A sensual ennui permeates Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, imploring
spectators from young adulthood through old age to respond to the budding relationship between Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) as the two navigate a foreign language, city, and feelings. At its heart, this is a film about confronting your insecurities and reveling in the warm feeling of a new romance and friendship. The hustling, neon beehive of Tokyo acts as the perfect setting for such a story, as the hyperactive assault on the senses that we see on the surface belies the quiet torture of that directionless feeling.
The film opens on a shot of Charlotte in her underwear focusing on her midsection. Coppola herself has noted that this shot is meant as a recreation or homage to the photorealistic works of John Kacere, and a single glance at his painting Jutta will confirm this (the work also appears on a wall in Charlotte’s hotel room, just in case you missed it):
This shot makes her look both vulnerable and erotic, giving it a voyeuristic feel, as if we’re looking in at her with her guard down. We will soon learn how fragile and aimless Charlotte actually is – but this is an amazing visual introduction to the pathos of her character, and all without a single word. As the title card imposes over Charlotte’s prone form, we know we’re in for something great already.
The first words we actually hear in the film are in Japanese, and originate from an airport PA system – possibly even a recording. We are offered no translation. As Bob Harris wordlessly wakes from his car nap, he looks out at Tokyo and sees his own advertisement for a Japanese Whiskey with Japanese writing. He rubs his eyes, as if not believing what he is seeing. This place is completely alien to him, and he is utterly alone from the moment we meet him.
These are the ingredients of Lost in Translation – enticing sensuality, escape from loneliness, and wide-eyed travelers finding each other. It is trivial to invent ways the film could have mixed these incorrectly and become a forgettable indie rom-com. The main characters could have been overly mopey and unlikable. The foreign setting could have been confusing and alienating. The relationship between Bob and Charlotte could have ascended too high and too fast, and since both are married, we may have questioned their integrity (and perhaps we still do – but we’re somehow okay with that). Instead, through some astounding legerdemain, Coppola is able to skate all of these fine lines simultaneously and offer us two likeable but flawed characters who are simply trying to find their places.
Initially, though, they struggle to enjoy their time in Tokyo. Bob, an aging actor, wanders through his photo shoots and TV appearances understanding very little. Charlotte feels like a tag-along to her newlywed husband who is a band photographer in town to do a shoot. Charlotte’s isolation and loneliness is so profound that she even struggles to explain her fears and feelings to a friend over the phone, and eventually she abandons the attempt. This is paralleled wonderfully when Bob talks with his wife over the phone. They discuss banalities like carpet samples, and Bob’s wife snaps at him for suggesting he eat more like the Japanese do. Even when attempting to reach out for some semblance of the familiar, these people are stymied. Then, they find each other.
The courtship between Bob and Charlotte can barely be called romantic. They explore Tokyo with some nameless friends of Charlotte’s, eat meals, and navigate the hospital system of Japan. They share their worries and lament to each other how aimless they are. And each has something important to offer the other: Bob has the advice he learned through a long life and marriage to offer, and Charlotte has young eyes and fresh opinions to make him feel worthwhile again.
Their relationship hits a very poignant snag when Charlotte finds Bob in bed with the hack lounge singer, as she bristles at his seeming preference for “someone much older”. This is particularly interesting as it suggests the existence of a sexual tension between the two that is never acted upon. Instead, the two make up during a fire drill as they realize that their love for each other is more complex and interesting than mere sexual frustration (or novelty). The next morning, as Bob is receiving attention from a beautiful fan, he politely excuses himself to say his goodbyes to Charlotte. This is in stark contrast to earlier in the film when Charlotte’s husband forgot to introduce her, and then did not extend an invitation to the road trip with him. This quick moment displays their true value to each other, as she brings him his sweater, and he acknowledges her importance over the random celebrity or fan.
And, of course, it all leads up to that final embrace. While on his way to the airport, he sees Charlotte walking down the street. He leaves the car, catches up with her,and hugs her. Bob whispers purposely inaudible somethings in her ear, which Charlotte acknowledges with an, “Okay”. The two then share a kiss and alternate, “Bye” and then Bob leaves forever. Charlotte’s tears make clear her feelings for Bob, and his whispers are left up to interpretation. Could he be assuaging her sadness, telling her than she taught him to be happy again? Or maybe he is lending inspiration by insisting that she is worthwhile and strong and that she can and will be happy with the life ahead of her. Or, perhaps, his words are more selfish and practical, planning a place for the two of them to meet again. Whatever you feel they share in this moment is secondary to the fact that they manage to share it. Lost in a busy world moving beyond them, these characters foundered alone until they found each other.