There’s a subtle difference between truly loving someone and having someone by your side when you most need them. In the latter, you find yourself in a place of loneliness and the person who happens to be close to you at the moment fills a void. It’s not necessarily as if you’re using the other person or taking advantage of them, even though it can feel like that. However, what happens when the person that fills that void happens to be someone with whom you fall in love?
Sofia Coppola discusses this idea brilliantly in her second (and in my opinion best) movie, Lost in Translation. Although this sounds like another love related-movie, it is more than that. The twist: Coppola focuses on how alienation, in this case in the form of a lack of connection to a foreign culture, can make us want the other person to fill the void; especially when that other person is a symbol of the culture we long for.
Is that all he said?
Having the opportunity to interact with different cultures is a privilege, but it can sometimes be a trip through hell. This is the feeling that the two main characters of Lost in Translation perceive.
On one hand, we have Charlotte, a 25-year-old American who stays at a hotel in Tokyo while her husband, a photographer, also American, works endlessly. Charlotte is faced with the tedious routine of having to explore the city and its culture on her own while questioning who she married, feeling relegated to a losing second place, and, even worse, drowned in an existential crisis.
On the other hand we have Bob Harris, an American movie star undergoing a mid-life crisis. Hired for a publicity campaign for a Japanese whiskey, Bob finds himself trapped in a life that is no longer his, in a country that isn’t his, and saturated to the point of numbness.
Both characters are literally lost in translation throughout most of the film. Even translators are of no use, making words and dialogues feel unnecessary, pompous, and even misleading. Bob is totally lost during his photoshoots for the publicity campaign. Charlotte only gets to experience the world from her lonely window. They are unable to fully grasp the city’s culture through the dullness of their lives. That is until they find each other.
A honey dripping beehive
Coincidentally, Charlotte and Bob are staying in the same hotel. They are outsiders trapped in a culture that welcomes foreigners by making them feel as if they were at home. However, they don’t want to have more of the same. They want to fully experience Tokyo, but in order to do so, they need someone else.
Charlotte’s husband has to go for a business trip, leaving her alone. He tells her to contact their friends, but what good is it if she can’t share those moments with the person she loves? Why would she want to create memories of Tokyo without him by her side? Enter Bob. Willing to explore the city with his reinvigorated (and somehow nihilist) spirit, Bob sends the actor in him on vacation. Finally, after a long time, he is able to be himself.
Charlotte and Bob go out with Charlotte’s friends. Having each other by their side, they can finally make sense of a culture that seemed to be incomprehensible when each was alone. Together, they can understand it. The translation is finally starting to work. Fun is better when we have someone by our side, or at least that’s what it feels.
It would be unprecise to say that sexual tension builds up between Charlotte and Bob, but definitely something is going on. After all, Charlotte is Scarlett Johansson at her best, and Bob is, well, Bill Murray.
Well kept secrets
As with many good stories, this one reaches its climax. The ideal other begins to show its first cracks and as a result, frictions arise. What seemed like an ideal non-physical relationship between two friends turns into a nightmare (?). Shared alienation feels good until it doesn’t.
Goodbyes are tough, and Coppola sure knows this. She offers us a gem of modern cinema at the ending of the movie. The characters, finally able to make sense of Tokyo with the help of each other, are faced with the final moment. It is now we, the spectators, who find ourselves confused. Now we are lost in translation, in a silent and mysterious whisper. We will probably never know what this goodbye feels like.