“I don’t want to leave.”
“So don’t. Stay here with me. We’ll start a jazz band.”
The title Lost in Translation captures more than just Bob Harris’ (Bill Murray) and Charlotte’s (Scarlett Johansson) confusion in an alien land with dizzying lights and lethargic frenzy. It alludes to what people have always wanted, simply, someone to understand and to be understood in return. Bob and Charlotte are two lost souls who find themselves wandering aimlessly around this neon playground, both entranced and uncomfortable with a country that seems incapable of rest; indifferent to the stragglers.
Bob is apathetic. As a declining movie star, he is in Japan selling whiskey to an audience he is completely disinterested in. He spends his time at the hotel bar, craving genuine human contact but too weary to start the conversation. Charlotte is young and intelligent but finds herself locked in a relationship which is already starting to disintegrate; she too, seems to be trapped in a web of pessimism. Yet their chemistry is immediate, their affection for each other is displayed through a string of subtle body language, the odd glance, the brush of the cheek, and the tenderness of their voices. Lost in Translation is a smart film because it uses nuance to communicate its ideas, the cliché of star-crossed lovers would be too easy, too obvious and Sofia Coppola is much too intelligent for that.
Most of Bob’s relationships have broken down; his wife calls him frequently to discuss everything but their relationship. She tries to put their children on the phone, yet they always seem to run away. After a string of biting sarcasm from both parties, she asks Bob if she “Needs to worry about him,” Bob responds with “Only if you want to…” and seconds later she hangs, stating that she has ‘urgent matters’ to attend to. Bob could be the life of the party, he could be cracking jokes but he is too jaded to entertain someone without getting something in return. At this point, he’s damaged goods and the years of wear have chipped away at his charismatic instincts.
Similarly, Charlotte tries to communicate with her husband but he seems too preoccupied in mingling with B-grade celebrities. He insists that she won’t enjoy coming along with him to his work and naively believes that a faxed sheet of paper with a hand-drawn heart can remedy their fracturing marriage. Later that night, Charlotte longingly flips through Polaroid photos of the pair in their younger days.
Both Bob and Charlotte are ‘lost in translation’. Somewhere in the past, both of them held their tongue, their partners reciprocated and their feelings got lost in a sea of comforting neglect. And it is these feelings of isolation that unite the two. Bob sees a beautiful, witty girl, who, like him, seems to have lost her way in life and Charlotte sees an older man who actually tries to understand how lonely she is. The most insightful moments are when the pair lie together and speak about cosmic themes in vague details, the absolutes don’t matter, only that they are next to each other; together. Charlotte asks about the difficulty of marriage and Bob attempts to pass all that he has learnt onto his younger student. The pair never have sex but they do something a lot more risky; they allow themselves to develop feelings for each other.
When we are spying upon their drunken adventures, there is a real sense of energy and enthusiasm. The night is forever young and each bend in the road offers the chance of another unforgettable experience. When the two are separate, the passion evaporates, a grey filter sets in and we divert our eyes, confused at why they are wasting their dwindling time on matters of little significance.
“I just feel so alone, even when I’m surrounded by other people.”
But context is the sharp gust of reality ready to blow away this pink glazed dream. Bob is married with children, Charlotte is also married to another man and thirty years younger. The looming end of their impending separation accelerates the urgency of their unexpected friendship. Time is merciless, despite how perfect this pairing is, the audience and the characters know that it’s impossible. Charlotte has her path she must walk and so does Bob, yet for a brief, but powerful moment, their lives do cross. And this is why this film is such an understated masterpiece, it doesn’t pretend that Charlotte and Bob have solved all their problems by meeting each other, rarely does that happen in reality. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlotte ended up dying from a drug overdose in five years, nor would I be surprised if she changes her mindset and allows her husband to share in her sadness. The same goes for Bob, maybe he divorces his wife and turns to alcoholism or maybe he returns home and holds her longingly; knowing that their relationship was once just like his and Charlotte’s.
That’s the beauty of this film, I don’t need answers. I am comfortable knowing that amongst the laughs, hugs and haunting stares of love, a genuine bond was forged in the most unexpected of locations.
Maybe one day, decades past, Charlotte will hear Bob’s name and then she’ll look down and crack a smile, or maybe even cry, or maybe not, because he is just a ghost in her past- And Bob will be on the other side of the world, attending to his own business, unaware that he had just entered the mind of a woman whom he loved, even if it was for a brief moment.
“I loved the moment near the end when Bob runs after Charlotte and says something in her ear, and we’re not allowed to hear it.
We shouldn’t be allowed to hear it. It’s between them, and by this point in the movie, they’ve become real enough to deserve their privacy. Maybe he gave her his phone number. Or said he loved her. Or said she was a good person. Or thanked her. Or whispered, “Had we but world enough, and time…” and left her to look up the rest of it.”
- Roger Ebert, Lost in Translation Review, 2003
USA Release Date: 3rd October 2003
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi & Fumihiro Hayashi
Synopsis: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo.