“I just don’t know what I am supposed to be,” explains Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) to the washed-up movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) as both characters quietly contemplate their lives. It is a question steeped in naïve uncertainty and existential longing, as well as one that serves as the emotional and philosophical underpinning of Lost in Translation (2003) – an atmospheric, melancholy, and at times hilarious romantic comedy from director Sofia Coppola. Lost in Translation manages to avoid the trappings of other indie films with a similar feel by offering an exploration of the complexity of human relationships, depicting an unlikely couple that bond through shared feelings of being lost.
Bob is a has-been American actor in his fifties who has begrudgingly travelled to Japan to do a series of advertisements for a Japanese whiskey company. Bob spends the majority of his time in Japan staying in his hotel, where he appears to be in a constant state of boredom and discontent until he meets Charlotte one night at the hotel bar. Charlotte is a young woman in her twenties who is staying in the hotel to support her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) while he does various photo shoots across Tokyo. She, too, is bored, discontent, and unsatisfied with her life as she struggles to find purpose and questions her decision to marry her husband. Through their shared feelings of loneliness and isolation, Bob and Charlotte are able to instantly connect. Together, they experience Tokyo’s unique and vibrant culture while developing an unlikely relationship.
At the heart of Lost in Translation is the idea that despite their age difference, Bob and Charlotte have something fundamentally in common. They are both respectively lost in life, and the loose narrative structure is simply built around bringing them together. Of course, the frenetic Tokyo provides the perfect foreign backdrop for Bill and Charlotte’s dislocation as their struggles to communicate with the Japanese and navigate the overwhelming city become a clever overarching metaphor for their psychological detachment. Bob and Charlotte spend their sleepless nights bounded by a city that they do not understand, surrounded by people they struggle to connect with, locals and friends alike. In many ways it is this fundamental metaphor – Tokyo, the city itself – that allows Coppola to present the film’s complex themes so naturally and with such little dialogue. In moments of silence the city speaks for the film, reminding us of these characters’ vulnerability as they attempt to cross through Tokyo’s bizarre urban aesthetics.
It is Bob’s interactions with various Japanese characters that give rise to the film’s most comedic moments. Murray, doing what he does best, handles his frustrations apathetically with a cunning dry wit and timely sarcasm. His unexpressive nature, low-key energy, and old-school charm clash with a variety of highly animated locals. Whether it is a photographer yelling vague requests at him in Japanese, an eccentric late-night host forcing him to dance, or a Japanese prostitute demanding that he “lip” her stockings. Each interaction gives way to deadpan perfection from Murray. Johansson on the other hand, deals with her frustrations in a more youthful and optimistic manner. She explores the Japanese streets, embraces their culture, and looks to it for potential answers. Together, and perhaps through one another, the two characters are able to come to life and enjoy the city.
Much of the intrigue essential to the Bob/Charlotte dynamic is its inherent complexity. It is not a black and white romance, nor is it simply a story of friendship, or even one of paternal love. But I think much of the reason we stick around to find out exactly what it is is owed to the incredibly nuanced and exceptionally believable performances from both Murray and Johansson, who are able to work in perfect harmony together. Throughout the film they communicate with one another almost entirely nonverbally, just with slight smiles, gazes, and smirks. Their more subtle and unexpressive form of communication speaks greatly to their abilities as actors, effortlessly adding a layer of realism to the film. Instead of being spoon-fed easy dialogue or cued in by dramatic music, we simply watch as the two attempt to decode each other’s nonverbal cues, forcing us to do the same. When Charlotte is having drinks with John and Kelly (Anna Faris) she is forced to listen to their mindless conversations. Kelly talks about her favorite “detox” and brags about being mistaken as anorexic, while their DJ friend talks in slang about making “beats.” For Bob and Charlotte, despite these people’s expressive nature and enthusiasm, they are “fake,” or at the very least what they are talking about is boring and tedious. It is in moments like these that Coppola reestablishes the power of nonverbal communication through juxtaposition. As Charlotte fails to connect with these people verbally, she once again meets eyes with Bob from across the bar – who himself has had a long day of feeling disconnected – and is able instantly connect with him nonverbally.
Many indie films that follow a similar ambiguous art-house direction tend to fall into the trap of replacing substance with self-indulgence, relying solely on their stylistic elements to tell a story. However, Coppola is able to find a delicate balance, never lingering too long on a scene or allowing the plot to meander too far from its central themes. That being said, Lost in Translation’s atmospheric aura, loose plot structure, and sparse dialogue may frustrate some. Long takes of Charlotte staring out her hotel room window or silent sequences of Bob wandering the hotel and its facilities could appear dull or even self-indulgent. However, I think it is within these mundane moments where Coppola captures human emotion at its most poignant and at its most real. Also, considering the delicacy with which she handles them and the performances they inspire from Murray and Johansson, it would be unwitting to write these sequences off as pointless or contrived. And although the film feels as if it effortlessly floats from moment to moment, there is still a strong sense of precision in Coppola’s direction. Each scene is presented with an acute attention to detail. Each builds on the film’s overall feeling and mood. Each provides silent, but necessary, glimpses into the psyches of these two distraught and vulnerable characters.
Ultimately, Lost in Translation is a small film that tackles some very big questions, touching on the nature of relationships, love, and even our existence. But instead of providing any answers to these questions, Coppola decides to only gently push us in their direction, letting us figure out the details for ourselves. So when Charlotte confesses to Bill that she “doesn’t know what she is supposed to be” in this world, he doesn’t have an answer and neither does Coppola. But she has certainly pointed to the importance that human relationships, in all their complexity, can play in helping us find out.
Niko Pajkovic is a recently graduated Communication Studies major from Wilfrid Laurier University, born and raised in Toronto, Canada. He has always possessed a deep fascination and inherent passion toward film and filmmaking, taking specific interest in the relationship between film and history.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Director Sofia Coppola
Runtime 105 minutes