Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, won the academy award for best screenplay in 2003 and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director the same year. This film perfectly captures the feeling of being lost, both physically (in a new and foreign city) and emotionally (in life generally). The film follows a middle-aged American movie star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), and a twenty-something Yale graduate, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), whose paths cross in the sprawling urban jungle that is Tokyo, Japan. They are staying at the same swank but rather antiseptic hotel in the heart of the city. Bob is in the process of shooting a whiskey commercial and Charlotte is desperately trying to find things to do while her husband is working on a photo assignment. Both are going through a crisis of identity. Bob is dealing with a dwindling acting career and distant young family, while Charlotte is trying to figure out if she truly loves her husband and what exactly she wants to do with her life.
At first it is difficult to pinpoint what type of film Lost in Translation is trying to be. After all, the opening shot of the film is a cropped image of Charlotte laying on her side wearing nothing but underwear. This is a much sexualized image and sets a misleading tone for the rest of the film. The director obviously chose this shot for a reason. I believe that she did so in order to play with the audience’s expectations. What we believe to be a “fling” or “mid-life crisis” movie between an older man and a younger woman, is later discovered to be anything but. At many points throughout the film the director seems to satirize classic Hollywood’s love affair themes, such as forbidden love, screwball comedy, weekend affairs in exotic places and comedy of errors, among others.
It cannot be ignored and should not be overlooked that this film was written and directed by a woman and features a prominent female lead. This is a very important facet to consider when looking at this film through a critical lens. I think this movie gave Sofia Coppola the perfect opportunity to point out how men and women are too often objectified in films. At the risk of oversimplification: women are expected to be sexy seductresses and men are expected to want sexy seductresses. For example, in the opening shot Charlotte is lying mostly unclothed in an unmade bed. The audience naturally assumes she’s been with somebody but as the camera pulls back we see that she is actually alone in bed. In a scene in which Bob is the recipient of a private striptease performed by an escort, Coppola choses to make the exchange feel far more comical and awkward than sexy and titillating.
Not much actually happens over the course of the film but that is its beauty. The film feels fun, fresh and organic as we witness the two leads become friends. And of course, we can’t help but wonder whether they will become more than friends. The cinematography by Lance Acord is phenomenal. Most of the scenes are shot in low artificial light indoors. There is very much a documentary feeling to the film as the camera follows Bob and Charlotte through the bustling neon streets and all-night clubs. Yet in many ways the documentary style hides a careful eye for composition and timing. Though many of the film’s scenes appear random, there is intentional meaning to the madness.
What is most interesting about the development of their relationship is how these two strangers completely open up to one another. There is a very nice feeling of mutual trust (and lack of agenda), which is all the more compelling because there is so little trust shown between strangers these days. Their relationship, it turns out, is far more of a father and daughter relationship than that of lovers. There is one scene in particular where this fact is driven home. About midway through the film Bob comes into Charlotte’s hotel room to watch some TV. They are both laying on the bed and they begin to talk about marriage, family and how to find purpose or a calling in one’s life. I had been so conditioned by Hollywood cinema that I found myself wondering whether they were going to have sex. After all, they are both talking about their failed or tested marriages and they are laying incredibly close to one another. But then, as Bob finishes giving her advice and reassures her about the future, he lightly touches her foot. This reminded me of something a father would do with a daughter. At that moment any suppositions about where their relationship was going were dispelled. It is a film about an intimate relationship of minds not bodies. This is so unique in movies that it comes as a very pleasant surprise.
Sofia Coppola’s film explores what really constitutes “a relationship” between a man and woman and tries to answer the question, can a man and a woman just be friends? It is also a film that is very much about kismet. Two people, both of whom are lost and looking for answers as to who they are and what they should be doing, find one another in one of the largest most labyrinthine cities in the world. The film’s title, Lost in Translation, is incredibly telling and informs many of the themes of the film. In many scenes, especially those in which Bob is working on the whiskey commercial, misunderstandings due to culture and language are highlighted. Bob and Charlotte sometimes find themselves literally lost, which acts as a physical representation of their emotional turmoil.
Lost in Translation proves that you don’t need a massive budget, expensive special effects or traumatic events to make a good film. It also proves the intrinsic value of dialogue and characters to a film. We watch, fascinated, as two lost individuals find, by some miracle, the exact person they need at a critical moment in their lives. After this brief interlude, each returns to his/her life knowing themselves a little better as a result. The film’s beauty is the simplicity of their friendship and its unresolved ending. There are no epiphanies or resolutions. Apparently, there are certain things in life such as friendship, love, and understanding that defy translation.