There is a key scene in writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation during which the film’s two main characters, played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, first make eye contact across a Tokyo hotel bar. In the background, the house band plays “Scarborough Fair,” a tune that invokes by association The Graduate, and the May/December romance found therein. Like that film’s Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson, Lost in Translation‘s frustrated, aspiring young writer Charlotte (Johansson) and bored, famous, middle-aged American actor Bob Harris (Murray) are separated by their years. But the brief affair upon which Charlotte and Bob embark is less about empty physical relations and more about the act of finding the other half of a whole.
Much more like Benjamin and Elaine Robinson, and the “lost” generation those two represented so emblematically, our protagonists are both restless (often literally) and lost in life. Bob and Charlotte may be at different stages in their lives, but they share a host of similarities that ultimately bring them together: disillusion in their respective marriages, disappointing career crises, spiritual dissatisfaction, and insomnia.
At one point in the film we see a clip from La Dolce Vita displayed on a television screen. Anita Ekberg’s famous dance in Rome’s Trevi Fountains, and her joyous release in an exotic foreign locale, mirrors Bob and Charlotte’s brief, exhilarating splash into one another’s lives while strangers in a strange land. Unlike La Dolce Vita however, and much like life, Lost in Translation provides no subtitles. The typical monolingual American viewer experiences the same communication barriers faced by our protagonists in their cosmopolitan Japanese environs, and thus the dazzling visuals and atmospherically quirky soundtrack come to take on as much, if not more, significance as the dialogue.
Put together by Brian Reitzell, onetime drummer for punk-poppers Redd Kross, Lost in Translation‘s mood-inducing musical selections range from several gently droning new songs by notoriously reclusive former My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields to a contribution from inventive French pop duo Air. (The latter also took on score duties for Coppola’s promising feature debut, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides.)
Being only her second film, Lost in Translation finds Ms. Coppola fully realized in the role of auteur. The tone and pace of the storytelling is impressively assured, not to mention the genius of the casting. Murray and Johansson give the kind of incredibly understated performances that result from ideal roles provided to an actor only a very few times in his or her career.
A refreshing study in romance, compassion, and humanity, Lost in Translation stands to become a modern classic.