The old ennui: what’s gained from what’s Lost in Translation

For relaxing times ... make it Suntory time. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003).
For relaxing times … make it Suntory time. Bill Murray as Bob Harris in Lost in Translation (2003)

Love, in its various guises, is a hazardous thing. You never know when it’s going to strike or with who. Making a connection with another human being is a simultaneously intricate and simple process, often complicated by insecurities and fears and that relentlessly undermining voice that asks: Is he too young? Is he too old? Is he too tall? Can he dance? Will he make me soup when I have a cold? Sometimes timing is off, actual or cosmic. You ask yourself, why couldn’t we have met two years ago? You wonder, will I ever see him again? It always feels like there isn’t enough time, like you don’t know what to say when the moment offers itself up to you on a plate. Usually we figure it out when it’s too late or we try reading signs, minds, anything other than just asking. Something always gets lost in translation from one person to the other. This, I believe, is a truth universally acknowledged, about the feelings we associate with love.

Sofia Coppola’s best film, Lost in Translation (2003) quite exquisitely imagines this emotional terrain.

Lost in Translation is a film that captures and conveys a very specific mood, caught somewhere between romantic melancholy and languor (writing in Time Richard Corliss calls Coppola ‘a real mood weaver’). Its tone is sweet and sad, scathing and witty, its film language both bold and creative and quiet and intimate.

A subtle and brilliant Bill Murray is Bob Harris and the lovely Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte. They’re two lonely hearts adrift in Tokyo, physically and emotionally dislocated from their partners and themselves. Bob’s a movie star whose career is stuck in second gear – he’s come to Tokyo to take a break from his wife of 25 years and forget his son’s birthday but mostly to get ‘paid two million dollars to endorse a whiskey when I could be doing a play somewhere.’ Recent philosophy graduate, Charlotte, has followed her photographer husband of 2 years (Giovanni Ribisi) because she has nothing to do of her own. One sleepless night lying chastely beside him in bed after drinking sake and watching Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Charlotte tells Bob, ‘I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be, you know. I tried being a writer, but I hate what I write. I tried taking pictures, but they were so mediocre …’ And this vulnerable revelation, ‘I’m stuck.’

Despite a significant age difference – Bob in his 50s, Charlotte in her 20s – they speak the same language (not just English) and are mired in the same psychic quagmire of unhappiness with their current state of being. Virtually anonymous in a strange neon city, Bob and Charlotte drift without connection to anyone seemingly unmissed by anyone, until they find each other and then they are no longer alone and are more themselves than ever before.

Insomnia and hard liquor help – when Charlotte asks Bob how long he’ll be in Tokyo he says, ‘I’ll be in the bar for the rest of the week’ – but there is something else, something more profound at work here. Life happens in these small moments and something as small as a talk over a cocktail at a bar can have the power to change a life irrevocably. Strange things can happen in the cover of night. There is, as Bob will later sing to Charlotte in a karaoke bar, nothing more than this.

There is nothing more than this - one of the film's magic moments
There is nothing more than this – one of the film’s magic moments

Early in Lost in Translation it becomes clear that Coppola’s film is not going to be a standard May-September romance. A series of scenes in their respective hotel rooms present Bob and Charlotte alone – both in the room but also in their bed. There is something about the unspoken truth of the loneliness of travel being told in these scenes and the innate loneliness of these characters, but the bed inevitably makes us think of sex and intimacy, and here, it’s absence. Later, when they do lie together in a bed (in the aforementioned post-Fellini scene) intimacy is purely of the emotional kind, they are talking, finding out more about each other.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) alone on her bed
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) alone on her bed

I’ve always liked that Lost in Translation is too smart a film to tell us that all of Bob and Charlotte’s problems will just dissolve if they sleep together. Life isn’t actually that simple. And the closer they get the more complicated it becomes. Sleeping together would effectively cause more problems. And as Roger Ebert notes, ‘They share something as personal as their feelings rather than something as generic as their genitals.’ Although there is definitely sexual tension – reaching its peak when Bob, in the depths of self-loathing, sleeps with the dreadful lounge singer and Charlotte reacts like a betrayed lover – a fleeting sexual encounter is not what this connection is about.

Ebert rightly points out that the kinds of conversations that first connect Bob and Charlotte can only be had with strangers because ‘strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale.’ With strangers we often feel we have less of ourselves to risk, and rather than reinvent ourselves, present a more authentic ‘I’ than the ‘I’ we show to the world everyday. But at some point, as happens here, two strangers peel away enough layers, make discoveries, and they become something else. And by the time they say goodbye, still anonymous (but not to each other) in the cacophony of the Tokyo streetscape, Bob and Charlotte have certainly crossed that line.

The film’s much discussed final sequence clearly defies convention by denying us a neat resolution but for me it provides a truly authentic emotional closure. It seems so right to me that these two fully drawn characters would share a moment in their own private universe that I don’t question for a moment that it should happen in any way other than this.

On his way to the airport to return home, Bob spies Charlotte walking down the street and has his driver pull over. He gets out and follows her. The diegetic sound is rhythmic and messy. When he reaches her he says, ‘Hey, you’ and she turns. She’s been crying. He grabs her, looks at her, hugs her, and then speaks something into her ear that we can’t make out. Turn the volume up you still can’t hear it. He ends with ‘okay’ and she agrees with ‘okay.’ They don’t want to let go and it’s clear that Charlotte is pleased by what he’s said. They kiss and say bye in the most tender and beautiful way. And then they part and head back to where they were going with a sense of contentment and peace and probably uncertainty.

Bob says the words Charlotte has been dying to hear
Bob says the words Charlotte has been dying to hear

I think this final scene is harmonious to the sequence of events that have come before it. It was all leading to this moment.

The night before their goodbye, both hurting after a terrible lunch, they come face to face in the middle of a fire drill. Bob tells Charlotte he’s leaving the next day. So much remains unsaid. Hope seems to be slipping away. They go to the bar in their pajamas and have a drink, clearly into each other in a new way. But the words don’t come. Holding her hand, Bob confesses, ‘I don’t want to leave,’ and she suggests, ‘So don’t. Stay here with me. We’ll start a jazz band.’ Later that morning, as Bob waits in the hotel lobby for Charlotte to bring him his coat, their goodbye is awkward, stoic. This isn’t how it should end. And it’s all  in Bill Murray’s doleful eyes. He’s never been better, so wounded and warm.

Closer than ever and contemplating staying in Tokyo and starting a jazz band
Closer than ever and contemplating staying in Tokyo and starting a jazz band

How do you say goodbye? There are actually no words that are adequate to describe this feeling. Wandering through the corridors of their hotel and the explosive, sensory streets of Tokyo together, Bob and Charlotte have been trying to find out the meaning of it all. Have they found it by the film’s end? I don’t know. They are no longer lost. I think they’ve found something, unnamable, unformed, in each other.

Whatever Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear, Coppola doesn’t permit us to hear it on purpose. Does he tell her he loves her? That he will miss her? That he will see her again? That he will never forget her? Or does he thank her or tell her to believe in herself? Any of these and countless other words are possible.

This is a cinema of irresolution, but in its irresolution plenty is revealed. As an audience we can gain a lot here if we are willing to listen carefully. Like great literature, great film should strive to reveal to us something true, known, but barely articulated, about the human condition. And the best way to do this, as Lost in Translation does, is to place characters in spaces that challenge them and their idea of who they are.  As Richard Corliss writes, Bob and Charlotte ‘come to realise they’re not locked in stasis; they are souls in transition, grazing each other and striking sweet sparks.’

Bob and Charlotte's final embrace
Bob and Charlotte’s final embrace

In this way, with the sparse nature of its dialogue and its use of space as an alienating construction, Coppola’s film has much in common with the existential landscapes of Michelangelo Antonioni and the intimate interiors of Wong Kar-wai, two directors whose films I adore (and will be writing more about in the coming months). Coppola admitted as much in her acceptance speech at the Oscars in 2004 when she won for Best Original Screenplay, listing them among the filmmakers whose films inspired her as she was writing the script.

Coppola claims she didn’t know what Bob and Charlotte said because it was unscripted, that Murray took the lead and she, as director, followed her muse. Do we need to know? Do audiences really need that kind of closure? Can’t we just accept that this is a private moment and something we can’t share in?

(It’s recently surfaced on a number of websites that someone has cracked the code so to speak and deciphered what Bob says. I’m genuinely not interested in knowing, so I’m not going to look into it or comment on it here.)

This is what I think.

Throughout Lost in Translation Bob and Charlotte have talked and connected but neither has found an easy solution to the ennui that plagues them. They don’t have the answers to the problems of the universe, they may not even have figured out what to do next in their own lives. Happiness is not guaranteed. This isn’t defeatist, this is real – our relationships with others aren’t designed to make life’s big decisions easier, but rather to make them less frightening and lonely. Having other people on our side ultimately helps make life bearable. And as they part, Bob and Charlotte seem to take the inner strength provided by this truth with them, wherever they are going next. This is how we live – we probably never figure it out, but we take small steps, with the help of others, towards the answers we are seeking.

Charlotte's eyes are open to the future
Charlotte’s eyes are open to the future

For me, the final moments of Lost in Translation are beautiful for their hushed intimacy. Amidst the dizzying soundscape of Tokyo there is silence, and in that moment, I found myself whispering to the screen, ‘Bill Murray, will you be my husband?’ Funny though, I couldn’t hear his reply.

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7 thoughts on “The old ennui: what’s gained from what’s Lost in Translation

  1. Yes, you’ve definitely captured the essence…well done! I find it humorous that there are people still obsessing over what he said to her. To me, even if I knew, it would not hold the significance that it did to the characters, for it relates to them, their experience, what they have shared. As you suggest, there are endless possibilities, and the not knowing is what enables the universality of that moment to hold true.

  2. As I watched this movie for a 7th time today, I always seem to find myself seeking interpretations to the emotions brought forth in me through these haunting scenes. I stumbled on your blog today and thank you for sharing your ideas of this great movie.

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