More and more often I find myself coming back to Lost in Translation. When asked by friends or relatives, what I consider to be my favorite film, I feel as if I am impulsively compelled to mention Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning film of 2003. Yet, whenever I have to explain why that is, I am at loss for words. How does one explain Lost in Translation? Is it a comedy? A drama? What is it about? Today I want to try and find an answer to these questions. These are not going to be observations you might find in a typical review as I am afraid I would not be able to remain objective when analyzing what makes this particular film such a profound experience for me. In turn, this will hopefully help me in future conversations, and perhaps motivate you to go back and revisit the film twenty years after its original release.
One could even go as far as to say that Lost in Translation is hope in the form of a movie. Coppola’s sophomore film provides understanding and empathy where there there is none to be found. It is a miracle for those who’ve given up their dreams, those that like Charlotte and Bob – the film’s protagonists – are still busy growing up and busy getting old. Still searching for their place in the world, still unable to figure out the angles to their journey, seemingly surrounded by strangers disguised as loved ones. And yet… it is also here that we get a sense of purpose and peace. It is here, in Tokyo, in a strange and foreign land, that we meet Charlotte, the college grad who married a photographer she hardly even knows, and Bob Harris, the fading movie star who is now devoted to doing commercials for Japanese whiskey with marriage trouble of his own.
I am Charlotte and Bob, and everyone I know shares similarities with them. Coppola’s protagonists are universal representations of the chaos that reigns within each one of us and our daily lives. Charlotte is witty and at times resentful and in need of attention, just like Bob is entitled, spoiled and frustrated. But at the same time they are honest with themselves, which is more than can be said about the majority of characters we tend find in the movies we watch. Their world is not an illusion, it’s real. They’re living it. And once their chance encounter occurs at the bar in Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo, this mutual disillusionment is what makes their bond so powerful.
Perhaps I feel this way about Lost in Translation because I am simply drawn to the idea of chance encounters, of coincidences playing an important role in our lives. After all, I adore Krzysztof Kieślowski whose entire oeuvre revolves around the power of coincidences. However, there is more to Coppola’s film than mere coincidence. There is the idea of one person sitting on one end of the bar, completely understanding and seeing a total stranger in all their glory sitting across from them. Actually seeing them, and this act of seeing a stranger for who they are in a city of millions, of fast-paced, chaotic yet perfectly organized, neon lit digital communication is what breaks my heart every time. It’s almost like a fairy tale for Bob to spot Charlotte and recognize her worth from a quick glance in the elevator, and for Charlotte to reciprocate this understanding by sending him a bowl of peanuts as he sits lonely by the bar after a day’s work on Suntory whiskey commercial photoshoots. Two perfect strangers who belong to the same world.
I always invite people to revisit Lost in Translation. I understand how some of its rhythm may be off-putting, even boring at times, but I truly believe there is a lot of comfort and wisdom in a movie that is less about words than it is about facial expressions and staggeringly simple gestures like holding someone’s foot, bringing them warmth and tranquility in a moment of need, or resting one’s head on someone’s shoulder, recognizing that this moment may never come again. For me it’s these things – surface-level elements that you can usually only spot or truly appreciate on repeated viewings that make Lost in Translation a movie of such power that I often get choked up by just thinking about some of those instances. When Bob carries Charlotte in his arms following a night of partying and helps her to bed, tucking her in and looking at her before turning off the light, that look he gives her leaves you wanting more and at the same tells you all you need to know about what kind of man Bob is.
Charlotte, on the other hand, gives us a glimpse into her own feelings and motivations when she listens to Bob singing a karaoke version of Roxy Music’s More Than This,
“More than this
You know there’s nothing
More than this“
Both instances are connected by the characters’ decision to leave things unsaid, to not act upon whatever they may be feeling. It’s a crucial decision that determines the way we perceive Charlotte and Bob – they are lost, less so around each other, but everything passes and there is a continuous awareness that both will have to move on and look the other way. And whether that is heartbreaking or oddly comforting is up to you – Sofia Coppola doesn’t give you any answers. On the contrary, she hints at something hidden beneath the surface, something we have no access to. The beauty of the movie’s finale, where Bob whispers something inaudible into Charlotte’s ear is precisely meant to leave us in charge of telling the story we want to. We get to complete the puzzle on our terms based on our own instincts and reflections.
Things don’t end, they can fade with time but they don’t end. Both Charlotte and Bob know this. Their week together in Tokyo is not a platonic love as much as it is a lesson in life, in daring to live again after finding yourself blocked from all sides. For Charlotte, this chance encounter becomes a lesson in not believing in timelines and objectives, just like for Bob it becomes a reminder of who he was and still is. Nothing is over, nothing ends.
More than anything else, I value the companionship and deep empathy displayed in Lost in Translation. It is one of those films that can indeed save a life because what you see on the screen is true. And when we’re at our most desperate, we tend to seek truth. We cut through the bullshit and we want nothing but the truth. And Lost in Translation is right there for us. These things happen, these moments are real, they exist, and they stay with us for the rest of our lives. It doesn’t have to be Tokyo. It doesn’t have to be a five-star hotel. It can happen anywhere, anytime.
“You’re not hopeless,” Bob tells Charlotte. And that applies to all of us.