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'Lost in Translation' at 20: Funny, Philosophical, and Problematic
Structurally, it's a Nora Ephron film. Tonally and aesthetically, not so much.
Initially released in September of 2003, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is a romantic comedy chronicling the unconsummated whirlwind affair between a man in his early fifties and an adolescent woman. Despite its unwillingness to examine the would-be lovers’ age gap, it’s elegantly made, the performances are excellent, and in this era of social media, A.I., governmental Ministers of Loneliness, celibate young people, and the impending apocalypse, its themes of alienation and existential ennui feel as relevant as ever.
It’s also pretty racist.
Francis Ford knows that, Lolita-esque elements aside, it has a premise and plot fit for a turn-of-the-century mainstream Hollywood studio rom-com. Jaded movie star Bill Murray plays jaded movie star Bob Harris, unhappily married and in Tokyo shooting liquor ads for a cool $2 mil. Seventeen-year-old ingenue Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, the child bride of a successful photographer, unhappily married and in Tokyo while her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) takes pictures of some band and openly flirts with a vacuous starlet (Anna Faris). Bobill and Scharlotte meet, and there is an instant connection/attraction between them; the drama derives from waiting to see if they will or will not act on those feelings. Their lowest point comes when one of them sleeps with someone else, and at the end, the man impulsively bounds out of his vehicle and hurries through a crowd to find the woman and tell her how he really feels before losing her forever. Tonally and aesthetically, it’s a far cry from a Nora Ephron movie, but structurally, it’s identical. If it were a vehicle for Meg Ryan or Hugh Grant, it would have an overtly “happy” ending, but because it aspires to be cinema, the conclusion is bittersweet.
Ephron famously said that there are ‘Christian’ and ‘Jewish’ romantic comedies, the difference between the two being that “external forces separate lovers in the former, while characters’ neuroses obstruct happiness in the latter.” I guess that makes Lost in Translation a mixed-faith romantic comedy, because in this case, the impediment is a little bit external (the would-be lovers are both married to other people) and a little bit internal (wedding rings are not chastity belts).
The movie begins with a shot of Johansson’s ass, as seen through a pair of sheer pink panties, laying horizontally with the title slowly fading up just beneath the lower cheek. There are arguments to be made that the shot is funny, sexy, provocative, and/or exploitative (did I mention that Johansson was just seventeen when she filmed this?). And it may very well be one or more of those things.
But it is not without meaning.
Reviewing Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut for Harper’s in 1999, Lee Siegel wrote, “The back, the ass, represent our animal side. They do not convey our individuality. Only our face does that.” Lost in Translation is ultimately a story about people who are desperate to make an authentic human connection, and certainly, one way to read the shot is as a representation of that longing - because someone’s ass, as Siegel says, is not their personality (unless they’re Kim Kardashian).
But the shot also introduces the recurring visual motif of literal transparency as a metaphor for personal connection. When Scharlotte walks around the city in the rain, she stands out from the crowd because her umbrella, and her umbrella alone, is diaphanous; the moment that cements her bond to Bobill comes when he serenades her with a karaoke version Roxy Music’s “More Than This” - a melancholy pop song about metaphysical angst - in front of floor-to-ceiling windows; we view one of their most intimate conversations, during which Bobill encourages Scharlotte to be her true self, via their reflection in a window, rendering them translucent in the most concrete terms (and afterward, they share a cigarette, which is cozy insofar as it means they’re sharing germs, but is also often a post-coital ritual).
The characters’ desire for earnest intimacy is, of course, expressed dramatically as well as visually. Scharlotte, a philosophy major who surreptitiously listens to an audiobook titled A Soul’s Search: Finding Your True Calling, tries to cuddle with her spouse, who literally pushes her away; viewing Polaroid selfies he took of the two of them, she notes that in each image, she’s looking lovingly at him, but he’s looking directly into the camera; when she calls a friend back home, said friend can barely be bothered to listen as Scharlotte weeps while attempting to express her spiritual despair. Bobill, meanwhile, forgets his son’s birthday, communicates with his wife predominantly via terse faxes and scribbled notes, and he’s working with people whose language he very literally does not speak.
Furthermore, Bobill does not find pleasure in the trappings of his success. He’s not that involved in the renovation about which his wife cares so much, he’s disinterested in appearing on a prestigious Japanese talk show, and when a pair of fans recognize and try to talk to him at a bar, he begs off as quickly and wordlessly as he can manage. He’s also uncomfortable with the commodification of intimacy: He refuses to sleep with a sex worker sent to him as a “gift” by his employer, and at a strip club, he sits uncomfortably on his hands, signaling his unwillingness to partake.
Which is not to say he’s opposed to infidelity: He does have a one night stand with a lounge singer, and when Scharlotte accidentally finds out, she is visibly distressed.
The scene that follows marks the first time the movie explicitly acknowledges that the duo’s relationship is a romantic one, and the only time the movie explicitly acknowledges that she was born the same year Ghostbusters was released. “Well, she is closer to your age,” Scharlotte says, masking her upset by cracking wise about Bobill being a Boomer past his prime. “You can talk about things you have in common, like growing up in the ‘50s. Maybe she liked the movies you were making in the ‘70s, when you were still making movies.”
Bobill’s cutting reply really puts the last nail in the coffin of their kinship: “Wasn’t there anyone else there to lavish you with attention?”
This severance - the traditional rom-com bottom of the ninth before the inevitable reconciliation - comes about precisely because the characters have ceased to be real with one another. Had Bobill told Scharlotte how he really feels, he might not have slept with the lounge singer, or would at least have the sense to be contrite after he does; had Scharlotte told Bobill how she really felt, she wouldn’t have provoked him by implying that he’s over-the-hill. Intimate partnerships, Coppola is saying, only function when both parties are being earnest and honest.
This does not make the fact that they do eventually kiss at the end of the movie any less perturbing. It didn’t bother me at 21, but at 41, it feels icky. One interpretation of the film is that the age difference fuels the romanticism - had they been born at different times, Scharlotte and Bobill really might have made a good couple - but nothing in the text really supports that. The movie doesn’t have the interest in or the space to question why Scharlotte is attracted to much older man or to what degree their generational disparity ultimately plays in their decision to part ways.
If that’s even what happens. As I said, at the end of the movie, as he’s on the way to the airport, Bobill makes his driver pull over so can pursue Scharlotte through a throng of people. In most romantic comedies, this is where the man gets to make a passionate speech about how he’s in love and he knows he messed up and then they kiss and live happily ever after.
One of the more brilliant conceits of Lost in Translation is that Bobill doesn’t get that speech - he whispers in her ear, and we never learn what he said. The viewer can imagine whatever they desire. When he’s done, she smiles, and they lock lips; for all we know, he just told he’s gonna go tell his wife he’s leaving her and he’ll be in touch shortly.
And then there’s the race thing.
The characters’ sense of alienation is obviously amplified by the fact that they’re in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and the culture is extremely different from their own. All well and good as a dramatic tool, but all of the Japanese characters reinforce negative Western stereotypes (the women are subservient, the men are total weirdos), and Bobill and Scharlotte explicitly make fun of the way that, when speaking English, the locals make ‘L’ sounds where Westerners make ‘R’ sounds. So there’s very much a sense in which this movie is asking you to root for a middle-aged man to escape Asia with his teenaged lover. But if people thought of it that way, it probably would not have won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
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