Lost in Translation

(Sofia Coppola, 2003) Lost in Translation is the kind of movie that needs a trial attorney, or at least a defensive filibuster, whenever it comes up in conversation. Its badge has grown a little worn since its release and its fanbase has waned concurrent with the rise of Scarlett Johansson’s career. But in 2003, Johansson was still the Ghost World apple of cinephiles’ eyes, and — say what you will about her ability elsewhere — she goddamn works as Charlotte, and she’s eternally Charlotte to many who saw the film in 2003 and resisted the ensuing backlash with loyal repeat viewings. (This is, for some of us, the ultimate comfort movie with its transformative ambience, urban eye-candy, and velvety shadows that blot out a bad day — that we press into for relief.) And if Bill Murray has built a latter career — with the help of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch — on Bob Harris’ wry kind of dial-tone, we should also forgive his own lack of range and concentrate on the movie at hand.

Sofia Coppola chose a collection of one-notes to people her Tokyo love-letter — her little atelier piece with gargantuan atmosphere — but she chose them well, chose richly. It was, in fact, a masterstroke of casting. Giovanni Ribisi is suitably irksome as Charlotte’s desperate-to-be-hip husband, and Catherine Lambert is suitably overbearing as a desperate-to-be-loved jazz singer. It really doesn’t matter, to some of us, how any of these actors perform or comport themselves outside of this world, or whether or not Coppola herself was desperate-to-be-hip with her choice of venue and score — all terribly of the moment, at the time, as the Tokyo scenes in Assayas’ demonlover can attest to (it’s films with just such a tone that will strike our future selves as So Totally Aughts! three decades from now).

These accusations are besides-the-point disingenuous, though (and even strangely resentful). It’s worth peering past the style and reminding ourselves that there really is a film behind it all. This isn’t the space for a filibuster, so there’s no room here to move point by point through the script and mise-en-scene and argue why — on a technical level — this is, to date, Coppola’s most sophisticated and substantial work. The best things about Lost in Translation don’t need explication, anyway, since they’re felt rather than rationalized. Like Bob’s enigmatic, unheard whispering at film’s end, what’s being said ultimately doesn’t matter, so long as we — like Charlotte — experience that eye-squeezing wave of emotion as we hitch ourselves to her tether. — Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s The 100 Best Films of the Decade feature, in February 2010.)

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