Sofia Coppola’s films can easily be dismissed as superficially pretty and all about style over substance. After all, exquisite compositions have become signatures of her cinema. However, I would suggest that critics that level such accusations are either (a) hideously jealous of Coppola’s incredible sense of personal style; (b) resentful of her film family lineage; or (c) completely lacking in taste. Needless to say I have a particularly biased perspective on the subject. In all three feature films that she has released thus far, Coppola displays a visual sensitivity that marries aesthetics and emotion. Indeed, in a 2004 interview with KCRW hosted by film critic Elvis Mitchell, she discussed her predominantly atmospheric approach to cinema that favours character development over plot. This is particularly the case with her sophomore film: Lost in Translation (2003).
Melancholy is a topic I’m interested in more than something I deeply feel. There is indeed some form of melancholy in me, but I’m not the kind of girl who spends her afternoon looking out the window with a sad gaze.
– Sofia Coppola
Displacement, loneliness and disconnection are the central themes of Lost in Translation. Following the intersecting narratives of a 50-something actor (Bill Murray) and a 20-something lost soul (Scarlett Johansson), as they attempt to navigate the hyperreal urban landscape of contemporary Tokyo, Coppola’s meditation on identity distills both the uncertainty of youth and the jaundice of middle age. Using Tokyo’s unfamiliar and frenetic geography as a metaphor for emotional estrangement, the film is a graceful and restrained commentary on feeling adrift and modern ennui. The shot of a forlorn Johansson sitting in the window seat of her hotel room as she overlooks Tokyo is exemplary of the symbolic alienation that underlines the film.
The cinematography by Lance Acord employs a subdued and washed out chromatic palette that echoes the sense of disenchantment felt by the protagonists, and his camera’s focus on the minutiae of Tokyo is key to evoking the film’s insular mood and tone. Lingering on the details of cherry blossoms and ikebana arrangements, the interiors of über cool bars and the glimpses of affection that pass between Johansson and Murray, Lost in Translation consistently imparts visual sensuality. Coppola doesn’t merely uncover the anxiety of culture shock, but infuses the film with lighthearted humour. Really is there anything more delightful than the scene where Murray’s character appears on Matthew’s Best Hit TV?
The film highlights Coppola’s skill for capturing the intricacies of character – whether through dialogue, images or music. And the soundtrack for Lost in Translation compliments the film’s visual rhythm perfectly with dreamy and lethargic music from Kevin Shields, Sebastien Tellier, My Bloody Valentine and the haunting closing song “Just Like Honey” by Jesus and the Mary Chain. Yes, Lost in Translation is terribly stylish, but it is also an emotional reverie of great complexity. It’s been in my top five films list for a while and I can’t see it ever moving.