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Communicating Love With No Subtitles: A Review of Lost in Translation

by joseph palis

It is hard to like a movie when one's aim is to get a story where something happens in the end. Sofia Coppola's sophomore film Lost in Translation did end, and something "happened," but it went the other way in telling this. I like movies that show something new and remain true without just being stylish. Lost in Translation is that kind of film. It also re-shapes a traditional cinematic contour when it comes to ending the film. A believable ending is just as crucial for me as the images along the way.

As the heady and stunningly psychedelic The Virgin Suicides showed, Sofia Coppola is quite adept in painting the various hues and colors of moods and feelings and emotions that are not well-defined and clear-cut. Like a Susan Minot novel, Lost in Translation revels in the "moments" with a particular nod towards the uncomfortable moments that define our lives. Coppola does not make you cringe at the recollection of those images, but makes you remember the exact shade of feelings when you experienced that mood or emotion in the past. If only for that, I would like to recommend this movie for people whose idealizations of film-watching place entertainment in a secondary role.

Scarlett Johansson is very appealing as Charlotte. Not quite Lolita, but more like how Lolita would have been if she was not exposed to Humbert Humbert at a young age. Charlotte has this sensuality that grows more apparent the more she does ordinary things, like high-stepping on a rounded gravel walk in a pond, looking at the distorted view of Tokyo from her convex perspective, staring at the traditional wedding of a traditionally-dressed Japanese bride and groom, or having a quiet cigarette puff in an after-hours karaoke joint. Those things are what made this movie quietly enveloping. And engaging. And so subtly sad, that you only feel the gravity of this melancholy at the end. Johansson is a natural. Her unrehearsed quips, her quick looks and her not-quite-there glamorous beauty all add up to her mystique and appropriateness for the role. She is at her best when playing lonely outcasts or troubled characters. Remember her in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World or Eva Gardos' American Rhapsody? She even stole the thunder from Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas in The Horse Whisperer as a traumatized privileged girl.

Bill Murray is good, too. As Mr. Harris, his comic deadpans are priceless. But (and this is probably sacrilegious) I found myself mentally deciding who among the character actors with a trace of handsomeness could do more justice to the role. A less technical Kevin Spacey, maybe? Or a slightly good-looking William H. Macy? A grunge-y Jeff Bridges, perhaps? This role requires the subtlest of comic timing in order not to diminish the lines or draw attention to the minimalism of the dialogue. No doubt, Murray delivered this in spades, but . . .

There are moments in the film that were so ineffably beautiful because of the lack of dialogue and the inarticulation of unprocessed feelings. And it's heartbreaking to see it especially when its not milked for its melodramatic possibilities. The ending before the actual last shot was so lovely and painful at the same time and I wish it ended there, although the one last shot was not without its charm and truth either. There were moments there that made my hair stand without them (the characters) doing "anything". Just the awkward supplicating looks of people in love.

Lost in Translation is a movie that does not endeavour to make the audience gush (or if they do occasionally, it is not just because of Charlotte's full lips), but isn't that what real life is, sometimes? Make that, most times?

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A tank of thanks for Denise Teotico, Dindo Santos and Sheryl Bowley for the fruitful discussions.

Issue 16, October 2003

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