Lost in Translation, released in 2003, was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of one of Hollywood’s iconic directors/auteurs, Francis Ford Coppola. In spite of this obvious connection, the film is more of an independent film than a mainstream one. I want to try and look at Coppola’s use of image, music and silence to convey meaning, as well as briefly discussing the possible inspirations of these unconventional techniques used throughout the film.
With a budget of just $4 million, and shot in just 27 days in October 2002, it is no surprise that Coppola abandons the classical Hollywood narrative plot structure (a three-act structure with regular plot points, inciting incidents and narrative arcs etc.) for a minimalist plot and focuses solely on the relationship between her two main characters. These are Bob (Bill Murray), a middle-aged movie star in Tokyo to shoot Suntory Whiskey commercials, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent Yale Philosophy graduate accompanying her photographer husband on a photo shoot.
The above descriptions seems to put the film solely in the romantic comedy genre but Coppola distinctly deviates from the generic Hollywood plot – the protagonists never sleep with each other, and share only one brief kiss at the end of the film. However, they do spend a lot of time together, exploring Tokyo, talking about various things, watching movies, going out. As correctly pointed out by Joe Queenan in The Guardian (2004) we can see the influence of films like Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953), Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995) and Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945).
In all these movies, the protagonists share a definite romantic connection but its powerful presence in their relationship is still much understated. All these couples are aware – as Bob and Charlotte are – of the time restrictions attached to their relationship, the fact that they can never really be together, and of the possibility of never seeing each other again after they part ways. Also, as was pointed out in Filmmaker Magazine back in 2003, “[Coppola] was (seemingly) inspired by the dynamic between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Howard Hawks classic 1946 noir The Big Sleep while writing the connection between Bob and Charlotte.”
Coppola’s style and approach also seems heavily influenced by the 1950s and 60s French New Wave or the Nouvelle Vogue (Geoff King’s New Hollywood Cinema, published in 2002, is a fascinating read on the subject) and the works of particularly Jean-Luc Godard. This is made particularly interesting when you recall that Godard was incidentally a long-standing and close friend of Sofia’s father.
The Guardian’s Philip French (2004) also sees touches from classical Japanese film and a strong “Antonioniesque” flavour. Michaelangelo Antonioni’s much lauded Blow-Up (1966) is about a day in the life of a British fashion photographer who gets accidently involved in a murder. The shots are seemingly aimless but “beautifully built up with glowing images and colour compositions” (Bosley Crowther of the New York Times), which can also be said about Lost in Translation in the moments where Coppola makes use of a very defused and pastel colour palette with plenty of natural light to highlight the film’s subtleties.
There are also similarities between the styles of narration in both films, which are stripped to the core, with a strong use of non-verbal elements as tools to convey meaning and feeling, wherein the lack of exposition allows viewers to interpret the content in their own ways. There is also an obvious tribute to one of Coppola’s indirect inspirations apparent in the script for this film – La Dolce Vita (1960) by Federico Fellini. In one of the scenes, Bob and Charlotte are watching this film on the television (we are shown the TV screen from the famous fountain scene) while they drink sake. Coppola was influenced by what she calls Fellini’s non-plot driven film where a large part is ‘about them wandering around (i.e nothing “happens”). Philip French’s 2008 discussion on Italian cinema in The Guardian’s World Cinema section throws much light on subject, and is recommended.
This leads to a much slower narrative pace which might be considered detrimental to some films. Here, we are lucky with the nature of this slow pace, where moments begin to feel like snapshots – simple moments captured and strung together for the audience to create their own meaning from and strengthen the intentionally transitory nature. And though nothing really occurs throughout the narrative to disrupt this equilibrium, there are subtle undertones which add a certain depth. The karaoke scene is one such instance.
At this point, both Bob and Charlotte need reassurance with regards to the the ambiguous nature of their relationship – the boundaries as well as its basic morality. Coppola manages to infuse the apprehension and hesitation with more meaning by using music as their medium of communication and expression of their true feelings for each other, especially in Bob’s choice of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” This event signals a subtle shift in the relationship of the two and it is conveyed by the next scene – when Charlotte wordlessly puts her head on Bob’s shoulder as they take a break from the party.
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