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Written and directed by Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation stars Bill Murray as Bob Harris, a once famous actor who has aged out of prime roles but still popular enough to hock products, finding himself unwittingly in a foreign land, isolated in a fine hotel but surrounded by confusion. Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, a young woman in a new marriage, a little directionless and a lot neglected, spending nearly all her time in the lonely comforts of her room. They meet in the hotel lounge, a link forged quickly that sparks a friendly interest, and then much more. This isn’t a love story but it is romantic, with a respect and compassion between the pair that make them one of the more memorable couples in film, despite there being no physical consummation. Each are married, and that remains important for them both, even if neither is particularly happy. Copolla isn’t interested in playing into convention, especially with older men and younger women tropes, instead using the two as a reflection on life itself, at any age. Both leads are more than perfectly cast, with Johansson simply mesmerizing as the conflicted Charlotte, but this is Murray’s film, his performance unsettlingly good. He’s always been a low-key, go-with-it kind of actor, time and time again delivering ‘subdued’ like no other can. Here though, he is something truly special, with a gripping authenticity that feels so genuine, it almost aches to watch, our eyes transfixed on his every movement. Copolla’s script is earnest and personal, even if it tends to paint the Japanese a bit cartoonishly in broad Western idolized stereotypes, but the setting itself is properly disorienting, the hyper-kinetic neon of the Tokyo nightlife and the isolation of the hotel rooms excellent counterparts. The relationship that develops between Bob and Charlotte is unique, an honest, powerfully emotional connection that makes Lost in Translation a work of great importance.
Bob’s wife, heard but never seen, is a leech of sorts, a person with little regard for the growth in her husband. Over the phone, in constant conversation, she is often detached from his needs, faxing him color swatches and engaged in superficial conversation. They have children, and Bob is dedicated to them though his life is not what he’s hoped. Traveling alone has offered him time to reflect, for good or for bad, even having a one-night stand with the lounge hotel singer, though this is most assuredly a sexual tryst meant to quell the urges he has for Charlotte that are probably getting frightfully real, certainly heavy with true affection. In this moment, Charlotte and Bob two end up on her bed, both exhausted, sharing a conversation about life and marriage as they each linger in fading lucidity.
It is rare for a film to let romance between two people be expressed without sex. Think of the powerful sense of love between Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, one that goes for decades with no physical contact. Here, in only a few days, Bob and Charlotte have fallen in love, no matter how love can be described. The romance they share is intellectual, a malaise and uncertainty in their lives that has them fitting like two lost puzzle pieces, at least emotionally. The maturity of these two adults in a setting that in nearly any other film would have been reduced to the two groping about in states of undress, challenges us as an audience to abandon that conditioning. Our expectations are crafted by countless moments where unfaithful lovers find lust in a forbidden bed, and part of us not only believe it will happen, but eagerly anticipate it. We like these people. We understand their situations. We forgive them their need for affection. We want them to have sex. Or at least our well-trained movie-watching brains do. Coppola dangles that expectation with delicious efficiency but never delivers, instead wholly satisfying us in a much deeper way. This is a consummation of empathy, a confirmation of trust and vulnerability, a plea for and acceptance of absolute honesty. This is why the bed is so important. The two are clothed but wholly naked to each other, stripped bare for the other to explore. They make love with words and in the end, fall asleep in silence. But just before, a touch on her foot, the only physical intimacy they share in this moment, a touching gesture of trust and love.
Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi