There’s a lot to admire about Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. First off, it’s an unconventional comedy-drama, exploring the intertwined lives of a faded movie star and a neglected young woman, set against the backdrop of Tokyo, Japan. It has an attractive resonance, built on the comforting bonds of friendship and intellectual intimacy. Bill Murray’s deadpan persona and Scarlett Johansson’s maturity beyond years are an additional bonus. But what is deserving of its praise and attention is its masterful and beautiful articulation on self-discovery.
We are all looking for something substantial, something that delves into the escapist fantasy from the monotonous routine of life. We’ve all been in a crossroad scenario where we’re at odds with ourselves, questioning the status of our life. What Coppola presents is something akin to a mindfulness session – the art of being present in the moment.
With visually stimulating landscapes that promote longing and wishful fulfilment, Coppola presents Tokyo, Japan with a dreamlike and other-worldly fascination. It’s the neon-lit inspiration for films such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, and its vibrancy can be thought of as tuning into a radio station. It runs on an energetic rhythm with its people collectively in-sync, be it spiritually, physically or technologically. It’s a city forged between tradition and modernity, bonded on layers of cultures, architecture, language and a mad-cap eccentricity and yet Lost in Translation documents how easy it is to feel disconnected and isolated in channelling its frequency. It’s a film that welcomes discombobulation, where language is absent of subtitles and conversations are mostly employed through an interpreter or a communicative device such as a fax machine or telephone. Its eerie and escapist soundtrack acts as a mouthpiece for moments of protracted silences, a feat used by director Barry Jenkins in Moonlight.
We’re thrust out of our comfort zones into the surreal, only to become enveloped by Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte’s (Scarlet Johansson) internalised loneliness, their solemn drinking and their insomniac nightlife. With its engaging cinematography that composites tonal balance and a spacious panorama, Tokyo, Japan only serves as a magnification of their problems.
It’s the poignant shots of emptiness that purposely acknowledges why the central characters find solace together in Japan. Bob and Charlotte are desperately unhappy people. One consciously passes through life, technologically chased by his wife. Even Bob’s karaoke singing of ‘More than This’ by Roxy Music is a sombre and painful trapping of a man who has easily succumbed to the directionless of his reality. The other is trapped by the superficial architecture and lifestyle of her photographer husband.
It’s structurally easy to assume that Sofia Coppola made an effective mood piece, reflecting on her personal experiences in a traditional ‘coming of age’ fashion or vocalising a simple tale of individuals going through a mid-life crisis. It’s also easy to judge purely on its romantic overtures that is neither glamorised nor overtly accentuated – a counter-culture to the stereotypical tropes often seen within films. In reality, Coppola’s Lost in Translation shares a commonality as a contemporary version of David Lean’s Brief Encounter – lost souls sharing a moment. Despite flirting with infidelity, they develop a deeper connection towards life, even if that reality of their blossoming relationship is to separate at the end.
But the perspective storytelling in Bob and Charlotte’s connection are based on their deep yearnings to break free from societal prisons and embrace their individual freedoms. It’s echoed in Charlotte’s wandering through the Japanese landscapes as a tourist. Her philosophy background allows her the freedom to be open-minded, admiring, observing and participating in the cultures in the sentimental hope of feeling enlightened. It’s visualised with Bob escaping the seclusion of his hotel life to experiment with activities designed to reinvigorate the soul – golfing, swimming or working out in the gym. These are healthy substitutes for loneliness, and yet he finds an uplifting fun in spending time with Charlotte and her friends, recapturing his youth without the prejudice of his age or his looks.
What Lost in Translation captures beautifully is that internal struggle of growing up, as represented by two generational spectrums – one starting her youthful, adult life and the other left contemplating whether his life was worth it in the end. These are characters who have lived superficially but chasing for authenticity amongst the cartoonish eccentricity. They were once invisible, and through a simple and shared co-dependency, they are noticed and seen. Like a magnetised anchor, the words said and silently left unsaid, feed the ammunition to change direction. It’s why the ‘whisper scene’ carries so much weight. Their chosen leap of fate is decided between them and only them.
It’s impressive that after fifteen years that Lost in Translation still holds that communicative power. It might sound overly sentimental, but Coppola speaks in a romanticised language that is universal. Given how fast-paced and chaotic the world can be, Lost in Translation tries artfully to find an inner peace that Bob and Charlotte take to heart. There’s no manual or guidance. In respect, nothing much happens besides Bob and Charlotte’s adventures. However, Lost in Translation gives us the permission to feel, reconnect and re-assess. It acknowledges the silence to stir a belief that it’s never too late to change. When we find the right channel, cutting through the noise and letting go of things that don’t matter, it can transcend barriers that can elevate us out of the fog. For Bob and Charlotte, their experience and appeal are human, and by the time the film ends, they find the perfect synergy, shaped and moulded by the sprawling metropolis of Japan. You’re hopeful of their future in making it the best it can be, and that hope is the lingering transference into our own lives.
By Kelechi Ehenulo
Kelechi Ehenulo is the creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind, an analytical film and TV blog. As a freelance film critic, her work can be found on Set The Tape – an independent pop culture website, VultureHound Magazine and podcasts such as The X-Cast, Close Encounters of the Film Kind, The Movie Palace Pod and The Tales We Tell Podcast. She thinks Batman: The Animated Series is the best cartoon ever (and that is not up for debate) and loves science-fiction, LEGO and Tottenham Hotspur. You can find her on twitter @GeekMindUK