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lost in translation – the end of dialogue

finally saw lost in translation tonight. would have preferred to have been working on my own film, but on the strength of astrid’s recommendation and out of the need for human society of some kind, i ventured out into the (very) chill toronto night over to the revue cinema.

i was astonished by what i saw and heard. or more significantly didn’t hear. there is almost no dialogue. i had thought this film was supposed to be about two disparate people hooking up and exchanging things from their different lives.

historically, under such circumstances the individuals in question speak to one another. and through language learn of the other.

here they are almost silent.

in general i thought the film much overrated. the beginning gears up nicely through the car ride from the airport, the estrangement of bill murray’s character at the hotel and at the tv spot shoot.

the totally useless and ineffectual translator on set is closer to the truth than most people realise. international commercial shoots can be a nightmare that way. many times on my own commercial shoots in moscow, horrible misapprehensions – the kind to warp an entire shoot day or performance – were created by interpreters. disaster was regularly averted only by close monitoring of these conversations and their translation.

there are some scenes that will ring true to anyone who has ever been in a longterm relationship. when charlotte’s husband comes home and talks about his day at work with the japanese, he totally fails to see that his young wife is swimming in alienation and unable to connect with these mundane concerns.

certain other problems pertain more to the privileged elite of america. the endless conversations about carpet colour for the redecorating.

some well-drawn parallels were shown between bill murray’s bob harris and the scarlett johansson’s charlotte. both make phone calls of desperation to their distant lover and fail totally to connect with the loved one from whom they seek a compassionate ear.

this is certainly true of most current north american relations. it is almost senseless to call anyone for existential questions. the answer will inevitably be, i’m busy call me when you’re feeling better.

frankly i wonder if this indifference to the interior lives of one’s loved ones contributes to the suicide rate in any kind of a positive way.

but i don’t criticise these north americans anymore, for indeed their way of life and their work preclude any other reaction – stretched to the hilt by circumstance and obligatory personal ambition, they have no time except for the practical and/or aspirational.

i remain shocked though that even when characters connect – recent yale philosophy graduates and a self-avowed serious actor (harris says he’d rather “be doing a play somehwere”) no less – and they have almost nothing to say to one another.

truly the end of language.

and in this absence of communication i feel the film fails on most levels. there is no connection between any of the characters, whether it be husbands and wives, new lovers, work colleagues, friends or family. bleak as my world view may be at this specific moment in time, people do talk, people do connect.

thus the film becomes an aesthetic fabrication, untrue at its core. pretty pictures and interesting sequences cannot save what rings false through the center.

in fairness to ms. coppola, much japanese cinema is almost mute (i.e. imamura’s eel). perhaps the silence is just a quiet homage to japanese cinema. i doubt it.


if lost in translation were a french film, i think it would only rate as very good. much of its acclaim has come from the absence in american cinema of well and freshly shot film working strongly with personal material. i.e. the absence of high quality auteur work coming from hollywood. in this sense, lost in translation is a wonderful contribution to american cinema. it may wake audiences up and open the door for more wonderful films to come.


  1. astrid astrid

    i agree with you although i must say that the silence between the two main characters fascinated me. it seems to me there is attraction and some kind of love although they don´t talk or touch each other. but i do agree that it´s depressing that people who love each other are not able to talk about their feelings. this is not a north american problem. i fear it´s the same with austrian or european couples in general. it´s such a depressing thought that a person whom you think love you don´t recognize when you need to talk. i am thinking of the scene between charlotte and her husband.

    i think bill murray is wonderful in this film. and there were some very funny scences because of him. my favourite one is the tv spot shoot where the photographer asks him to act like different members of the rat pack (the roger moore number was also very funny).

    i am sure i want to see this film a third time!

  2. amusingly enough, the day after i wrote this short review, one of the columnists (not a film critic) in the globe & mail (canada’s national newspaper) wrote an opinion piece about lost in translation far more scathing than my own.

    lysiane gagnon criticizes the lead couple for their total inability to employ themselves in anything but senseless drinking:

    Bob and Susan spend all their time drinking in the hotel’s Westernized bar and watching TV in their respective rooms. All they see of the fabulous city of Tokyo is the skyscrapers and garish neon signs surrounding their hotel. They don’t want to see more. Neither of them seems to have brought a map or a guide book in their luggage.

    i think you might have some sympathy with her viewpoint. ms. gagnon too has issues with charlotte’s character: ” a self-absorbed young woman who talks as if she hadn’t read a book in her whole life, although she is said to be a graduate of Yale in philosophy” and suggests facetiously that “the university should sue the producers for this attack on its image.”

    in terms of content, ms. gagnon’s concerns are well-founded. in the end, she walked out on the film – too severe an act in my own opinion – as she was insensible to sophia coppola’s successful aesthetic achievements.

    i must say though that i’m really not sure it’s worth seeing a third time.

  3. Helen Helen

    Great movie. I had a lot of fun… The relationship between Bob and Charlotte is so romantic and touching. I’d recommend it to everyone.

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