For the longest, I had been wary of falling for the hype whenever I would come across the name of Sofia Coppola’s sophomore feature. It being Hollywood, and the plaudits emanating in unison from professional circles, my pupils dilated on cue for possible warning sings; my qualms about such works always revert to whether such films’ success is in part due to the fledgling artist’s standing in the industry’s inner tribe. If this entails missing a few gems along the way then so be it, but with Translation, something had to give, and it took no less an apt opportunity than the coronavirus quarantine to finally give in.
The film immediately taps into a universal anxiety—that of becoming fish out of water no matter how briefly. We’ve been there in some capacity, when faced with the unknown, however much temporary. Think of the dread preceding a business trip abroad. Actually, this is film is about the dread of being a third-wheel on a business trip abroad albeit the nuances, sensibilities and backstory work together unshackled from conventional trappings of rom-com tropes and story trajectories. He is a jaded, middle-aged has-been in show biz now reduced to ad and TV spots in Japan; she, the newly wed, fresh ivy school alumna, tagging along with an oblivious and self-absorbed husband photographer. Both are staying in the same Tokyo hotel. The first two scenes show their waking and sleeping routines but Coppola wastes little time painting a humdrum rhythm to their slog through involuntary travels and, boy, were the two actors terrific there and throughout.
Working in the hospitality sector, I am familiar with disruptions borne out of an uprooting for long-stay guests except Bob (Murray) and Charlotte (Johansson) are presented on a more intimate level than what guests allow someone in my position. Bob’s family is back home while Charlotte’s husband is out on photo shoots. To my delight, nothing in the lead-up to their acquaintance felt contrived, just as it was to no surprise how none of their companionship proves amorous or carnal; the only coincidence is that they are two Americans staying in the same hotel on the same week while overseas. That they, more or less, experience a similar degree of longing and loneliness is simply dramatic purview. Those anxieties are really existential fears too often ignored to have the platform and time to articulate them through. The misfit duo bonds over these shared feelings of alienation despite a gap in age and life experiences accrued. That is a chasm between their stark backgrounds as they occupy opposite chapters of their marriage cycles though both are sitting at an identical crossroad.
By avoiding sex, and innuendo altogether, Coppola neither caters nor panders to the least common denominator, a commendable direction to take for two characters with every justification to stray from the matrimonial bed. Though their rendezvous involve either food or booze, neither is dangled as a final ingredient to infidelity, or, if one were to dispense with outmoded restraints, free love. But there’s still that iconic shot of Johansson’s derriere in see-through pants. A red herring? A curve ball? A middle finger to false body image ideals? A combination of all? To Charlotte’s barely concealed disappointment, Bob gets his rocks off with the hotel’s jazz singer, and there is a quasi-paternal reasoning behind him seeing her for more than a personal conquest despite the ensuing tension following that episode.
They do have a half-hearted attempt at a make-up, have one last meal and call it a day yet can’t stay far from one another’s pull during a mid-night evacuation. And when it comes time to say their goodbyes, Bob, unsatisfied with their resolution, jumps out of his cab and whispers a McGuffin line into Charlotte’s ear, and the two have a proper, heart-felt goodbye. It takes a cerebral mind and a keen eye to craft a story for that rare type of friendship, the unlikely kind, anchored solely by an awareness by all involved of one’s lot and place in life, and not get bogged down by your narrative conceit. It gets better; Tokyo itself is never fetishized or commodified and is presented almost as if a third character, low blows aside. Japanese cuisine, karaoke, strip clubs and studio sets, might as well be film extras or honorary cameos. A day-trip in Kyoto arrives as a refreshing detour and break for both from one another. Special props are reserved for Scarlett Johansson for matching chops of a veteran’s pedigree blow-for-blow and staying in this bout despite Murray being consistently in command.