Sofia Coppola belongs to a unique sisterhood in the film industry. She along with directors Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, and Greta Gerwig are the only women ever to be nominated for the best director Oscar in the Academy’s history. Since March is Women’s History Month I want to recognize several special female filmmakers and their unique contributions to film.

Sofia Coppola’s directing Oscar nomination came in 2003 for her romantic comedy/drama “Lost in Translation”.  Her film was nominated for best picture, best actor–Murray and she won the Oscar for best original screenplay. But her nomination as best director was bested by Peter Jackson, who won for “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”, which was also the best picture.

Coppola’s story concerns Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a lonesome woman who accompanies her workaholic spouse, a popular photographer, John (Giovanni Ribisi) to Tokyo, who crosses paths with a washed-up American movie star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who happens to be in Tokyo filming Suntory whiskey commercials.

The film’s main narrative exploration is of a woman trying to discover her purpose. After days of being alone in her hotel room, Charlotte tearfully admits to a friend in a phone conversation, “I don’t know who I’m married to.” She’s smart and attractive, but somehow not with the right person.

Later in a serious, rather intimate conversation with Bob, she reveals, “I’m stuck. I don’t know what I am supposed to be. I tried being a writer, but…I hate what I write. And I tried taking pictures, but they’re so mediocre.”  She needs someone to care about her and appreciate her, instead of her doubting her value.

In the film’s first few scenes we see both Bob and Charlotte in states of insomnia.  It’s 4:20 a.m.; Bob can’t sleep, and he’s received messages from his wife.  Charlotte lays awake next to her sleeping husband and seems in need of attention.

The next morning Bob casually notices Charlotte on a crowded hotel elevator before heading off to his tedious whiskey commercial shoot.  His only line in the commercial, which he is forced to repeat with alternative emphasis is, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” His Japanese director wants Bob to give him a more “mysterious face”, then to act cool, more like Sinatra or “Loger Moore, 007”.

Charlotte roams the city, rides the subway, visits a shrine and otherwise hangs out in the hotel, while her hubby works.  When she finally meets Bob in the hotel bar she reveals that she recently completed her philosophy degree and has been married for all of two years to John.  Bob mentions he has been married for 25 years and is sort of facing a mid-life crisis. To him, it seems his wife Lydia is more involved with their kids than him.

Eventually, Bob and Charlotte meet up with several of Charlotte’s Japanese friends; they attend a nightclub and do some karaoke. Another night they spend in Bob’s room quietly talking and watching an Italian film with Marcello Mastroianni and Charlotte really seems to enjoy herself.  She’s at ease and has discovered someone who understands and appreciates her for herself.

Murray, who was 52 years old at the time, and Johansson, who was just 18, have such wonderful causal chemistry together. Murray is wonderful—not at all playing just the typical wiseass “Murray” type. Johansson is sensitive and protective of her rather fragile emotional situation. The film becomes a sort of modern version of David Lean’s 1945 classic adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter”, a tale about two married people, a doctor and a married housewife, who casually meet on a train and discover a love for each other.

Bob spends his last forgetful night in Tokyo sleeping with the jazz singer from the hotel’s bar.  When Charlotte stops by his room the next day to invite Bob to lunch, she is embarrassed and deeply hurt by the other woman still being with him. But they reconcile because they realize how special they have become to each other. And the film’s rather bittersweet resolution has Charlotte and Bob embrace in the middle of a crowded street.

The film received mostly universal praise—minus some who thought the treatment of the local Japanese was unfair. Roger Ebert appropriately began his rave review noting, “The Japanese phrase ‘mono no aware’ is a bittersweet reference to the transience of life.”…”Lost in Translation” has exactly that–it is “sweet and sad at the same time, it is sardonic and funny.” Sofia Coppola captures that mood so well in her fabulous film.

About The Author

Syd Slobodnik

Syd Slobodnik has been writing for Illini Media publications since 1975: for The Daily Illini from 1975 to 1978 and from 1984 to 1988, and for buzz since 2003. Syd teaches numerous film courses at the University of Illinois in the English Department. He also cohosts a monthly television program which reviews old films that remind you of recent films you may have seen, called "If You Liked, You'll Love" on the Parkland Channel.

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