MUSE Film Club - Lost In Translation


In this edition of MUSE Film Club Kristina Wemyss recommends the 2003 cult-classic

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Image by American Zoetrope

By Kristina Wemyss

In this 2003 cult-classic, two strangers meet in the vibrant setting of Tokyo. We expect them to succumb to the expectations that have long been chiselled out by Hollywood, and find love with each other amidst the ethereal neon lights of Japan - but Sofia Coppola has other plans.

Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) is a washed-up actor, his career is locked in an embarrassing downward spiral, as he becomes the face of a Japanese whiskey commercial. Having lost his former movie-star self, he is now just a shell of the icon that he gets recognised as in public. Meanwhile, Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a young Yale graduate who accompanies her photographer husband on a business trip to Japan. For all of her prestigious education though, she is yet to discover what career she wants and finds it difficult to be herself, balancing intellect with politeness, as her husband criticises her for being condescending.

Both have lost faith in themselves but they find comfort in each other’s company. Their adventures partying in Tokyo culminate in an intimate late-night scene in which they lie side by side in bed, sharing the reasons behind their respective mid and quarter-life crises. But Coppola cleverly questions the traditional romantic narrative, and the very idea of the meet-cute, as their relationship straddles the divisions between romance, friendship and paternity.

Contrary to the colourful setting of Tokyo, with all of its lights, signs and arcades, melancholy is omnipresent - in the score and the cinematography. Blue and gray hues wash over the frames, and the colour palette remains muted, brilliantly and subtly representing Bob and Charlotte’s experiences of feeling like small fish in a large pond, as they stay in the most populated city on earth.

But for all of this melancholy, there is also hope to be found. Coppola strikes a balance between the isolating effects of being in a foreign country and comedy in cultural difference, as oblivious Westerners struggle to comprehend and navigate such a lively and unpredictable country. On-set, Bob’s struggles with an animated director and a dubious translator make for some very comedic scenes, and similar miscommunications crop up throughout the rest of the film.

Also, Bob and Charlotte’s undefinable relationship is not frustrating but actually quite charming. For Bob, a man whose love life has been reduced to mundane decisions about what shade of burgundy the carpet in his office should be, Charlotte revives his sense of youthfulness. And for Charlotte, Bob acts as an almost fatherly mentor-figure. His simple response to all of Charlotte’s fears resonates with paternal reassurance: “you are not hopeless”.

This makes for the perfect watch during lock down as its comedic timing without overt laughs gives it the feel-good factor, minus the usual worn-out cliches. Murray and Johansson fit perfectly into the roles which Coppola created with them in mind. They give a gorgeously intimate performance despite their 34 year age-gap and Johansson’s inexperience, at just 17 years old. In fact, these were the roles which propelled Johansson towards stardom, and breathed new life into Murray's dwindling acting career. Ultimately, Lost in Translation is the latest addition to the MUSE Film Club because it is refreshingly different, with beautifully complex dynamics between its characters and stunning cinematography which will undoubtedly make you desperate to travel to Japan as soon as lock down is over. But while this is not possible, why not settle for the next best thing and experience the many sights and sounds of Tokyo vicariously through these compelling characters?

Lost in Translation is currently available on Netflix.