Lost in Translation

Bob Harris can’t sleep. Unable to rest before facing the next day, unable to find peace in dreams, he manages his waking life stuck on auto-pilot. Or maybe this life is the dream and he’s sleepwalking through it.

Bill Murray plays Bob without a smirk or wink. Although aware that he’s on the downside of his life’s arc, he is not a man of quiet desperation, or even resignation. His sadness doesn’t weigh heavily on him. His humor is just beneath the surface in a self-deprecating awareness. Obviously bemused by his surroundings, he’s just too tired to care, too tired to respond. And yet, you know he could, and as a younger man, did.

Evelyn Waugh appears briefly and makes me wonder if Sofia Coppola is hinting at this passage from Brideshead Revisited.

…something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and [I] felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster.

Then Bob meets Charlotte. Charlotte can’t sleep either. Where Bob is on the descent, just waiting for his life to be over, Charlotte hasn’t begun her ascent. She’s waiting for life to start. They have little in common save the bleary-eyed dislocation that people feel when they are on long plane flights, between destinations, neither here nor there, uncomfortably awake, unable to sleep.

Tokyo provides the texture of the surreal dream. The movie is not about being in Tokyo, though. Las Vegas or New York City could have served the characters as well. But Tokyo provides a counterpoint of comic relief that keeps Bill Murray from giving into the temptation to provide it himself. And it provides easy access to the state of mind of the two characters, the feeling of being lost in a waking dream, of being overwhelmed, of sensory overload. Bob pegs Japan perfectly. “It’s not fun.” he tells his wife over the phone. “It’s just very, very different.”

Bob’s spark is dying and Charlotte makes it glow more brightly, so he feel his warmth again. But Sofia Coppola wisely chooses not to let their passions burst into flame, believing, perhaps, Milan Kundera’s idea that true intimacy is found, not in sex, but in shared sleep. Charlotte is too young to understand this. But Bob is obviously past his midlife crisis. Rather than seduce Charlotte and feel for a moment like a younger man, he treats her with a fatherly gentleness and affection, a tenderness without sentimentality that I can’t imagine anyone but Bill Murray being able to pull off. He cannot give her hope. He tells her that life and marriage do not get any easier, but one learns to cope, to know oneself and not be bothered. He tries to tell her that there is “nothing more than this” and I like to think he told her, “but it’s enough.”


A great review at Chanpon, where nothing is lost in translation.

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