Lost in Translation (2003) explores themes of isolation and human connection; written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the story follows the chance meeting of two people, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who feel adrift in the vast neon-lit sea of central Tokyo. Charlotte, a graduate of philosophy, and married to a workaholic photographer, John (Giovanni Ribisi), encounters Bob, a worn-down movie star who is endorsing a whiskey ad, and getting away from his daily life. They strike up a conversation in the lounge bar of Park Hyatt, and Charlotte invites Bob to join her and a few local friends; they head out into the city, get chased out of a club by a man with a laser toy gun, and sing karaoke until the small hours.

Charlotte and Bob are an unlikely pair—feeling alienated from their own culture, the time they are spending in Tokyo must seem somewhat unreal, and this opens up new possibilities. Suffering from jet-lag induced insomnia, they talk about their lives the way strangers can, openly and abstractly, exchanging innermost thoughts about what they want from their lives.

Bob: Can you keep a secret? I’m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out? 
Charlotte: I’m in. I’ll go pack my stuff. 
Bob: I hope that you’ve had enough to drink. It’s going to take courage. 

Coppola has stated that the idea for Lost in Translation was sparked by her experiences while working in Japan; the script was developed from her impressions of Tokyo, and the cinematography was designed around the photographs she took during her stay. Much of the film was shot dogme-style, (using natural light whenever possible, shooting on location) partly due to the restrictions of filming in Japan, which also gave the lead actors the space and freedom to improvise. The score, supervised by Brian Reizell, works very well in adding tones to the story and atmosphere, featuring Kevin Shields and Phoenix among others.

“I remember having these weeks there that were sort of enchanting and weird,” says Coppola. “Tokyo is so disorienting, and there’s a loneliness and isolation. Everything is so crazy, and the jet lag is torture. I liked the idea of juxtaposing a midlife crisis with that time in your early 20s when you’re, like, What should I do with my life?”

It’s interesting to note that the title of the film itself, Lost in Translation, is layered with meanings: the most apparent link being the setting of two Americans trying to come to terms with cultural differences, and the comedy springing up from misunderstandings. But the experience of Charlotte and Bob feeling detached, amplified by the foreign environment, also reflects the uncertainty caused by both of them being in a transitional phase of their lives. Perhaps the city becomes for them a crossroad of their lives, where they find hope and reconciliation. One more definition, to quote Robert Frost, is that “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” 


Le Havre (2011) is the latest film by probably the most renowned Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki; it can be described as an urban fairytale, which takes place in Le Havre, a port city in northern France. Marcel Marx (André Wilms) lives peacefully with his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), working on meager pay as a shoeshiner. While fishing, Marcel encounters a refugee boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), hiding in the water—the boy asks politely if he is in London, and the old man gives him some food. After running into inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who demands to know the whereabouts of the fugitive, Marcel decides to offer Idrissa shelter in his home; with the help of the neighbours, they arrange a come-back concert of a local rock legend, Little Bob, in order to finance Idrissa’s journey to his original destination, on the other side of the bay.

Kaurismäki started out as a co-director together with his brother Mika, and made his directing debut Rikos ja Rangaistus (1983) on a modern adaptation of Dostoyevski’s classic novel Crime and Punishment, and developed in his films an austere minimalism in terms of dialogue (the sparse, formally delivered lines) and cinematography. In Finland it’s difficult to get funding for film projects, so most productions are done on very low budgets—this is shown to be an advantage in Kaurismäki’s films. Also a recurring theme is the bleak, yet absurdly optimistic depiction of working class life; in Le Havre this theme is revisited, in different surroundings but the deadpan humor intact, with a warmer tone overall.

Le Havre was originally intended to take place in a Mediterranean coastal city, but Le Havre, the film’s namesake, was eventually chosen as the filming location due to its unique atmosphere and music scene. Some of the scenes are drawn from life, or inspired by an iconic character (Monet was based on detective Porfiry, from Crime and Punishment). The performances are heartfelt and hold the balance of the cheerful and melancholy moments with seeming ease and subtlety; as one writer from Variety defines Le Havre,

It’s like listening to a band that’s been cheerfully churning it out for years, whose members all know each other’s timings inside out, not unlike onscreen performers Little Bob and his grizzled, perfectly in-sync crew.

In an interview, Kaurismäki stated that the story of Le Havre sprung from the news articles and TV broadcasts about illegal immigrants, who have been promised a new life in Europe, ending up drowned in the Mediterranean. There was nothing else he could do but make a film about it, and perhaps this is a reaction to the hopeless reality portrayed by the media; an alternate ending to the casualties of people driven by the hope of a better life.

‘Oh jeez, I’m being pulled over. Everyone, just… pretend to be normal.’

Little Miss Sunshine (2006), a classic road movie directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, and written by Michael Arndt, captures the dynamics of the dysfunctional Hoover family on their way to a beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. In the opening scene the bright eyes of a little girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), gaze directly at the camera, the reflection of a TV screen glimmering on the surface of her glasses. The film cuts to a middle-aged man, Richard (Greg Kinnear), giving a motivational speech—the Nine Steps, which will lead to success in life—and then cuts to a teenager, Dwayne (Paul Dano), lifting weights with a portrait of Nietzsche in the background, and crossing out the 473rd training day (in preparation for the Air Force Academy) on his calendar. One gets an immediate glimpse of the fragile dreams of these people, and we are further introduced to a coke-snorting ex-hippie (Alan Arkin), and Frank (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who is recovering from a suicide attempt, and is staying at his sister Sheryl’s (Toni Collette) house.

Frank: I couldn’t help noticing Dwayne has stopped speaking. 
Sheryl: Oh, yeah, he’s taken a vow of silence. 

As soon as the news of Olive’s place in Little Miss Sunshine -competition is announced, the whole family sets out on a 700 mile journey  from Albaquerque to the West Coast, in an old VW bus. The tensions between the characters build during the very first miles of the trip; not all are willing participants in this excursion, and Grandpa enforces his life philosophy on everyone, punctuated by a constant flood of select swear words. Meanwhile, Richard’s book about the Nine Steps, ironically, fails to capture the attention of the publishers; a crises arises between Sheryl and Richard. Each of the characters go through a confrontation of reality, and a tragedy midway brings them together, as they face the absurdity and unpredictability of life.

Little Miss Sunshine is brilliantly paced; a balance between character, and the interplay of comedic and tragic elements. The talented cast makes all of the characters come alive in this satire of modern American culture, where the beauty pageant symbolizes of the vanity of superficial success, eating away at the core of people.

Dwayne: You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work.

Regarding Richard’s mantra about winners and losers, Arndt drew inspiration from an article he read in a newspaper, about Arnold Schwarzenegger saying to a group of high school students: ‘If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s losers. I despise them.’ This juxtaposition can be seen as a link to the slightly clichéd concept of the American dream. Arndt also adds into the story childhood memories of his own; throughout the journey, the VW bus slowly falls apart (starting with the clutch and horn getting stuck, and the door eventually falling off). A notable contribution to the character of the film, in addition to the wonderfully colorful cast, is a distinctive score with contributions from DeVotchKa and Sufjan Stevens. Having worked previously as a director of music videos, Faris realized the impact of the soundtrack, which was decided early on in the making of the film.

You start off with all these people living their separate lives and the climax of the movie is them all jumping up onstage together. So the story is really about this family’s starting separately and ending together.

Michael Arndt, the writer

‘Little did I realise that what began in the alleys and back ways of this quiet town would end in the Badlands of Montana.’

Badlands, (1973) a film written and directed by Terrence Malick, features Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) travelling across America, on the run from the law. Reminiscent of the notoriously iconic pair Bonnie and Clyde, the story of Kit and Holly is based on a cross-country killing spree, which happened during the late 1950s, involving Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.

Narrated by Holly, Badlands recounts her experiences like an adventure, adrift and detached from society. The journey begins in South Dakota, where Kit and Holly meet and a romance sparks between them; at the time Kit works as a garbage collector and Holly is still in school. He respects her for her maturity and she is struck by his charm and free spirit—they plan to elope, but are held back by Holly’s father, (Warren Oates) whom Kit ends up shooting. Holly decides not to call the police, believing that for better or worse, her future is bound to Kit; they set the house on fire and hit the road, leaving in their wake a string of killings and robberies as they travel across the country.

Holly: At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub. 

In comparison with Charles and Caril, on whom the characters of Kit and Holly were based on, reality seems to be always more brutal and disturbing; in Badlands the motives for the killings aren’t addressed, nor is their behavior otherwise particularly violent. Holly sees Kit as a sometimes strange, and the most trigger-happy person she has ever met; she doesn’t take part in any of the killings. It’s as if they are swept up in their own illusions, which blind them from fully comprehending their actions—Kit especially shows no remorse, seeing his actions merely as a matter of convenience, in getting rid of witnesses or profit-seekers, who are riding on the wave of their notoriety. A chilling insight about the character of Charles (and indirectly, Kit) is the fact that he suffered from an inferiority complex, and stated that through the murders of Caril’s family he had “transcended his former self” and reached another plane of existence, outside and beyond the law.

What makes Badlands special is its singular, dreamlike atmosphere and detail, not to mention the beautiful cinematography. Martin and Sissy are both natural in their roles; Martin was cast despite being too old for the role, so they changes the script in order for him to take part. Malick has directed only five feature films over 40 years, and has an enigmatic public persona; never showing up for interviews or the premieres of his films, and for a non-compromising attitude towards his art. It was lucky that Malick was given artistic freedom, in which the film could develop at its own pace; for instance, with the art director Jack Fisk, he came to the conclusion that the period detail should be left to the minimum:

Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time.

In conclusion, I wish you a nice weekend—here is the original trailer for the film:

The Piano (1993) is a film by Jane Campion, which takes place around the 1850s, New Zealand, depicting the story of Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin). Ada’s father has arranged for her to marry an English landowner, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), so she embarks on an exhausting journey with Flora, from Glasgow to her new, faraway home.

The film opens with Ada’s arrival on a vast beach, scattered with all of their belongings; the beginning of a new life is daunting, and the first encounter with her fiancé starts on a wrong note. To Ada, who has been mute since childhood, the piano is her voice; it’s through the channel of music that she expresses herself, but as a practical man, Alisdair refuses to have the piano carried up the hill. In dismissing the piano, inevitably, he fails to reach Ada.

Ada: The voice you hear is not my speaking voice, but my mind’s voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why—not even me. My father says it is a dark talent, and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last.

The piano is left on the beach, at the mercy of the wind and rain. Soon after the marriage, one of the local workers, George Baines (Harvey Keitel) agrees to accompany Ada and Flora to the beach, so she can play the piano, and he falls for her; George buys the piano and has it brought over to his house. Under the pretense of demanding piano lessons from Ada, George makes a proposal: she can get her piano back, one piano key at a time, in exchange for intimacy—one key per visit.

The story is harsh as the world they live in, and this is where the direction of Campion and the captivating cast really counts; Ada is not portrayed as a victim, despite the appearance of being forced into a corner by George’s offer—a deal is made on her terms, and shows the intricacies of human emotion, as Ada finds herself falling in love.

The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh takes on a character of its own, painting lush landscapes and interiors in pace with the story and the characters. The performances are powerful and full of personality, especially Holly’s; she doesn’t speak a word throughout the film, (her performance was acknowledged with an Academy award) and Anna is startling in her portrayal of Flora (Anna was also awarded an Oscar). The bond between Ada and Flora is a special one: Flora interprets Ada’s words (in sign language) to the others and has herself a strong personality. A beautiful score by Michael Nyman adds nuance to the film, and all the piano segments are played by Holly in character.

To conclude this article, I will leave you with the following poem, narrated by Ada at the end of The Piano:

There is a silence where hath been no sound
There is a silence where no sound may be
In the cold grave, under the deep deep sea.

(a poem by Thomas Hood)

Au revoir les enfants (Goodbye children, 1987) is an autobiographical film, written and directed by Louis Malle, about life in a Catholic boarding school during World War II. It’s a sensitive, effortlessly natural depiction of boyhood, and the friendship that forms between Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). The story is told from the perspective of Julien, dealing with the effects of the war in an indirect manner; the only reminder being the air raid siren, where in one scene the algebra class resumes in the bomb shelter. The focus of the story is on the hardships and joys in everyday life, and their hardships are grounded in how to keep warm in the freezing classrooms, for instance, rather than the ongoing war beyond the gates of the monastery.

Julien comes from a wealthy family, a bright boy with an air of arrogance; Jean is new to the school, and gets pushed around by his classmates—especially Julien—as an entering ritual. Jean holds his ground, and keeps to himself; in him Julien soon recognizes a kindred spirit, in their shared intellectual talents. One incident in particular brings them closer: during a game of Capture the flag, Julien and Jean get lost in the woods and come across a couple of patrolling German soldiers, who take them back to the school.

Père Jean: Everyone has dark thoughts.
Julien Quentin: Even you?
Père Jean: Even me.

Au revoir les enfants portrays the German occupying force with humanity; there is a scene which takes place in a restaurant, where a pair of French collaborators threaten an elderly Jewish man, (Jews were forbidden from many public places under German orders) and they get dismissed by a German soldier. This highlights the complexity of the situation in France at the time, where hostility arose between fellow Frenchmen, when French citizens joined the Nazi camp. 

The extent to which Au revoir les enfants can be considered autobiographical is ambivalent, but one event, which lies at the heart of the film, actually did happen—it leaves a strong impression on the character of Julien, as it did on Malle as a young boy. In a very real way, the director was revisiting his past in making the film, by filming in the school he attended at the time, (Carmelite monastery, near Fountainebleau) which during the German occupation took in a number of Jewish children under false names, in order to shelter them from the Nazis. The closing sequence is narrated by Malle himself: ‘More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.’ 

Véronique: All my life I’ve felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time.

La double vie de Véronique, (1991), is a jewel of a film; written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowśki, with Krzysztof Piesiewicz as the co-author, it depicts the intersecting lives of two women, Weronika (which takes place in Kraków, Poland) and Véronique (living in a central town in France, Clermont-Ferrand). As the title suggests, their lives are in an intimate, yet elusive way, connected. They seem to sense each other’s presence, and the story of Véronique begins where Weronika’s ends, with her untimely death; resounding in Véronique’s life as a sudden, inexplicable feeling of grief.

Kieslowśki began his career directing documentaries in the 1970s, and became known internationally for The Decalogue, (1989) based on the Ten Commandments. An opportunity arose for him to make a film abroad, and the production of La double vie de Véronique began. It was a co-production between France and Poland, followed by the Three Colors trilogy: Bleu, Blanc and Rouge (also starring Irène Jacob). Kieślowski has stated in an interview that filmmaking (in the line of social realism) in the communist regime was a constant battle with the censors, forcing social criticism to come across indirectly—allowing a mutual understanding to form between the filmmaker and the audience, while simultaneously evading censorship. Eventually he shifted away from documentary films to fiction, in order to gain more artistic freedom, and to delve deeper into the psyche of people.

Another interesting point is Kieślowski’s view on responsibility, not only the responsibility to oneself, but also to others in a broader sense of the word; responsibility to people around us who we don’t even know, whom we encounter in the humdrum of our daily lives, which brings out the importance of small encounters. The characters of Weronika and Véronique reflect this heightened awareness of their surroundings, and yet live in a world of their own. For instance, while watching a marionette performance with her class, Véronique is the only one who notices the puppeteer:

Véronique is instantly intrigued by the puppeteer, Alexandre. What sets in motion may best be called destiny, as Kieślowski himself names as one of the themes of this film, but shows how it’s also a series of possibilities which are pursued, driven by instinct. Véronique could well have ignored a phone call, and her future would have played out differently.

La double vie de Véronique is stunning visually, in its beautifully atmospheric cinematography, and the transition of Irène Jacob from Weronika to Véronique is natural; there is a balance between the subtle differences and similarities shared by the two characters. Considering such themes as destiny or fate, the film manages spectacularly to avoid falling flat; the nature of how the lives of Véronique and Weronika are linked is left to the interpretation of the viewer, and the emotions and thoughts of the main characters are not spelled out. Also, the music composed by Zbigniev Preisner, (collaborating frequently with Kieślowski since the 1980s) sets a distinct, otherworldly melody to the film, and plays a part in the storytelling as well.

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