Lost In Translation: Translating absence

Movie: Lost In Translation

Release year: 2003

Director: Sofia Coppola

Movies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big and loud and thrilling while others are small, finely crafted gems and there are few stories as soft-spoken and full of soul as ‘Lost in Translation’. It is a movie that sneaks up on you, using artistry that feels so natural that the precision of its craft is only clear if you think about it afterwards.

Scarlett Johanson plays Charlotte, a 20-year-old woman who’s come to Japan with her rock and roll photographer husband, played by Giovanni Ribisi. A recent college graduate and philosophy major, Charlotte is adrift- not only in this foreign city, but in her marriage, and even her life. Bob Harris(played by Bill Murray) is a movie star or… he was a movie star. Now he flies to Tokyo to spend a week shilling for a high profile Japanese whisky company- recording commercials, making talk show appearances and all the while suffering from insomnia.

This film is patient in its treatment of the main characters. We spend a lot of time getting to know Charlotte and Bob alone before they even meet each other- trapped in the interior spaces of their luxury hotel, dealing with spouses who don’t seem to be on the same wavelength and mesmerized by the lights and sounds of the city. When they do start to interact with one another, it’s tentative- a smile in an elevator, a look across a crowded lounge and eventually, a brief conversation at the bar. The two develop an easy and funny rapport and seem to recognize something in one another.

Charlotte is an old soul. Bob begins this film as a sad sack until Charlotte draws out his youthful charisma. As their relationship deepens, the movie never quite goes where we expect. Bob and Charlotte comfort and confide in one another, essentially falling in love. In the film’s now-famous climactic scene, Bob catches a glimpse of Charlotte from the car on his way to the airport. Feeling unsatisfied in their initial goodbye, he leaps out of the car, runs across traffic, and catches up with her. They embrace, clinging to each other for a brief moment, and then Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear which we never hear but surely might have been something good because as Bob gets back to his car and Charlotte walks away, they both seem more content, as if a weight has been lifted. It’s like their connection will somehow last as they navigate the rest of their lives and relationships- the ultimate bittersweet ending.

All of us at some point in our lives have been in the shoes of Charlotte and Bob. The reason they can connect is that they each realise that the excess that bombards them throughout Tokyo conceals a fundamental absence. Throughout the film, both characters seem to be alienated from the bustling city that surrounds them. Bob gazes in wonder at the neon lights of Tokyo in the opening scene, utterly overwhelmed. And Charlotte is often seen sitting at her hotel window, looking out at the city’s urban sprawl, as if it’s all too much. And when she finally does go out, the film assaults us with the loud noises of an arcade, the blaring music at the bar and the cacophony of some intense Tokyo traffic. But when she finds moments away from it all, she seems more at peace. Like, in a quiet hallway outside a karaoke lounge, at a hidden shrine in the city, or when she stumbles across women practising Ikebana.

Bob is even more steeped in excess. In fact, he’s even a part of it. His pictures are on billboards and the sides of buses. His old movies play on TV. And he participates in a loud, garish Japanese talk show. ‘Lost In Translation’ feels like a film about unsatisfaction. Bob is unsatisfied with his work while Charlotte doesn’t even know where to start. And they are both unsatisfied in their marriages. They connect by rejecting a never-ending quest for material satisfaction. And they fill their lives with small, quiet moments instead. They find meaning and forge their relationship in absence, not excess. They find joy in spontaneity, like a race across traffic, an off-key karaoke performance, or an unexpected Ikebana ceremony. This focus on absence is felt throughout the film, which follows the pattern of a traditional romance, from the meet-cute to the climactic trip to the airport. And his whisper is the ultimate expression of absence. The film builds to a climax that withholds the final piece of information from us, and in doing so, gives that absence an incredible value.

The film also captures the feeling of quiet isolation perfectly. No one can experience another person’s loneliness or feelings of disconnect. ‘Lost In Translation’ captures those feelings in the two characters perfectly. It’s not really about the unspoken love between them but this indescribable feeling of belonging that another person can bring. We’ve all had one of those friendships or romances in our lives. One that sort of pulls us back into reality again.

‘Lost In Translation’ is one of those few films presented through the feminist lens. One great example is the first shot of the film. In this scene, the camera is active/ masculine and the female character is passive/ feminine- an object of desire. However, Coppola holds the shot for thirty-six seconds, which feels like forever, before the title of the film shows up. What is interesting about this shot is that it lasts long enough to make us uncomfortable, forcing us to become aware and potentially even question our participation in the ‘gaze’. The film time and again inverts the typical representation of women in films. Though Charlotte appears half-dressed in several scenes, these images aren’t sexualised. Instead, we are asked to gaze with her at the world outside her window. While the outside aesthetic is familiar to mainstream cinema, our perspective doesn’t slip into the male gaze tropes. The central female character is allowed to be a whole, complex human being. Charlotte is wrapped up in a warm, funny, bittersweet film that never condescends to her for a laugh, and has a lot more going on than just pretty pictures.

Relieving the 2000’s, one movie at a time.