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On-Screen, Off-Screen: The Beauty and Wisdom of Sofia Coppola

“On-Screen, Off-Screen” is our monthly film series created to showcase a more personal retrospective about some of our favourite filmmakers. Each month, one 25YL staffer will choose one of their own favourite filmmakers—be it a director or performer or writer or composer or production designer, etc—and will analyse what it is about their on-screen work that they love, and how they’ve been influenced/inspired by them off-screen either personally or creatively or artistically. Maybe one of us will write about the entire filmography of a director, or someone might choose an actor associated with playing a certain role multiple times, or maybe there’s that one soundtrack by a composer that gets them every time. This month sees Paul Casey reflecting on the beauty and wisdom of Sofia Coppola, particularly through the lens of 2003’s Lost in Translation. Enjoy!

“The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

The first movie I ever saw by Sofia Coppola was Lost in Translation in 2004 with my father Noel and my brother Martin, while we waited to see Brian Wilson perform his legendary album SMiLE in Glasgow, Scotland. By the time it finished, I was sure that I had seen my favourite film of all-time. I have a wide and varied list of favourite filmmakers—from John Huston to David Lynch to John Hughes—but I can honestly say that nobody has resonated with my soul as much as the work of Sofia Coppola. She has a rare gift of expressing inner truths that are all too often elusive and hard to pin down. Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford in case you didn’t know, has a wonderful filmography, starting with the devastating The Virgin Suicides, up to the unfairly maligned remake of The Beguiled. It is Lost in Translation, however, that best expresses why I love her work so much.

Lost in Translation (unarguably her masterpiece) is a film that reminds me of the first girl with whom I fell in love, and even now long after I had put that love away, it still affects me in profound ways. I recently had a rather odious man say to me that putting the ability of the audience to relate to the story is a sign of weakness of argument and that great art should always be appreciated regardless of whether it connects personally. This is a far too narrow definition of what it means to be able to relate to a work of art. I relate to Lost in Translation even though I am clearly not a young, privileged woman or a former movie star who find a deep love for each other that is not reliant on sex. To be able to relate to something doesn’t mean that the specifics line up with your life. It means that it impacts us deeply and that our emotions and understanding of the world line up in some profound way.

Lost in Translation is my pick for the greatest love story of the 21st century. It is—from its stunning cinematography to an otherworldly soundtrack, to two of the best performances you’ll see anywhere—a movie that stays with you long after it ends. It is still incredible to me that Bill Murray didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor, instead losing to Sean Penn’s typically over the top and blindingly obvious performance in Mystic River. Lost in Translation is a subtle movie, and Murray and Johansson’s performances have an equally light touch. Too subtle for some, I guess, who want their love stories to be based on getting the girl. Sofia Coppola’s wisdom here is way beyond her years. She has such a deft touch for expressing truths about emotional isolation and the pure love that is felt when one meets someone who understands them and appreciates them for who they are.

Tokyo is, predictably, a place where I would love to visit. I haven’t gotten over there yet, but someday I hope I will be able to. Some criticised Lost in Translation for having a superficial understanding of Japan, and while I can’t attest to the factual state of Tokyo, I feel strongly that this is an unjustified shot against the picture. Bob and Charlotte are disconnected from their environment. They can’t sleep and they are lost in relationships that don’t seem to fit. This disconnect with Tokyo feeds back into the deeper emotional story that is being told. There are some people who like to see the bad sides of a city, ostensibly to get closer to the “truth” of life there. This reminds me of what Richard Curtis, director of such wonderful movies as About Time and The Boat That Rocked, said recently about optimism against cynicism:

“I’m suspicious of the romanticisation of bad things. I know everything that’s wrong with my films, believe you me. But if you make a film about a soldier who goes AWOL and murders a pregnant nurse, something that’s happened probably once in history, it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love and there are about a million people falling love, in Britain today, it’s called, a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.”

There is nothing wrong then with someone falling in love with a city and a culture that values architecture, music, movies, beer and artistic expressions of all kinds. Being cynical just plain isn’t a gateway to truth or insight, it’s a blight on the ability to appreciate that for the most part people are good all over the world, and there are things to love and appreciate. The Tokyo of Lost in Translation may just be one interpretation, but we should be wary of assuming that because the vision of the city in Sofia Coppola’s picture is ultimately a positive and romantic one, that it is any less true than a film which shows all of the pain and suffering that happens there. Going to Paris—where I am lucky enough to have seen with my own eyes—and coming back talking about muggers and drug addicts, instead of the sheer beauty of the city and the wonders of the museums and restaurants and bars, suggest to me that this person has somehow wildly missed the point.

The soundtrack to Lost in Translation is my favourite of any movie, including any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, and that’s saying something. “Just Like Honey,” which closes the movie, is as perfect a moment as any movie. That melding of a beautifully performed, shot and written scene with music elevates it up above all contenders. There is such a deeply felt resonance here that it makes one recall all of those moments when you told someone you love them and they responded in kind. Shout out to “Sometimes” by My Bloody Valentine, and “Girls” by Death in Vegas, for similarly affecting coupling with visuals.

Bill Murray as Bob Harris in Lost in Translation

The ending of Lost in Translation is a thing of beauty. We don’t know what they say, or at least not without sound editing software—and seriously if you’re doing that, you just don’t get it. This is a private moment between the two characters and recalls pretty much every perfect moment of love in my life. This is art on a level with which so few can compare. Whenever I feel low or ill at ease, I watch Lost in Translation and by the time that ending comes around, my spirits are raised and I am hopeful for good things to arrive into my life, crashing through all of the negative bullshit that you have to tolerate living in this world.

Written by Paul Casey

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