Lost and found in translation

Posted: Nov 05, 2003 12:00 AM
I am always the last person to see any movie rated over PG. But an actress-friend of mine raved about how great "Lost in Translation" was. Then my college student son said, "Mom, you gotta see it."

So I did. "Lost in Translation" is one of the most heralded movies of the year, and not just because the young Sofia who directed it is a Coppola. It is not a great movie but an extraordinary one, a window into our times from a next generation artist.

Sure, it has a kind of self-conscious artiness that wears after a while. Watch the young wife wander around Tokyo, observing the city: the lights, the skyscrapers, the temples, the TV shows -- all seen from the outside, they

are not windows into the culture but impenetrable mysteries. Other people are like that too. The lady in the kimono -- what does she think? How does she feel?

Hard to say. Especially hard to say when the foreigners adopt Western forms: the Japanese artiste, the talk-show host, etc. Look at the doctor. He has on a white coat. He is talking and gesticulating in front of an X-ray, clearly doing what doctors do. But since he is speaking Japanese, it is to us (and his American patient) gibberish. Form, not without meaning, but suffused with inner mystery we cannot penetrate.

And of course Sofia Coppola means us to know that it is not just Japanese people who are impenetrable mysteries, but every human person. We yearn to end our loneliness, to know and be known. Yet surface penetration is all that we (mostly) achieve.

But once in a while, people connect. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a famous, rich, middle-aged family man with a wife who only used to make him laugh. He meets Charlotte, a young wife and Yale grad for whom life is still full of possibility. She doesn't know what to do with herself. After two years, she and her husband are beginning to learn that they are not, in fact, blissfully merged: They fight, they disappoint, they sense the possibility of betrayal, they separate for a few days, which gives Bob a chance to make his move.

Instead, Bob is content to just be with her. A small, intense, sacred moment is created outside of their real life in which each feels suddenly real to another human being.

Why doesn't Bob sleep with her? We keep expecting it to happen. By the end of the movie even Charlotte, clearly, expects it to happen. It is not that he is too good a man to cheat on his wife. Sofia Coppola removes that explanation for us by showing him taking the bar singer to bed.

He is not the worst sort of man. He loves his children. He is going to return to his wife and family.

So why doesn't he sleep with Charlotte? That is the mystery the film begs us to solve. One reason is that he cares for her. The bar singer he can't hurt by taking to bed, but Charlotte he can. He is not very noble, but noble enough not to do that to her in exchange for a brief pleasure he can have, and has had, with so many other women.

But there is that other reason too. Right now, Charlotte is special. She has been a portal for him into a better world, a world of possibility, a world where love might be real and lasting. To sleep with her, on the other hand, would be to make her like every other woman in his life, girl number 25, and counting.

It is only by not sleeping with her, by not reducing her to an object of use, that she can remain to him singular, special and real.

And so it is a love story, after all.