Written and directed by: Sofia Coppola
A good movie is often one that lingers in your mind long after you’ve seen it. There are exceptions. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy consists of long form conversations between two characters. While one might think that that’s about as mundane as it gets, the ability to reproduce believable human interactions is an impressive one. And while I couldn’t tell you if I have much in common with the Before series’ protagonists, there was something appealing about hanging out with them. Because of their mundanity, I can’t remember almost anything from the Before films. I will never forget, however, how much I enjoyed them.
Lost in Translation comes across as a variant of the Before movies: one coated in urbanity and melancholy. If that’s a gimmick you only want to see once, then by all means pick, one oeuvre or the other. If, however, you want more of that Before-feeling, than Lost in Translation is an excellent option.
The film tells the story of two people going through periods of jadedness. Actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is bored and alienated from his family, while appearing equally unexcited to be staying in Tokyo. Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), meanwhile, is newly married and just out of college, and her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) already seems to have lost interest in spending time with her. Bob and Charlotte go on to seamlessly start a quasi-romantic friendship.
That’s about the extent of the film’s story. One would be hardpressed to say Bob and Charlotte develop as characters in any big-sense. Their arc is instead a real one; they don’t overcome their problems, but they cope with them. And their coping mechanism is simple: finding a person to talk to.
Lost in Translation could be set in Tokyo for various reasons. The city may very well just have been a favorite pallet of Sofia Coppola’s. The city also serves a functional role: it is not rife with English speakers, and as such Bob and Charlotte truly are devoid of people to talk to. More interestingly, the setting make obvious what otherwise might be too subtle an idea to express. The film is not about Tokyo, Tokyo is just a metaphor. While Bob is frustrated with literal translation problems (and the conflation of Ls and Rs in Japanese-English pronunciation), the film is far more concerned with our inability to translate thought processes. In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Bob stars in a Japanese Whiskey commercial helmed by a (wannabe) visionary director (Yutaka Tadokoro). The director gives passionate instructions which are passed on to Bob in very simple translation. While many viewers will just pick up on situational humor and Bob’s impatience, engagement with the director adds another dimension to the scene’s air of frustration. The director has a lot to say, but because he directs mere commercials, and because his co-workers can’t (for various reasons) understand him, he goes unheard: untranslated.
The other moment from Lost in Translation that stuck with me comes when Bob’s Japanese co-workers as to take a photo with him while Charlotte looks on. This photo should be a good souvenir of Bob’s Japanese trip: it depicts what he went to Japan to do, and the people from Japan he engaged with. That Charlotte, an ephemeral friend, would go on to represent Japan in Bob’s mind might not make sense to a lot of people. But I suspect if more of us were honest about our experiences, a lot more of us would seem offbeat and out of place. It doesn’t matter what language we engage in: we’re always lost in translation.