film with Murray in mind and said she would not have made it without him. She said that she had always wanted to work with Murray and that she was attracted to his “sweet, lovable side”. She pursued him for five months to a year, relentlessly sending telephone messages and letters. She enlisted help from Wes Anderson, who had directed Murray in two films, and screenwriter Mitch Glazer, who was a mutual friend. In July 2002, Coppola and Murray finally met in a restaurant, and he agreed to participate because he “couldn’t let her down”.
Despite this, Murray did not sign a contract; when he finally arrived in Tokyo, Coppola described it as “a huge relief”. Coppola first noticed Scarlett Johansson in Manny & Lo, where she related to her “understated” and “subtle” demeanour, envisioning her as a “young Lauren Bacall-type girl”. Johansson, who was 17 years old at the time, immediately accepted the part and Coppola was happy with the maturity she brought to the character. In writing the story, Coppola said she was influenced by the relationship between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Murray and Johansson did not do any auditions before filming.
The movie did receive some criticism at the time of its release for what could be perceived as a whole nation and people being reduced to essentially just playing the part of a backdrop for the emotional journey of some affluent white Americans. I am of course in no position to claim that the movie treads as respectfully as it should, or to try minimise or brush away any offence anyone might take, but I do think that context matters, and that in that regard Coppola’s portrayal of Japan is actually quite sensitive. Apart from a few cheap observational sight gags, the movie’s treatment of Tokyo as a cinematic ‘other’ or alien landscape is meant to highlight the foreign nature of the visiting Americans — as they bumble along, unsure of themselves, while everything around them flows along at a normal pace — rather than pointing a voyeuristic finger at this weird, odd place and culture. Anna Faris and Giovanni Ribisi’s characters should disabuse anyone of the notion that it is the Japanese who are being laughed at here.
Luckily most people seemed to understand this, as Lost In Translation is also one of those wonderful examples of a deserving movie receiving the appropriate plaudits in an industry otherwise so often filled with horrors to the contrary — winning as it did critical acclaim (four Oscar nods and one win for best original screenplay) and popular attention ($119 million gross on a $4 million budget).
Thinking about what it is exactly that makes Lost in Translation sing quite as much as it does, I keep coming back to the characters and the actors who portray them, because upon those miraculous twin pillars Sofia Coppola constructed a beautiful, bittersweet, elegiac secular meditation on loneliness, spiritual dislocation, and the miracle of human connection. Shot wonderfully on film in the era of rising digital, Lost In Translation trades in deep shadows and stark whites; in controlled and precise, yet organic and fluid compositions. It’s not so much a movie as it is a divine coupling of form and content; of a script to die for and a unique and resonant visual style. The film is also incredibly funny, with both broad gags like Murray trapped on the elliptical trainer in the dead of night and the multitude of more subtle, low key jokes that pass back and forth between him and Johansson landing fantastically. As ever, the greatest humour is derived from well created and well understood characters. The nature of the relationship that develops between the two adrift individuals is touching, insightful, heartwarming, and — crucially — ephemeral. At the risk of repeating myself, that ending is divine.
It would be a crime, also, to not give a brief mention to the soundtrack, as it is crazy just how much it helps the movie in transporting you to this very special, fleeting sliver of time where two people a world away and worlds apart are momentarily brought close together, with hope and promise and reality and life all colliding over a few days in Tokyo.
You know what? I think I just decided what I’m watching this weekend. Again.
Petr Knava plays music