BRIEFEST ENCOUNTER: “Lost In Translation”, directed by Sofia Coppola

It’s as difficult to predict whether film stars playing lovers will sizzle sexually, as it is to foretell whether a mundane pair of actors will ‘click’. Hardly catastrophic when friends you’ve fixed up are turned off rather than wildly switched on. But megabucks and careers ride on a major studio’s faith that matching the latest hunk with the latest sexpot will generate torrid sexual chemistry and boffo box office.

The chowderheadedness of this notion was illustrated a few years back when the much paparazzied love affair between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez failed to charm viewers of “Gigli”. Ben and J-Lo’s erotic sparring in this dismal stinkeroo was about as exciting as the courtship dance of Galapagos tortoises.

I’ve always been fond of quirky films where unglamorous actors generate a surprising amorous buzz. There aren’t many: Lalaland, afte all, thrives on gorgeous bods. I particularly enjoyed Ernest Borgine’s lonely butcher courting Betsy Blair’s sweet spinster in “Marty”, and “House Calls” – which paired Glenda Jackson’s acerbic, not-so-gay divorcee with Walter Matthau’s mordant physician/widower. “The African Queen” features Hollywood’s most famous unlikely match: starchy schoolmarm Kathryn Hebpurn is smitten with Humphrey Bogart’s grimy, foul-mouthed river pilot.

Pride of place in this the unlikely romance subgenre arguably goes to “The Late Show”, in which Lily Tomlin’s hippie flake romances Art Carney’s aging harboiled LA private eye.

Sofia Coppola’s captivating second film, “Lost In Translation”, explores the vicissitudes of another poignant May/September relationship. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a played-out star adrift in an ambiguous mid-life crisis. Scarlett Johannson is Charlotte, a recently wed, equally unsettled young woman in her late twenties. Tokyo is the film’s third protagonist: nightime streets, ablaze with neon; daytime milieu bustling with crazy energy – alternately alluring, hilarious, and elusive. (By report, Coppola herself knows and loves the city.)

Dispirited Bob has come to Tokyo to shoot a lucrative Santory scotch commercial. He’s many years married with children he loves abstractedly, and a wife whose presence in the film consists of her absence, save for intrusive faxes and diffident phone calls. Charlotte’s husband is a fashion photographer on a shoot, with both feet perennially out the door.

He claims his vanishing act is work-related, but he’s mostly chatting up the vapid models and other decerebrate babes whose company he blatantly prefers over Charlotte’s.

Much of “Lost In Translation” unfolds in an anonymous Tokyo luxury hotel. Suave minimalist decor nicely captures the characters’ prevailing anomie. In a langorous establishing shot, one sees the back of the yet unknown Charlotte’s semi-nude body, suspended in a dimly lit nowhere (she’s actually asleep in her hotel room). One’s impression is not particularly arousing, not unpleasing either. Shortly afterwards, Bob, stupified by jetlag, enters his room just as the first of his wife’s ceaseless reminders about neglected domestic duties chatters out of the fax machine.

In dexterous match cuts, Coppola quickly establishes Charlotte and Bob’s dreamy isolation – she from her husband and the fresh start in their marriage she hoped for, he from a marriage gone stale and a once glittering career. Their glances cross in a crowded elevator. Then they meet, fellow insomniacs wandering through the empty night corridors.

Coppola interpolates their subsequent desultory encounters at bar and swimming pool, with scenes of Charlotte’s distracted by-the-numbers Tokyo tourism, and Bob’s bemused encounters with his Japanese hosts and assorted media types (a tyrannical director who refuses to speak English; a pixillated talk show host, think Soupy Sales demented.) One senses that Bob is sleepwalking through Tokyo just as he does in Hollywood – where he’s probably been on autopilot at home and playing the lackluster roles a star is lucky to get when fame slips away.

At some point – It’s Coppola’s gift, rare in mainstream cinema, to capture such an ineffable moment – Bob and Charlotte’s intimation of romantic possibility flames into an extraordinary intimacy, a stunning appreciation of and for each other rendered all the more piercing by their (and our) awareness of imminent separation. Lady Murasaki’s exquisite novel, “The Tales of Genji”, comprises a Proustian exploration of love’s vicissitudes which antedates Proust’s elegant prose by a millenium.

In the Heian period’s elite society which Murasaki knew so well, one’s approach to the beloved progressed through elaborate rituals more important than fulfuillment itself. Exchanges of flowers, poetry, small gifts were imbued with allusions to every nuance of amorous experience, such that the experience itself seemed peculiarly beside the point.

Coppola’s delicate portrait of Bob and Charlotte’s never declared courtship evokes Murasaki’s nuanced depiction of courtly love, as well as the perennial unattainability of the beloved which was a hallmark of trobadour poetry (think Dante’s Beatrice, too). Rather than cherry blossoms or haiku, Bob and Charlotte exchange a few spare words, but phenomenally charged with meaning; minute changes of countenance and tone which exquisitly register the couples’ dawning awareness of an utterly unexpected and consuming tenderness.

Bob, prodded by Charlotte’s profound kindness and youthful elan vital, vegins to emrge from his armored desparation. His ironic maturity and respect for Charlotte’s astringent (and well hidden) intelligence spur her unvoiced recognition that she, too, has been slumbering away her life in a post-adolescent holding maneuvre (which may have existed well before her barren marriage). The film’s opening shot encapsulates her Sleeping Beauty persona, as well as her yet-to-come enchantment for Bob, who is similarly trapped by his bleak domestic routine and the humiliating demands of a fading career.

Coppola’s screenplay acquires tragi-comic depth by refusing to have Bob and Charlotte ever make love. Both are obviously experienced in that respect. He’s clearly had affairs, indeed endures an inebriated one-night stand with a buxom lounge singer which he terribly regrets: it degrades him and wounds Charlotte to the core.

Until the final scene Bob and Charlotte barely touch, except when – lying next to each other, fully clothed, their fingers brush tentatively. The devotion which has fallen upon them like a flash of grace extends light years beyond mere sexual flirtation. Coppola infers that they know lovemaking won’t start a brief affair, but rather a wrenching commitment which will force them to cross boundaries neither is prepared to traverse.

Doubts about their radical differences in age and background perhaps restrain them. Bob could well be hesitating because of his unsparing, guilty awareness about the distress he’s caused to previous abandoned lovers. But at base neither Bob nor Charlotte want to destroy their marriages. Bob may truly love his wife, or his children, or simply want to take the easy way out as he has done before, backsliding into his drab ‘holding environment’. One intuits Charlotte will eventually leave her shallow, philandering husband. But she isn’t quite prepared to explode the Country Western myth of standing by her man, who isn’t worth the spit to blow him away, to commence searching solo for a new identity.

Coppola’s hand is too sure to spell out these dynamics in bold print. There may be little spoken in “Lost In Translation”, but there’s much silent, acute observations which might be marred by facile words. The couple’s discourse is fragmented, elliptical, but their faces speak volumes to the complex shades of their feelings as they fall in love.

I’ve always thought Bill Murray a fine actor beyond his acknowledged gifts as a farceur (see “Groundhog Day” again for confirmation). Here he’s magnificent here, conveying Bob’s spiritual and physical exhaustion, the amazed opening of his heart through minimal shifts of voice and countenance. Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte is uncannily “there”: a Zen-like ‘suchness’ pervades her perplexity over her husband’s desertion, her enchantment with the chaos of Tokyo, above all an unadorned youthful candor which plays beautifully against Bob/Murray’s mordant, defensive self-effacement.

Their penultimate parting at the hotel is strained. Charlotte is furious over Bob’s one night ‘infidelity’. Then, as he’s being driven to the airport, he glimpses her through the window of his cab just as she’s about to disappear in a swirling crowd. He rushes out to stop her.

In standard Hollywood fare, Charlotte would suddenly, radiantly nullify Bob’s grief. The couple would embrace to a crescendo of delirious music and live happily ever after, their spouses and troubles tidily disposed of.
Coppola subverts such bromides. Bob and Charlotte do indeed fall into each others’ arms with a huge sense of relief that’s both wryly amusing and singularly touching. Near tears, they affirm wordlessly the preciousness of the affection they’ve stumbled into, and will soon relinquish.

There’s been considerable debate over exactly what Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear before going their separate ways. Cynics have said he’s telling her when and where they’ll meet again. I submit that he’s murmuring – as in a prayer – how dear she has grown to him; how dear she always will remain with no future meeting in mind. Coppola’s solution is infinitely more heartrending, truer to the film’s rueful – very Japanese – tone, than a trite plunge into despair or an even more trite upbeat finale.

In the end, “Lost In Translation” doesn’t reference “Casablanca” – unless you believe Rick never bedded Ilsa after she stepped through the door of the Café Americaine), or “The Honeymoon Kid”, in which a feckless Charles Grodin, fresh off the altar, abandons his hapless bride to elope with Sybil Shepard.

The film that Coppola so elegantly evokes is Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter”, a deeply moving depiction of an illicit romance, honorably declined by both partners. Two decent, ordinary people meet fortuitously, are hurled into stunned adoration, the absent themselves from felicity, returning to the decorous rituals of a diminished life with a thoroughly decent spouse. It’s the right wrong thing to do, and quietly, utterly desolating.

Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD
PROJECTIONS: Snapshots, Volume 16, #2, 2004. pp. 5-9.

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