5. December 2023

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, 20 years on

tokyo neon lights at night like lost in translation film

On the beauty of fleeting human connections

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November 2003, North London. Five bright young female law students file into a cinema auditorium in Wood Green. We share the same house, the same degree subject – but not the same ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in said house.

Two months after moving back in together in our little 1930s semi-detached house in Arnos Grove, the stress of final year law studies and having to deal at close quarters with each other’s odd habits is already beginning to show. A joint trip to the cinema is our way of trying to paper over those cracks.

Instant enthusiasm? Not really

The film we’ve chosen to see is Sofia Coppola’s new film, Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. A low budget, unexpected smash hit, it’s been garnering rave reviews in all the papers.

And what can possibly go wrong if you’ve got Bill Murray in one of the main roles? Not much, I think. So I pull on my coat and head out along with them.

But my sour mood refuses to shift and when the film opens with a close-up shot of Scarlett Johansson’s behind in semi-transparent pink cotton knickers, I find myself thinking “Oh good grief – if you are going to open a movie with a massive shot of someone’s bum, maybe make it a smaller one”. How very unkind of me. And also extremely dim – the film had barely begun and I’d already wilfully failed to understand the whole vibe of it. I really had no idea.

Other things I did not yet know on that night back in the autumn of 2003: that I would actually go on to become a translator. That, at first, I’d strongly identify with Charlotte, but then – as I got older – more with Bob. And that Lost in Translation would become (and remain) my favourite movie, fondly rewatched and enjoyed time and time again.

Lost in Translation: the beauty of imperfect things

I’m sure that Sofia Coppola has been asked many times why she chose that curiously asexual bottom-shot to open the movie. I don’t know what she’s said. But, watching this movie now, I think it sets the tone for the movie perfectly.

Said bottom is youthful, womanly, shapely – clad in nondescript, workaday cotton undies. Nothing like the sort of tiny, tanned bums in hotpants or skimpy lace-trimmed lingerie of the female characters routinely portrayed in Hollywood movies. In deliberately failing to give us the fake sugar rush female visuals we’ve come to expect, Coppola was telling us right away: if you’re looking for that kind of fairytale, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Indeed, this is the kind of understated, disorientating, not-quite-complete-according-to-our-expectations world that we’re kept in for the whole movie. And, at its heart, Lost in Translation is a film about the beauty of things incomplete and imperfect. It’s about those times when life hasn’t turned out how you thought it would and you need time out to stand back from the chaos, observe and decide how to deal with the hand you’ve been dealt.

What’s more, it’s about the fleeting connections which we can form with other human beings, which are no less complete and no less meaningful for their transitory nature.

Lost + lost = found

Our two protagonists, Bob and Charlotte, are both, in their own way, lost in their lives.

Bob is a popular, but past-his-best actor, taking time out from the everyday grind of marriage and kids to shoot a Japanese whisky advert. Charlotte, meanwhile, is newly graduated, newly married, twenty-something years old and accompanying her hyperactive photographer husband on a business trip. Clueless as to what she wants to do with her life, she goes toe-to-toe with Bob’s midlife crisis with a kind of “start of life crisis”.

Not your average Hollywood romantic double-act. But in this unexpected moment in a Tokyo hotel, Bob and Charlotte suddenly seem like two pieces of a jigsaw slotting together in a way which could never have happened if they met in the more familiar surrounds of Los Angeles, New York, or London.

Lost + lost = found: this is the tender human mathematics governing the world of Lost in Translation.

A connection free of all definition

Through the hotel bars, the strange Japanese clubs, the hotpot restaurants, karaoke booths and even a hospital visit, we witness the strands of an undeniable bond forming between the two. But what is the nature of this connection? Where is it going?

At times, it seems like friendship. Then romantic sparks seem to fly and we think it might all nudge over into the sexual…only for the tension to collapse again into a relationship more akin to that between a parent and a child.

Yet in this space free of all definition, something pure and deep and true exists. Quite by accident, Bob and Charlotte find each other at exactly the right moment in their lives and are each able to give the other exactly what they need. It’s a perfect personal chemical reaction – but one which can only exist in this time, place and moment.

It doesn’t have a name, does not belong in any regular category and resists all eloquent description in words. It can only be felt in the heart. Lost in the translation from emotions to words.

The art of walking away

We never get to know for sure how Bob and Charlotte’s story ends.

I’ve heard that Coppola did not think too much about the farewell scene when filming the movie. And yet this has become the most talked-over point of the entire movie as we try feverishly make one last guess how this all turns out.

What does Bob whisper in Charlotte’s ear? Are we watching two people making a leap of faith into a new life together? Or is it the douleur exquise of a final farewell, each knowing that they will never see the other again, but already certain that they’ll never be quite the same?

Like many other fans of the film, I don’t want to know. I’m happy for the movie to end in the same way as it started: perfect in its ambiguity and refusal to cleave to clichés and clear-cut patterns of human behaviour.

I choose to believe that Bob and Charlotte recognised their brief encounter for what it was and walked away. Such a delicate, unusual creature would never survive impact with reality back home, with its grocery lists and discussions about holidays and children and finances.

As Bob drives off to the airport, Charlotte walks away into the Tokyo crowds and everything fades out into a blur of neon city lights and The Jesus and Mary Chain, I think: that’s right, leave it all here. Leave each other and everything that happened between you in this dreamlike sequence – and remember each other forever.

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Photo: Adobe Stock Images