Since we’ve been catching up on old films via Netflix, two have stood above the crowd for me: David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence" (review here), and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.” We saw the latter film a few weeks ago, and even though I loved it, I’ve struggled to write about it. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was that bumped it up from the category of “very good” to “classic.”
Anyone who has traveled by themselves for work understands what a disorienting experience it can be. I don’t travel a lot, but 3-4 times each year, work takes me away from home to a city on the other end of the state, or even across the country. There are always other folks from work there, but a good portion of each day is spent alone, or in the company of colleagues or strangers. In other words, you’re surrounded by humans, but at the same time, all alone. There are some aspects of the experience that are liberating (Feel like having a drink after midnight? Well, there’s a great bar just downstairs!), but the liberation wears off pretty quickly, and after a while you just feel like you’re alone. It’s at times like those that you’re thankful for your colleagues, and it’s during those times that your colleagues become friends. And then, you go home. It’s all very strange.
I think what I liked so much about “Lost in Translation” is that it captures that sense of disorientation perfectly. Bob (Bill Murray), an actor who is past his prime, is in Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial and make a quick buck. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is a newlywed accompanying her photographer husband on a business trip. In their age, they are decades apart, but in the course of their stay, they form a bond that is based on their mutual sense of disorientation. Their bond is something less than a romance or even a friendship, but also something more. Bob and Charlotte may be little more than two ships passing in the night, but by the time the movie is over, you have the feeling that what they’ve given each other during their short time together will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Bill Murray is marvelous in the role, and Scarlett Johansson is a revelation. It’s amazing to me that she was only 19 when the movie was filmed. They are perfect in their scenes apart, and perfect in their scenes together. Their characters have very little in common, except for their desire for companionship. But they are comfortable together, whether in dramatic or comedic moments, and their believability is a testament to Murray and Johansson’s performances, as it is to the screenplay and direction of Sofia Coppola.
And of course, there is the enduring mystery of the film’s final scene. What is it that Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear? For me, Coppola made the perfect choice in lowering the volume to a point where there is no way to hear what he says. She may have realized that there was nothing she could write that would be as powerful as the imaginations of those watching the film. And so, it is a perfect ending to a movie that comes pretty damn close to being perfect.