I last thought of Lost in Translation in October when I reviewed Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The connections between these two films are easy to see. Both are set in Asia. Both are about people who could be romantically involved but for their poor timing. Both films employ visual devices to create the sensation that their characters are outside of normal time, and both films end with a man making a whispered confession of love (probably) that we never hear.
However, unlike In the Mood for Love, where the characters are keenly aware of what’s missing from their lives, Lost in Translation’s characters are unable to identify what it is they are missing, or even hoping for. Lost in Translation centers on the aging actor, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who is in Tokyo to film a whiskey commercial. There he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). Charlotte has come to Tokyo with her husband, John (an underused Giovanni Ribisi), because she “wasn’t doing anything.” Both Bob and Charlotte are married to other people, but neither marriage is very fulfilling. In Tokyo, these two lost souls find a very brief moment of connection – but both realize that it's only a moment.
Director, Sofia Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, has a stunning cinematic eye. She creates a stillness around her characters, causing the chaotic nature of contemporary Japan to careen past the still, watchful, would-be-lovers at the core of her film. It creates a sense of timelessness around Bob and Charlotte that makes it possible that the dramatic age difference between them might not matter. They speak of their marriages, which are 25 and 2 years old respectively, with the same sort of weariness, the same longing to get out. Neither character really seems to have much purpose. Both seem to be searching for something older, Bob for the 1970s when he was in his heyday and Charlotte something older still in the Buddhist monasteries and ancient temples of Japan.
Sofia Coppola’s screenplay won the Oscar for best original screenplay in 2003. The not quite there romance at the center of the picture is an achievement. However, her depiction of modern Japan as clownish and filled with effete Asian-boy children and pink haired Japanese schoolgirls smacks of orientalism. Of course, she pairs this with a depiction of modern American Hollywod stardom, personified in Anna Faris’ character, as vapid and empty. Coppola’s script evinces a contempt for modernity, and an infatuation with times before.
There is a film academic named Marco Abel who has identified an emergent trend of “post-romanticism.” These films have little faith in true love as a concept, and no faith whatsoever in happily ever after. Lost in Translation certainly fits the bill. But if Bob and Charlotte don’t believe in true love, how can they be so haunted by its absence from their lives?
I suppose that’s one of the many multiple meanings of Lost in Translation’s title. Neither Bob nor Charlotte speaks Japanese. They are aliens in this culture. They are unable to coherently express themselves to their spouses, and, worse yet, they are unable to translate their longing for connection into either words or actions. They are almost like statues, frozen in a single moment of recognizing someone in a similar struggle, as the modern hustle and bustle of one of our world’s largest cities whips past them, much to their consternation.
As unrealized romances go, I preferred In the Mood for Love. It was a more carefully constructed film than Lost in Translation. Although, Lost in Translation’s final moments are more compelling. The last meeting between Bob and Charlotte gives them, maybe not closure, but a perfect moment that seems at once unearned and well-deserved.
Lost in Translation finds itself on this list because it was selected as one of the 10 best films of the 2000s by 5 of the 37 surveyed critics, an honor it shares with the next feature, Brokeback Mountain. In the meantime, if you're looking for more thoughts on Lost in Translation, you can listen to a back order of the podcast where Nick and Brit talk about it.
From Out in the Void,