Lost In Translation (2003)

I first came across Lost In Translation at an age where I was only just beginning to engage with film on a deeper level. Whenever someone would ask me what my favourite film was I would name it, and when asked why I would shrug and say “There’s just something about it”. In the years since then, its position as my favourite has been usurped by several other movies such as Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Let The Right One In. LiT became a fond memory, an introduction to the power of cinema, what can be communicated with minimal story and detailed cinematography. I have been meaning to watch it again for around four years now to see if my affection for it is misplaced or not. It took a bout of insomnia at 4 AM on a Friday night for me to finally see it again; and now that I have I can not only confirm that it’s a great piece of art, but that it has reclaimed its place as my favourite film of all time.

It’s difficult to praise it in some ways, since I find myself falling back on what sounds like hyperbolic language. I struggle to think of a film that is as beautiful in every frame. The first ten minutes or so is wordless, and I had to keep myself from skipping back and watching those scenes all over again immediately after. The dark tones, the neon lights of the night skyline, and the smoothness of the daylight scenes; there’s not a shot that feels perfunctory, each frame can be appreciated by its own merit. It doesn’t have a long running time, but the editing allows each scene to breathe, the awkward silences making the gradual development of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship more believable and satisfying. There are few modern films as dedicated to a central relationship, and Murray and Johansson sell it with every micro-expression and furtive glance. Certain scenes were improvised, with both actors modifying dialogue and adding in little unspoken moments. I am not sure how much of herself Coppola put into Charlotte’s character, but after watching a lot of interviews with her I can’t help but see the director’s mannerisms in Johansson’s performance.

The central theme of connection and miscommunication is an obvious one, but still one that I feel is embedded within the structure, dialogue and acting remarkably well. Few films manage to unify all these different elements and have them each communicate something to the audience without being too didactic. What makes it such a heartbreaking story is not just the fact that these characters have to leave one another – but the fact that they could have never met. Charlotte and Bob’s relationship emerges from a series of chance encounters, and each of these initial meetings are so relatable. On countless occasions I have made small talk with or caught the eye of someone across the room, someone who looks lost or lonesome, maybe I am too, and I will not take that extra step and I’ll think to myself ‘Could that person have been a friend, had I made an effort?’. The Tokyo setting sets up a lot of language and cultural barriers for both protagonists, but I believe Coppola is trying to say something about human nature. Huge cities like Tokyo, London or New York are full of commuters, loners, and working people who walk past thousands of others without connecting in any meaningful way. Even on the micro level, people will frequent the same bars, gyms and train stations, and recognise the same people each time, without ever saying a word to them.

While they eventually break through the initial stages of small talk and speak more freely with each other, both Bob and Charlotte fail to convey what they think and feel to their loved ones. Charlotte’s discomfort with her husband’s work hours and friends (Anna Faris is phenomenal as the confident but empty actress Kelly) is misinterpreted as a “snotty” elitism. Bob’s attempts to explain to his wife that although this city perplexes him, he needs this trip to revitalise him and pull him out of the rut he’s in, and instead comes across as if he is bragging about what a fun time he’s having. One of the first scenes is a photo shoot that Bob struggles through, as he is given a series of instructions in Japanese. Although on the surface it seems to be included for laughs, the translation scenes are emblematic of this:

Director [in Japanese, to the interpreter]: The translation is very important, O.K.? The translation.
Interpreter [in Japanese]: Yes, of course. I understand.
Director [in Japanese]: Mr. Bob. You are sitting quietly in your study. And then there is a bottle of Suntory whisky on top of the table. You understand, right? With wholehearted feeling, slowly, look at the camera, tenderly, and as if you are meeting old friends, say the words. As if you are Bogie in Casablanca, saying, “Here’s looking at you, kid,”—Suntory time!
Interpreter [In English, to Bob]: He wants you to turn, look in camera. O.K.?
Bob: …Is that all he said?

This isn’t subtitled in the film, so it comes across as a joke. In truth, however, it is another example that Coppola gives as to how meaning is reduced and stripped down as it is communicated from one person to another. When Charlotte tells Bob that she will miss him, we know he feels the same – but he just smiles, before changing the subject. The catharsis of the final scene comes from these two isolated people admitting their love for each other, and it’s no coincidence that it takes place among crowds of people who pay no attention to them. The scene is even more powerful because of the slight variations to the script that Murray added. Coppola instructed him to kiss Johansson in the scene without telling her, so her response is even more natural. The iconic inaudbile whisper was unscripted, and was too quiet to be recorded, and was left undubbed by the director as it was better left “between the both of them”. Lost In Translation is a swan song for all the relationships that never began or ended too soon, and a film that insists on the necessity of human connection to be able to truly experience beauty.