Coppola makes poetry in 'Lost'

by John Kim | 9/25/03 5:00am

Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" is simply a beautiful film. It stirs the heart, awakens the soul, and haunts you long after the closing images have faded. This is one of those movies where you leave the theater stunned silent by what just transpired. Many films are equally admirable, but few movies, ever, have filled me with the same sense of joy.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an aging movie star who is in Japan for a week to film a whiskey commercial. Mired in a fading marriage and sick of the Hollywood machine, Bob is the poster boy for burnout. He reacts to all situations, both absurd and mundane, with disinterest, like one of the living dead walking among those he no longer understands or cares to understand.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is in Japan accompanying her flaky celebrity photographer husband, who is constantly out somewhere schmoozing with the "in" crowd and leaving Charlotte in her hotel room alone. Already jaded 20-something years into her life, nothing -- not self-help tapes, not Buddhist temples, not her husband -- provides her with the answers she desires. Like Bob, she too feels like a stranger in the world that she inhabits. This is the link they share, and it bridges the 30 years between them.

Both parties underwent climactic events (childbirth for Bob, marriage for Charlotte) after which everything afterwards was supposed to be clearer. All they found instead was dissatisfaction. Bob no longer has a marriage more than he has an uneasy truce, his conversations with his wife polite but devoid of affection. Likewise, Charlotte realizes that her relationship isn't working, and tearfully laments to a friend at one point, "I don't know who I married!" They had an ideal vision of their futures, only to discover that life had a different plan entirely. In short, something was lost in the translation.

These two alienated souls would not share any meaningful interaction in the "real world," but in a foreign environment that intensifies their feelings of isolation, their attraction becomes inevitable. A few accidental encounters lead to their spending every waking moment together as the depth of their bond becomes apparent. The film never elucidates what about the other each finds attractive, but the basic point is clear. These two need each other in a big way.

Coppola wisely refrains from going in a sexual direction, and this helps us overlook the age difference between the two protagonists. What we see instead are just two people who have found a connection after years of going through the motions, and who grab on tightly because they're afraid to let go. Bill and Charlotte are enchanting together rather than creepy, and this is because we never doubt their motivations.

Bill Murray has never looked more vulnerable, and for this movie, it's a side of him that works. In depicting a man who has lost the ability to empathize, Murray's famous deadpan demeanor has never been used more effectively. Eventually, Bob allows himself to smile in Charlotte's presence. It's startling not only because it goes against our expectations of the character, but also because it goes against our expectations of the usually stoic Murray.

Scarlett Johansson has a more understated role, but it is her performance that allows Murray's to happen. Johansson is cynical yet simultaneously radiant. She is easily believable as someone in whom Bob would see a kindred spirit. Johansson imbues Charlotte with an embracing warmth that allows Bob to gradually rediscover his own compassion.

Especially lovely is the subtle way in which Bob and Charlotte express their burgeoning affection for the other, telling volumes through mere actions. Coppola often lets the camera linger in the scenes between the two, and extended periods of silence are pervasive, giving the proceedings an increased vitality. When Charlotte gently leans her head onto Bob's shoulder or when Bob softly caresses Charlotte's injured foot -- these are such charged moments that dialogue would have ruined the effect. The characters never talk explicitly about their feelings, but through the simplest of gestures, we know just the same.

The buildup to the film's climax borders on torture at times. Bob and Charlotte's refusal to be candid about their feelings is sometimes maddening, and the sexual tension eventually reaches a smothering level. However, when the two finally admit what the audience has already known, it's all worth it. The scene is so electric that all I could do was sit breathlessly and say softly, "Wow." The payoff is heartbreakingly poignant, and will stay with you days after the movie is over.

Sofia Coppola has, in only her second attempt, reached a level of excellence that many filmmakers fail to achieve in their lifetimes. Deliberate without being boring and subtle without being pretentious, her film is a masterwork that is unlikely to be surpassed this year. It reminds you that, when they want to, the movies are still capable of creating magic. Simply put, "Lost in Translation" is as close to poetry as cinema can get.