Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: Lost in Translation (2003)

We enter the last decade of our travel through 50 years of cinema with a divisive quasi-comedy.

Sun, Mar 23, 2014, 20:45


Yes, it’s the film we most love to compare to Marmite. I’ve mentioned this before, but, dating from the time before social media, my review of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, attracted more complaints than any other notice I’ve penned in the last 10 years. One line of criticism I can understand. The film’s take on Japan certainly borders on the dubious: there is an extent to which the nation is caricatured as childlike and absurd. I would argue, however, that we are seeing life through the eyes of two confused, jet-lagged, disconnected foreigners. This may very well be how an unfamiliar country seems to such people. France would seem more French. Germany would seem more German. At any rate, it’s a valid complaint that deserves to be taken seriously.

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More puzzling are the whinges about the film’s apparent stasis and lack of plot. It’s a funny one. Had the film remained in the art-house nobody would have bothered to comment on such things. In comparison to, say, the work of Bela Tarr, Lost in Translation comes across like Lethal Weapon. But, powered by the appearance of Bill Murray, the film made its way into megaplexes and proved to be stubbornly unlike Groundhog Day. Were expectations slightly skewed?

I don’t know. But 10 years on it still strikes me as a lovely, spooky, disconcerting masterpiece. As we mentioned above, part of the film’s intent was to replicate the effect of trying to battle jet lag in a very foreign country. Murray plays an actor shooting a commercial in Tokyo. Over a leisurely couple of days, he makes friends with a much younger woman (Scarlett Johansson), sings karaoke, eats horrible food and drinks more than a few whiskeys. Then the two drift apart. It’s the classic Brief Encounter trope — seen in variations such as Before Sunrise and a dozen other oblique romances. It’s safe to say that Coppola means the jet lag (and general sense of dislocation) to stand in for wider existential crises. Bob is not communicating with his wife and seems lost in his professional life. All this is shot in misty shades by Lance Acord and scored with terrific music including tracks by The Jesus and Mary Chain, Roxy Music and Air. The result is a film that then felt awfully NOW. One suspected that in 10 years no film would reek so strongly of post-millennial hip angst as Lost in Translation. Bob’s numbness surely echoes to the mannered inarticulacy that flavoured the lives of folk such as Sofia and her then partner Spike Jonze. True enough, the film really does smell strongly of 2003. But, oddly, those aesthetics have never gone away. The experience is not (as I predicted) like watching, say, Shaft in 1982. It felt NOW then and it still feels NOW now. All of which must count as some sort of compliment.

For 2003, we also considered The Best of Youth, Dogville, Belleville Rendezvous, Elephant,  Uzak, The Barbarian Invasions and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.