Lost in Translation

Walking back to you is the hardest thing that I could do

– “Just Like Honey”, The Jesus and Mary Chain

What does Bob Harris (Bill Murray) whisper into Charlotte’s (Scarlett Johansson) ear in that sublime moment when he “walks back to her” on a crowded Tokyo street at the end of Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)? With its minimalist narrative and its focus on the Gothic’s “negative register”, evident in the representation of secrets, unfamiliar spaces, estrangement, alienation and dislocation, Lost in Translation offers a new spin on the romantic comedy (1). With Coppola’s latest film conventions are revised and consequently the expectations of the audience are challenged. The presence of the Gothic casts a shadow over the promise of romance for Bob and Charlotte. Whilst the classic romantic comedy proposes, denies and finally promises a future for the couple, Lost in Translation presents a more ephemeral, but no less significant liaison. Coppola’s two features, The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Lost in Translation reveal their Gothic influence in the presentation of complex, fraught subjectivities, the use of the look to express more than words and in the construction of an ambience saturated in alienation. Lost in Translation explores cultural dislocation, loneliness and emotional estrangement by highlighting the gap between seeing, hearing and understanding. Setting her film in Japan, Coppola creates an uncanny world for Bob and Charlotte, who discover in one another familiarity within an unfamiliar context.

In superficial terms, Lost in Translation seems to be a film in which nothing much happens. Its plot is fluid and subordinated to the more ephemeral story elements. Silence is more expressive than dialogue and poetic lyricism dominates spectacle. Coppola reveals that in the process of writing and directing Lost in Translation she was aiming to capture a distinct sense of “romantic melancholy” (Olsen, p. 15). This film joins a wave of recent semi-independent films which consciously update and revise conventions of the romance genre. Along with films like Punch-Drunk Love (P.T. Anderson, 2002) and Jane Campion’s In The Cut (2003), Lost in Translation represents a significant departure from the predictable depiction of romance. The presence of actors who actively transform their screen personas adds a further layer of irony. These films display little concern with reinforcing screen personas, in fact, they actively work against typage. Coppola’s interest seems to be less in convention and more in creating differences from the generic model. Lost in Translation is a subtly erotic, sublime romance.

Lost in Translation begins explicitly and ends implicitly. The opening title credits are pasted over a close up of Scarlett Johannson’s bottom covered in pink lacy underpants. This is a controversial opening shot, but one that has a precedent in cinema history. In 1963 Godard conceded to producer Carlo Ponti’s desire and produced a prologue for Contempt (Le Mépris) which comprised an extended single shot of Brigitte Bardot’s naked body, focusing particularly on her bottom. Godard emphasises this voyeuristic spectacle with the use of coloured filters and by calling attention to Bardot’s body in her dialogue. Under Coppola’s direction a similar but perhaps less explicit shot challenges classical narrative form offering the viewer an intimite image without context. Coppola’s intention with this opening shot appears to be to defy taboos and to undermine expectations surrounding what might be considered the “money shot” in more traditionally exploitative cinema.

With Lost in Translation Coppola produces an unconventional, almost anti-romantic, romantic fantasy. The power of many erotic fantasies rely more on concealment than full disclosure. Jane Campion produced a moment of breathless eroticism in The Piano when she positioned Baines (Harvey Keitel) beneath Ada’s (Holly Hunter) piano stool, reaching for the small hole in her black stockings, revealing a fragment of porcelain white skin. Whilst this moment signaled foreplay in The Piano, a similar sublimely erotic moment in Lost in Translation suggests a connection that is not necessarily sexual. It is with these moments of originality that Coppola’s film expands the limitations of conventional romantic comedy.

Coppola’s primary characters seem to be caught between convention and indeterminacy, a distinctly Gothic trap. According to Vijay Mishra, Gothic characters are “shadowed by others and their individuality, their radical difference or uniqueness, dismantled through a technique of duplication or uncanny repetition” (p. 54). Coppola gives her primary characters a Gothic twist replacing the older, brooding, tired masculine figure and the young, naive heroine with a feminine adventurer who provides the masculine figure with the motivation and opportunity to journey into the unfamiliar landscape. Charlotte offers Bob an invitation to explore the unimaginable and unknowable in Tokyo, ultimately a sublime experience that defamiliarises and renews his perspective.

Lost in Translation

Over the course of the narrative a decisive connection is made between Bob and Charlotte, but how do we understand it? Is it love? Is it a holiday romance? Is that final kiss platonic, or romantic? This ambiguity is an example of Lost in Translation‘s resistance to convention. Conventionally in mainstream cinema, the kiss reveals secrets, designates desire, establishes the couple and signifies resolution by reinforcing the myth of romantic love. But in this new wave of contemporary anti-romance romance, the kiss signifies ambiguity. In the final shot of Lantana (2001) Ray Lawrence’s camera swirls around Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) and Leon (Anthony LaPaglia), eyeing one another warily, refusing to erase the betrayal with a kiss. Lantana reconfigures the dizzying camera spiral choreographed by Alfred Hitchcock to represent a kiss so powerful that it erases spatio-temporal logic when Scottie kisses Judy/Madeline in Vertigo (1958). In Lost in Translation Bob kisses Charlotte like he means it. This impact of the kiss is highlighted by Bob and Charlotte’s stillness amid the frenetic activity of the street.

The intensity of Lost in Translation lies in its smaller, seemingly insignificant, quieter moments. In many ways Coppola’s film exhibits marks of classic European art cinema. Specifically in her interest in stillness rather than action, Coppola recreates a similar impressionistic resonance that was initially established by filmmakers like Carl Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and elaborated by Michelangelo Antonioni in films like L’Eclisse (1962) and L’Avventura (1960). Alice Lovejoy suggests that Coppola’s film focuses on “isolated points that crystallize the traveler’s narrative of transience” (p. 11). Jet lag induced insomnia ensures that Bob and Charlotte are out of pace with the space and time of their new environment. Coppola’s fascination is with the ellipsis between dialogue and its translation and in the intimacy that Bob and Charlotte discover against the frenetic setting of contemporary Tokyo. Meaning arises from the gaps between hearing and understanding, stillness and movement – in the “spaces in between”.

Lost in Translation and In The Cut focus on details and refuse to answer questions raised. In The Cut literally restricts vision as Dion Beebe’s astonishing cinematography eschews clarity in a shot of Frannie’s (Meg Ryan) point of view as she reads poetry on the subway. Frannie’s point of view shot is restricted to only one word of an entire poem. In The Cut emphasises the importance of the moment as the spectator is required to wait to hear Frannie’s internal monologue for context. In The Cut and Lost in Translation also present a challenge to the desire for omniscience, the ability to see and hear all. Similarly, Lost in Translation does not acquiese to detail, meanings are literally “Lost in Translation”. On the scale of narrative, Coppola’s film has been celebrated for its subtlety and for the challenge that it offers its audience. This is a film that is conversant with the tenets of the romance, but one that chooses not to accomodate convention. Coppola presents a film that is unpredictable, a difficult task in a filmmaking culture marked by a lack of originality.

Locating her American characters as visitors to Tokyo, Coppola is able to depict a sense of alienation that is highlighted by existence in a “foreign” land. The two protagonists find themselves in a different time zone, dislocated in time as well as space. Their temporal dislocation is emphasised by Charlotte and Bob’s jet lag and insomnia, conditions that ensure that they are out of step with their surroundings. Coppola represents this best through Charlotte’s wide open eyes as she lies on her hotel bed, captive in the arms of her sleeping husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). Distance from home is emphasised by Bob’s fax machine that springs to life and spits out hand written notes in the early morning hours, banal questions about decor, shelving and carpet color, tedious reminders of home.

Coppola updates the romantic conventions of “the missed opportunity” and the “too late” to separate and parallel Bob and Charlotte’s initial experience of Tokyo. The Park Hyatt’s labyrinthine corridors suggest the difficulty of navigating space, but also the potential for coincidence. Travel through the hotel’s corridors and within the Tokyo cityscape offers a distinctly Gothic sense of anticipation and trepidation. In an elevator in the hotel, Charlotte glances across and smiles at Bob. This is the first in a series of missed encounters which finally emphasise the delight at Bob and Charlotte’s “coincidental” meeting in the bar of the Park Hyatt. Coppola explains that Lost in Translation is about “being disconnected and looking for moments of connection. There are so many moments in life when people don’t say what they mean, when they are just missing each other…” (quoted in Thompson, n.p.).

Coppola extends this displacement by emphasising the difficulty of mapping interior and exterior spaces. Writing on the intimacy of immensity, Gaston Bachelard describes the links between interiority and exteriority: “it is through their ‘immensity’ that these two kinds of space – the space of intimacy and world space – blend” (p. 203). Bob and Charlotte become linked by their experience of unfamiliarity, the feeling of being literally lost within a new time and space and disorientated within their separate lives. Bob, in particular, is a character who defends himself with irony, but in his professional and personal life he has reached a point of crisis.

It is perhaps due to its subtlety that Lost in Translation has been described as “sublime”, but what exactly does this mean? Often “sublime” is a word employed when a full description is too difficult or seems inadequate. The most influential work on the sublime stresses its ephemerality, describing it as a response to terror. Writing in 1757, Edmund Burke suggests that the sublime describes, “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (p. 86). Burke’s theory is formulated from his desire to investigate the cathartic possibilities of the sublime through the relationship between pleasure, delight, pain and terror. Burke writes, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime…” (p. 86).

But it is in the Kantian adaptation of Burke’s theory that the sublime emerges as most resonant in the context of Lost in Translation. Kant’s analysis is acutely aware of subjectivity, perception and temporality. He writes of the “sublime moment” which describes a confrontation with a concept too large to classify, too fluid to be contained, too intangible to be fully understood, an experience that inspires passion, dilates the pupils and expands the imagination.

In Lost in Translation the sublime moment becomes eroticised. It occurs inside Bob’s hotel room at the Park Hyatt Hotel with Bob and Charlotte moments before they fall asleep, a sleep that is greatly valued because it has been so elusive for both characters. Their proximity separates them, but it also suggests intimacy. In her drowsiness Charlotte confesses “I’m stuck, does it get easier?” This moment of revelation mirrors the depths of the characters’ disconnection from the world. The moment that Bob reaches out to touch Charlotte’s foot is the culmination of all of the coincidences, awkward moments, unspoken communications and drunken karaoke performances. The touch signals a significant connection that might not exist with their spouses. The touch is eroticised, but non-sexual. It is the touch of Bob’s hand to Charlotte’s foot, a meeting of extremities. Georges Bataille suggests that the essence of eroticism is the ability to “substitute for the individual isolated discontinuity [with] a feeling of profound continuity” (p. 15). The sublime, erotic moment signals a shift from dislocation to continuity for Bob and Charlotte who finally descend into sleep.

In response to the critique of Lost in Translation as trading on stereotypes (2), Alice Lovejoy suggests that, “Japan is not Japan itself but rather a canvas onto which these Americans’ emotions are mapped” (p. 11). Depicted through Charlotte’s drowsy eyes Japan becomes a dream space. This image of Japan, mediated by Charlotte’s hazy perspective, enables a picture that is impressionistic, fluid and mobile. The director of photography, Lance Acord, used a lightweight Aaton 35 camera to reproduce a nostalgic aesthetic similar to the snapshot, “like a memory and a love story” according to Coppola, to photograph the particular combination of traditional and western influences characteristic of contemporary Japanese culture (Coppola quoted in Mitchell, n.p.). With the lightweight camera Acord was able to shoot in locations that would otherwise prove to be impossible. Lost in Translation gives Charlotte’s journey the feeling of a personal documentary travelogue (almost guerilla filmmaking) by following her throughout Japan, across the crowded Shibuya Crossing, underground in the Tokyo subway and along the shinkansen track to visit temples in Kyoto.

Charlotte’s transformation can be measured by her initial response to Japanese culture. Calling home to her friend Lauren, Charlotte tearfully reveals that she “didn’t feel anything” when she recounts her visit to the temple in Kyoto. Her alienation is compounded when she discloses “John is using hair products … I don’t know who I married”. This falls on deaf ears with a distracted voice on the other end of the phone asking to catch up when she arrives home. Lost in Translation emphasises the disconnection between watching and experiencing, hearing and (mis)understanding. Charlotte’s room at The Park Hyatt Hotel elevates her high above the streets, a modern Gothic castle in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Whilst her space isolates Charlotte, it also gives her astonishing access to vision. The vista from Charlotte’s hotel room allows her a view over Tokyo that approximates the central tower of Bentham’s panopticon in its incredible access to vision, but also in its dissociation of the seer from the seen. The Tokyo landscape is on view for Charlotte, but she remains anonymous, the ultimate site for the voyeur. Charlotte’s distance and alienation is emphasised by a point of view shot that Coppola constructs between Charlotte and a traditionally dressed Japanese bride who she passes in a park. Again Charlotte has the dominant view, and whilst she recognises the blush of new love in the downcast eyes of the bride, this only highlights her isolation.

Travel through Tokyo initially seems aimless for Charlotte. Space extends vertically as well as horizontally and Coppola’s depiction of space on street level is constructed to emphasise an overabunance of “attractions” (neon lights, pachinko parlors, billboards, shopfronts, people, parks, temples, shrines etc.). The dizziness of Charlotte’s point of view amplifies her hyperreal experience of Tokyo. The abundance of external attractions throughout the cityscape combines with a more inward looking gaze that seems to offer an experience of defamiliarisation for Charlotte, but particularly for the character of Bob.

Lost in Translation

Whilst the focus of many reviews of Lost in Translation has been on the renaissance of Bill Murray’s career, Coppola’s choice in casting him in the starring role and to juxtapose him with Scarlett Johansson is inspired in its exploitation of his deadpan, ironic screen persona established in films like Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993). In the context of Lost in Translation Bill Murray adds a further element of eccentricity to his screen persona. Bob is a character whose ironic distance seems to render him inscrutable, but beneath the surface Bob reveals that he is vulnerable in compromising his ideals. The impression of Bob that emerges becomes a mixture of guilt, arrogance and despair. Bob’s restlessness and the splitting of his character is evident in a sequence that seems strangely prescient. As he is driven through the streets of Tokyo, Bob notices a billboard featuring his promotion of Suntory whisky. This prescient sequence fragments and triples Bill Murray’s image separating the “public” Bob who exploits his fading star to sell whisky for three million American dollars, the “private” Bob who aspires to “good roles” and Bill Murray whose ironic, subversive screen persona threatens to destabilise the illusion.

In situating Bob in Tokyo to endorse Suntory whisky, Coppola associates Bob Harris/Bill Murray with other luminous film identities. In an interview with Mark Olsen, Coppola reveals that both her father Francis Ford Coppola and Akira Kurosawa have done Suntory comercials (p. 15). Bob’s initial detachment is illustrated by Acord’s cinematography. A static camera stresses the rigidity of an unimpressed and unimpressionable Bob, everpresent at the bar. This stillness is juxtaposed with the fluid, dynamic, hand held camera that follows Charlotte on her travels throughout the Tokyo cityscape. Coppola endeavours to represent in Bob and Charlotte the particular combination of alienation and seduction that Japanese culture offers visitors.

Lost in Translation is certainly not the first, nor is it the only film to parallel the renewal of vision with the seduction of cities. As early as 1927, F.W. Murnau explored burgeoning love and the attraction of the modern city in his film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. In Murnau’s refusal to name characters or destinations, the director creates a deliberate dislocation between the city and the country, difference between the vivacious city woman and the faithful, but distressed “wife”. He explores the guilt associated with lost, possibly drowned, older love and the newly found passion. The tendency for both Coppola and Murnau is to weigh their characters down with guilt. Whilst Murnau’s “the man” has been given lead boots which result in an awkward Frankenstein’s monster-like, slow and heavy gait, Bill Murray’s barfly character hides behind stasis and irony, initially he is reluctant to step outside the hotel’s bar and into the cityscape. He tells Charlotte “I’ll be in the bar for the rest of the week”.

Bob Harris is the character who seems to be at the centre of change in Lost in Translation. He excludes and protects himself with his shield of ironic detatchment. In the company of Charlotte, Bob gradually becomes fascinated by Tokyo. Bob’s experience depicts a shift from a response that is slightly awed and distanced (exemplified by the “prison break” plan that he presents to Charlotte), to the development of a connection to Japanese culture which he reveals to his wife on the telephone. Submerged in the hot bathwaters of the hotel, Bob confesses the extent of his loneliness when he tells Lydia (the disembodied voice of his wife), “I’m lost”. This dialogue recalls Charlotte’s futile expression of disconnection to Lauren. Bob shows evidence that life in Tokyo has permeated his thick skin when he suggests that they begin to look after their health beginning by incorporating more Japanese food into their diets. This shift signals the start of more wholesale changes for Bob and Lydia.

Bob’s visit to Tokyo and his sublime encounter with Charlotte results in the defamiliarisation and the renewal of his perspective. The idea of “defamiliarisation” originally emerged with the Russian Formalists (1914–1930) who contended that the basic function of poetic art was to challenge and renew perception. This was important in a pre-revolutionary culture where there was danger of perception becoming automatic and habitual. Victor Shklovsky writes, “The essential function of poetic art … was to shock us into awareness by subverting routinized perception, by making forms difficult and by exploding the encrustations of customary perception” (quoted in Stam, Burgoyne, Flitterman-Lewis, p. 10). Challenging routinised perception is the central premise of another Bill Murray star vehicle, Groundhog Day. Whilst in Groundhog Day time and space is distinguished by an uncanny familiarity, Lost in Translation relies on altered time and unfamiliar spaces to defamiliarise and renew vision.

The lack of conventional resolution offered by Lost in Translation marks its most significant difference from Sunrise. Whilst the earlier film offers “the man” a taste of the city, finally his adventure is dismissed in order to re-establish the marriage. Murnau’s desire is to reconfirm the devotion of the couple. But in revising the romantic comedy by refusing to unite the couple, Coppola’s film remains mysterious and unresolved. The final kiss and the whispered secret could be perceived as the ultimate Gothic sublime moment – too large, too fluid, intangible and indefinable. In its emphasis on the stillness, quietness and the fantasy of depicting a surreal landscape through exhausted, delirious eyes, Lost in Translation draws from a dream-logic where questions remain unanswered, and the meanings of kisses are unexplained. In recent interview Coppola confesses: “Ultimately I liked it better that you don’t hear it, that you can put in what you want them to say” (Olsen, p. 15).

Thank you to Simon McLean and Mark Nicholls who read and offered advice on drafts of this article.

This article has been refereed.

Bibliography

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, Beacon Press, Boston, 1994 (first published in 1958)

Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death And Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1986 (first published in 1962)

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Sublime And Beautiful And Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. David Womersley, Penguin, London, 1998

Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 1987 (first published in 1790)

Alice Lovejoy, “Two Lost Souls Adrift In Tokyo Forge An Unlikely Bond In Sofia Coppola’s 21st Century Brief Encounter”, Film Comment, July–August 2003, p. 11

Vijay Mishra, The Gothic Sublime, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994

Wendy Mitchell, “Sofia Coppola Talks About ‘Lost in Translation’, Her Love Story That’s Not ‘Nerdy’”, IndieWIRE, 2003, accessed 11th March, 2004

Mark Olsen, “Sofia Coppola: Cool and the Gang”, Sight and Sound, vol.14, no.1, 2004, p. 15

Paul Smith, “Tokyo Drifters” in Sight and Sound, vol.14, no.1, 2004, pp. 13–16

Anne Thompson, “Tokyo Story” in Filmmaker: the Magazine of Independent Film, Fall 2003, accessed March 11, 2004

Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne & Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond, Routledge, London, 1992

Stephanie Zacharek, “Lost in Translation” in Salon.com, September 12, 2003, accessed 7 January, 2004

Endnotes

  1. When Lost in Translation was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of “Best Picture”, it was classified as a romantic comedy.
  2. See for example Motoko Rich, “Land of the Rising Cliche”, The Age, January 17, 2004, A2, p. 3; and Olsen, 2003.

About The Author

Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne. Her research interests include: Japanese film culture, film noir, film theory and the intersections of film history and new media. Over the past two years she has been the book reviews editor at Senses of Cinema.