An exercise in empathy

Bill Murray’s acting in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is surely one of the most exquisitely controlled performances in recent movies.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) share loneliness at a Tokyo restaurant in a scene from ‘Lost in Translation.’

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) share loneliness at a Tokyo restaurant in a scene from ‘Lost in Translation.’

Bill Murray’s acting in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is surely one of the most exquisitely controlled performances in recent movies.

Without it, the film could be unwatchable. With it, I can’t take my eyes away. Not for a second, not for a frame, does his focus relax, and yet it seems effortless. He seems to be existing, merely existing, in the situation created for him by Sofia Coppola.

She has one objective: She wants to show two people lonely in vast, foreign Tokyo and coming to the mutual realization that their lives are stuck. Perhaps what they’re looking for is the same thing I’ve heard we seek in marriage: a witness. Coppola wants to get that note right. There isn’t a viewer who doesn’t expect Bob Harris and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) to end up in love, or having sex, or whatever. We’ve met Charlotte’s husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi). We expect him to return unexpectedly from his photo shoot and surprise them together. These expectations have been sculpted, one chip of Hollywood’s chisel after another, in tens of thousands of films.

The last thing we expect is . . . what would probably actually happen. They share loneliness.

One of the strengths of Coppola’s screenplay is that her people and everything they do are believable. Unlike the characters in most movies, they don’t quickly sense they belong together, and they don’t immediately want to be together. Coppola keeps them apart for a noticeably long time. We grow to know them separately.

We understand Charlotte loves her husband, and we understand how he wounds her, and why she cries on the phone. There’s no possibility he will cheat on her with the Other Woman, the ditzy “star,” Kelly, played by Anna Faris. John is simply a moth fluttering around her fame. That’s what hurts Charlotte; he leaves her alone in the hotel for silly reasons that betray him as callow.

We understand that Bob loves his wife and especially his children at home in America, but after years and years he knows and says that marriage and children are “hard.” So they are. We know that. Few movie characters know it in the sense he means.

After they start talking, Johansson is instinctive in striking the right note of tentative friendliness. She knows Bob is a star, but doesn’t care. Earlier their eyes met in the kind of telepathic sympathy strangers share when they know they’re thinking the same thing about something happening in a room. Now they can’t sleep and it’s in the middle of the night in a hotel bar. She isn’t flirting, and she isn’t not flirting. He isn’t flirting. He’s composed and detached. He doesn’t give away one hint of emotion. Without making it a big deal, he’s almost studiously proper, as if making it clear he’s not coming on to her. Of course he finds her attractive. He did when he saw her in the elevator and she didn’t notice him. Or are we simply assuming he’d feel the same way we’d feel? Maybe he noticed her because they were the two tallest people in the elevator.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me they just don’t get Lost in Translation. They want to know what it’s about. They complain “nothing happens.” They’ve been trained by movies that tell them where to look and what to feel, in stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. Lost in Translation offers an experience in the exercise of empathy. The characters empathize with each other (that’s what it’s about), and we can empathize with them going through that process.

What is lost in translation? John understands nothing of what Charlotte says or feels, nor does he understand how he’s behaving. Bob’s wife and assistant don’t understand how desperately indifferent he is to the carpet samples. And so on. What does get translated, finally, is what Bob and Charlotte are really thinking. The whole movie is about that act of translation taking place.

So much has been written about those few words at the end that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. We can’t hear them. They seem meaningful for both of them. Coppola said she didn’t know. It wasn’t scripted.

Those words weren’t for our ears. Why must we know? Do we need closure? This isn’t a closure kind of movie. We get all we need in simply knowing they share a moment private to them, and seeing that it contains something true before they part forever.

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