Lost in Translation: The Sounds of Silence
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation has quite a lot to say for a film that, with its title alone, conveys themes of miscommunication and disconnection. Themes of loneliness and isolation abound. How does Sofia Coppola achieve this? The sound design of a film is important to think about when considering the film’s overall effect on the audience. Lost in Translation pays particular attention to silence and sound in order to communicate underlying feelings of alienation, anxiety, or (conversely) comfort and intimacy.
Language Barrier: Culture Shock
The obvious obstacle presented in Lost in Translation is language. As Americans stranded in Japan on business, both Bob and Charlotte have many new culture shocks and differences in custom to contend with. Bob seems to be trying to resurrect a lagging career while Charlotte is simply tagging along with her husband on a business trip. Despite the exotic new destination, Japan does not exactly inspire them toward adventure and a renewed sense of energy and purpose.
Instead, the differences between them and the locals becomes exceedingly apparent. Bob towers over the other men in the elevator. He has to stoop over to take a decent shower. When shooting commercials, Bob struggles to appease directors or engage in witty banter with photographers. Long and seemingly elaborate directions in Japanese are translated into succinct and truncated English. His allusions to Sean Connery are transformed into Roger Moore instead.
Unless one speaks Japanese, the audience is just as lost as Bob is. English subtitles are never provided so that the audience can never have the possibility of one-upmanship. Despite trying to inject some levity into the situation and trying his best to appease the directors, Bob finds himself unable to bridge the gap.
Being a blonde, Charlotte especially stands out in a sea of dark-haired individuals. Whenever she decides to go out and engage with her new surroundings, she is always on the outside looking in. Whether she sees people caring for bonsai trees or views the activity in an arcade game center, it only serves as a reminder to the audience that Charlotte is merely a spectator. She acts as perhaps a placeholder for the film’s audience, able to view the excitement and beauty displayed on the screen but held at an impersonal distance.
Since Japan is such a densely populated country, it amplifies the feeling of being “lost at sea.” In a city like Tokyo, much like New York City, one is anonymous and unrelated to his fellow man. It is bright and flashy and full of activity. Yet all this liveliness can exacerbate feelings of disconnectedness in people who already feel they are not a part of the community there. It contributes to the overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by people and yet feeling utterly alone.
Even in a place like Kyoto, where Charlotte briefly escapes to, this loneliness persists. Kyoto is noticeably calmer in atmosphere than Tokyo is. This appears to alleviate some of Charlotte’s anxieties. The film captures Charlotte commuting by train, watching a traditional Japanese wedding, and attaching a wish to a tree already laden with many bits of white paper. Every act of Charlotte’s in this scene is done so in silence, likely to illustrate the religious profundity of this moment. However, not even the seemingly sacred Kyoto itself is silent. The noise of the train station, schoolgirls chatting among themselves, and birds chirping is captured alongside a delicate instrumental track the film provides. Kyoto may be muted, but it is alive. Only Charlotte is not quite a part of it yet. She is still alone.
Bypassing Language: Initial Encounter
Being native English speakers certainly helps Bob and Charlotte make a quick connection with each other. However, Bob and Charlotte also find ways to bypass spoken language as well. Much of their connection is illustrated by silence, an established understanding, as well.
Their “meet-cute” is neither an official meeting nor “cute” in the usual sense. There is no spilled coffee or dropped textbooks strewn along the sidewalk. It is utterly ordinary and unremarkable. Two people stuck in a crowded elevator briefly make eye contact with each other and smile before returning to business as usual. It is a meeting so seemingly inconsequential that only Bob remembers it, while Charlotte only remembers their “official” first meeting at the bar.
In a reversal of the typical gender-based expectations, it is Charlotte who sends over a drink to Bob at the bar. Her forwardness likely catches him off guard, though he is visibly grateful for the kind gesture. He gives her a nod of acknowledgement, which she returns before he departs.
It takes several unfinished run-ins with each other before they finally begin to embark on a beautiful friendship together. Their relationship exists via karaoke songs, elevator glances, and notes sent via fax machines. Nothing too elaborate or charming needs to be said for one to impress the other. The bond exists in the fragile pauses of silence. They meet each other in this small pocket of unproductive time where they feel lost in their personal lives. Perhaps they would not have found or even noticed each other had this gap of space and time not existed. The fireworks and light-bulb moment of a “love at first sight” are for Hollywood fictions. Bob and Charlotte’s connection is a far subtler, subdued affair. Repeated glances and fresh perspectives, brought about by multiple meetings and induced by a change of location, are needed to kindle a fire rather than ignite a spark.
Enlisting Comedy to Defeat Tragedy
Humor is another manner in which they bypass traditional communication. Charlotte has a piercing, dry sense of humor masking her sensitive spirit. Despite the fact that Bill Murray is a comedian in real life, it is Bill Murray’s Bob who often ends up being a punching bag to Charlotte’s sharp digs.
As a former philosophy student, Charlotte appears to have a keen intellect. She doesn’t easily tolerate anyone she considers too superficial. This includes her husband John’s actress acquaintance, Kelly. Kelly is bubbly and unrestrained in her topic of conversation, which can include her bad body odor one day and her father’s alleged eating disorder the next. Though John does not exactly seem to love her company either, he refrains from deriding her. However, Charlotte’s attention is not readily available to just anyone. As her level of tolerance diminishes, her sense of isolation grows.
Bob wisely combats Charlotte’ demeanor by being playful. He often uses a self-deprecating tone to go along with the jokes she makes at his expense. This softens the blow and renders any, however unintentional, attack useless. This is not to suggest Bob is a pushover. While Charlotte’s husband John consistently calls out her behavior, Bob chooses not to take what she says to heart.
Charlotte: “You’re probably just having a mid-life crisis. Did you buy a Porsche yet?
Bob: “You know . . . I was thinking about buying a Porsche.”
Charlotte frequently makes jabs concerning Bob’s age, but Bob often deploys a gentler sense of humor in return. When Charlotte needs her foot x-rayed after stubbing her toe a few days earlier, Bob looks after her with a paternal warmth. He makes several jokes about the severity of her condition, exaggerating her injury to the point of unlikelihood but never once mocking her personally. This “gallows humor” likely helps alleviate any anxiety she might have. Only Bob and Charlotte can participate in this humor. Whether they are at the restaurant or at the emergency hospital together, these little conversations are always “inside jokes” that only the two of them share.
Bob: “That toe is almost dead. I think I’ve gotta take you to the doctor. You can’t just put that back in the shoe.”
Charlotte: “No, I don’t think so.”
Bob: “Well, you either go to a doctor or you leave it here. He’s smiling. (addresses chef) You like that idea? (turns back to Charlotte) See, they love ‘black toe’ over in this country. (addresses chef again) You got a sharp knife? . . . We should probably hang around until someone orders it?”
Humor is used to discuss taboo subjects, to expose or at least poke fun at uncomfortable truths, but the witty banter Bob and Charlotte engage in is also used to disguise one’s true feelings. Bob and Charlotte only rarely discuss their real sense of unhappiness and what this new friendship means to them. As if to preserve the sacredness of this time, Bob and Charlotte rarely acknowledge the limited amount of time they have left together. Soon after their only recorded fight in the film, Charlotte openly acknowledges how terrible it felt. Bob attempts to recover their old rapport by acting as though it was the restaurant that was the problem and not an internal flaw in their relationship, a move which immediately puts their relationship back on track again.
Charlotte: “That was the worst lunch.”
Bob: “So bad. What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?”
Charlotte: “When are you leaving?”
Charlotte: “I’ll miss you.”
One night where they meet up in his room to watch some late-night T.V., she acknowledges she thought he looked “quite dashing” the first time she saw him in the bar. On the night before their separation, Charlotte asks Bob not to leave before jokingly suggesting they “start a jazz band” together. Charlotte fleetingly expresses she’ll “miss” him again before giving a curt and unusually formal goodbye the morning of Bob’s departure. Yet it is apparent when Bob attempts to repair this broken goodbye and transform it into its proper form, that Charlotte is heartbroken by their imminent separation. She has tears in her eyes and can barely say a word to him. She seems incredibly happy at his return. He didn’t give up on her simply because she seemingly rebuffed him. He knew that wasn’t the “real” her, or at least the one that matters.
Both Bob and Charlotte are related to the movie-making business in some capacity. As a Hollywood actor, Bob is all too aware of the illusion, trickery, and manipulation involved in the entertainment business. Charlotte’s husband John is a celebrity photographer who frequently works with those in the media industry. Both Bob and Charlotte are aware of these dream-making enterprises which specialize in heightening reality into a more idealized form. As the saying goes, a good film or a good book is simply life with all the “boring parts” taken out. At times, this endeavor can seem phony or artificial. Sometimes it is. But in the case of Bob and Charlotte’s friendship, the lifting oneself out of the monotony of day-to-day life serves to impact them both in a meaningful way. Their friendship, though a heightened experience itself, is nonetheless real.
Once Bob and Charlotte become a team, the language barrier appears far less daunting than when it is faced alone. They manage to go to the hospital, order food, and mingle at parties. All of this is seemingly accomplished with ease. Though there are obviously miscommunications and gaps in understanding, none of it seems fatal. They can laugh it off.
Bob has more successful conversations at the bar. He can chat with the locals at a noisy club, despite their obvious broken English. He can make light banter with a patient in the hospital waiting area. He seems suddenly unperturbed by the threat of miscommunication. Charlotte doesn’t lose her toe just because she can’t understand the doctor who x-rayed her bruised foot. The feeling of connection empowers individuals to face obstacles they might otherwise struggle to face on their own.
And yet when Bob and Charlotte are with each other, language is brave in another way. The most profound moments they share with each other are ones in silence. Charlotte rests her head on his shoulder after a night out with friends. Bob carries a sleeping Charlotte back to her room and tucks her in bed before leaving. Bob and Charlotte look into each other’s eyes, holding each other’s hand, while contemplating Bob’s departure the next day.
Lost Worlds: Broken Relationships
After examining what Bob and Charlotte have together, it is worth looking back at the conditions they have already been saddled with from the beginning of the film. First, one might look at the disparate depictions of Bob and Charlotte’s marriages. Charlotte is relatively inexperienced when it comes to married life, having only been John’s wife for two years. Bob, on the other hand, is well past the training wheels stage of matrimony at twenty-five years of marriage.
Charlotte’s scenes with her husband are limited. As soon as they are together, he is usually shown hustling over to some new photography job or meeting. He is the busy spouse with little time to talk and relax. Charlotte is repeatedly shown trying to initiate emotional intimacy with a man who seems more concerned with advancing his career than tending to his relationships. She wants to spend time with him, but he always seems to be too busy to spend quality time with her. Whenever they do spend time with each other, it is often interrupted or is included as part of his “work time.” When she gently and indirectly pleads with him to choose her over his work for one day, he goes to comfort her but ultimately ends up saying she’ll be fine without him for a little bit. Charlotte politely smiles and goes along with her husband’s suggestion. Though he clearly cares for her, John seems distinctly unaware of her loneliness and does little to help lessen it with his own actions.
The only time Charlotte ever really has her husband all to herself is at night, when they’re sleeping together in their hotel room. Yet not even this space serves to connect them. While John is shown happily sleeping peacefully and snoring to his heart’s content, Charlotte is restless and awake (her insomnia not likely aided by her husband’s loud snoring). Charlotte is shown reaching out for the comfort of her husband in the middle of the night, illustrating the mixed signals these two are sending to each other. The audience can clearly observe Charlotte wants to have a conversation while John just wants to snuggle while trying to catch some z’s.
When Charlotte calls a friend back home, the telephone is shown as another vehicle for two people to connect (or not) with each other. Unlike texting, phone calls at least provide the listener with the actual voice of the person on the other end of the line. Even though it is a disembodied voice (and thus body language is removed from the exchange), vocal inflection and tone are still detectable. However, Lost in Translation shows this is still not enough for two people to necessarily truly understand each other. A phone call does little to help Charlotte in her moment of emotional need. Though Charlotte proclaims what a cool place Japan is and how happy she is there, the trembling and quivering in her voice tell an entirely different story.
In fact, her friend would not even have to rely on nonverbal cues at all. During their conversation, Charlotte explicitly lets slip that she feels “nothing” there in Japan. Her friend does not appear to register her distress and unhappiness whatsoever. She breaks away from the phone to take care of something else only to return and ask Charlotte to repeat herself, as though she merely interrupted a report of tomorrow’s weather forecast.
The audience is in the privileged position of being able to witness Charlotte fully during this emotionally vulnerable moment, unimpeded by a lack of visual cues as her friend is. Viewers can easily watch the gradual disintegration of Charlotte’s confident exterior in just a few minutes of this exchange with someone who is supposedly privy to her interior world. Yet the film audience obviously has the physical screen barrier to contend with and cannot hope to comfort Charlotte either. Viewers are forced to watch Charlotte attempt to compose herself all on her own. From then on, viewers are aware of the thin shell that insulates one human’s pain from another’s. It is a battle each individual faces alone every day and one that never seems to end.
There are mentions of Charlotte’s friends in Japan. They appear not just by word of mouth to the viewer, but appear physically onscreen as well. And yet the term “friend” seems to be used lightly here. They seem to simply be people she knows. She knows their names. She hangs out with them. She goes to parties with them. Yet they do not seem to know her well at all as a person. Since the audience is mainly accustomed to seeing Charlotte alone, they are aware the term “friend” is used lightly here.
Let’s look at Bob’s relationships. To the viewer, Bob’s interactions with his family are mainly one-sided interactions. Viewers never see what his wife or their children look like. They are disembodied voices on the other end of the phone much like Charlotte’s friend back home. They are distant characters with far-away voices. In this way, Bob’s wife and kids make little impact in the viewer’s mind. In fact, their inconsequential nature threatens to disturb the fragility of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship, which exists in this small bubble of onscreen time and space that viewers have come to regard as the only reality there is.
As two people who have progressed further into the their marriage than Charlotte and her husband have, Bob and his wife are slightly more separate entities. They have their own lives and will not wither away and die if separated for too long. With the addition of their kids, Bob’s wife doesn’t feel the need to tag along with him for every business trip he makes in some remote location. It’s okay for them to spend some time apart. It’s not considered the end of the world.
Bob’s wife also finds ample opportunity to deliver subtle jabs in her late night faxes. She reminds him of how he forgot Adam’s (presumably one of their kids) birthday and how she can spend some “quality time” with the construction crew now that he’s gone. These statements seem to be meant as tongue-in-cheek quips made at his expense. They are not done out of malice and yet they perhaps point to a larger issue running through their marriage. No matter the wit behind them, these exist as incessant reminders of perceived faults which are bound to drag a sense of intimacy and hopefulness down with it. And without the face-to-face interaction to coincide with the words, the sting of them feels sharper and the intent behind them remains mysterious. Moments of lightheartedness and forgetfulness, something Bob and Charlotte engage in with each other, are necessary to keep the healthiness of a relationships going.
This newfound independence within their marriage might seem like an entirely good and natural thing. However, conducting one’s life without enmeshing it in the lives of loved ones is a quick and easy way to dismiss those people’s importance in one’s life. Bob’s wife sends him endless faxes asking his opinion on which shade is best out of the sample tiles she sends him. According to her, burgundy is best. The mundane has begun to occupy the core of their marriage rather than the periphery.
When one has been in a relationship with another person for a long time, the individuals in that union have a tendency to go into “auto-pilot.” Bob and his wife might be in a stage in their relationship where they each assume everything is fine without bothering to check on their relationship every once in a while to make sure.
When people speak of a “loveless” marriage, they typically mean a union where the frequency and excitement surrounding sexual intimacy has waned. However, Lost in Translation steps away from such an eager assumption. The film makes an important distinction here by making the sexually-motivated scenes devoid of passion or intimacy. There is, of course, the famous “Lip my stockings!” call-girl scene that is far more comical than sexy. When Bob seems to mistakenly find himself in a “gentleman’s club” on a trip with Charlotte’s Japanese friends, he seems uncomfortable and a bit bored. He is eager to leave as soon as Charlotte shows up. Even Bob’s one-night stand with the jazz singer at the bar is not framed as a personal accomplishment or even a pleasurable release. Aside from the fact that Bob is a married man and Charlotte seems so disappointed in him (as though he had personally cheated on her), the sexual distraction does not seem to bring Bob even momentary satisfaction. The audience only sees “the morning after” and the regret and shame that comes with it. Though Bob does not seem to be morally pained by his indiscretion, it does not bring him the positive feelings he might have initially hoped for. True connection with other human being is not as easy to obtain as something one can pay for. One cannot easily escape feelings of desperation and loneliness with temporary distractions.
The relationship Bob shares with his minders during his stay in Tokyo highlights this feeling of being on “auto-pilot.” His team of assistants handle his appointments, his communication, and transportation. Though Bob retains a certain amount of free will as an adult member of society, they have it all under control. Everything is arranged and scheduled for him by underlings. Whenever he can, Bob escapes to join in some hi-jinks with Charlotte like a truant schoolboy. This is the life of a celebrity, where one has the world at one’s fingertips and yet so many personal decisions are being made by other people. This limited sense of agency over oneself can easily bleed into other areas of one’s life. One quickly becomes oblivious to things in one’s surroundings one is no longer forced to pay attention to.
Blindness to one’s environment means relationships suffer as a result, a ripple effect that reverberates throughout Lost in Translation. Being attentive to the hidden pains of others and being willing to endure the mundane to reach the extraordinary is something Bob and Charlotte lack in the relationships they already have when their characters are introduced to the viewer. Examining Bob and Charlotte’s analogous relationships in the film is not to suggest these peripheral relationships pale in comparison to the central relationship of Lost in Translation. These relationships with friends, family members, and spouses are not permanently broken relics Bob and Charlotte should trade in for the “better” connection they share with each other. They merely serve as a reminder of how easily relationships can either wither or mend themselves from moment to moment.
Amplified Backgrounds with Muted Foregrounds
It is important to consider the diegetic sounds of Lost in Translation. These are the sounds that exist within the world of the film. Bob and Charlotte are aware of and witness to this sound design just as the audience is. Oftentimes, Bob and Charlotte are shown alone (or at least lonely, if not physically alone) in their hotel rooms. They are usually unable to sleep. Sounds in these scenes are used to emphasize restlessness, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Snores, alarm clocks, or midnight faxes punctuate the silence. Bob and Charlotte try much of the same things to alleviate their loneliness, whether it’s watching TV or going swimming, to no avail. Through many of these scenes, unobtrusive instrumental music plays in the background.
On his first night in Japan, Bob is shown sitting on the hotel bed by himself as classical music plays lightly in the background. Classical music is used to depict a state of refinement and elegance. Lost in Translation shows the disparity between Bob Harris the movie star and Bob Harris the man. His life is supposed to be glamorous and relaxing since he has already “made it” as a movie star. He is no longer under the heavy glare of camera lights that a younger movie star on the rise would be. He can sit back and enjoy the fruits of a career that allows him to cherry-pick projects and handle low-key jobs like a Japanese whisky advertisement.
Charlotte, when alone, is at times shown wearing headphones to block out the outside world. She floods her ears with the words of self-help audio recordings. As with most people, none of this advice seems to do her any lasting, substantial good. She gazes wistfully and longingly out of windows in the hopes of finding some sort of clarity she lacks.
Yet in situations such as sharing dinner with John and some of his industry connections, she is mentally removed from the situation. She visibly “zones out” of the conversation, which means the audience will as well. As an observer, Charlotte likes to watch the activity of the world she feels detached from . . . from a relatively safe distance, that is. There are multiple scenes of Charlotte venturing out on her own in an attempt to make herself feel something. If she can’t find that in such a beautiful place as Japan, she feels, then “Where on Earth will I find it?”. All these outside sounds behave as white noise that’s meant to be drowned out so one can focus on what is truly important. What exactly that “important” stuff is, of course, Charlotte is eager to find out.
Lost in Translation chooses not to smother the audience with lots of sound. The sounds largely present in the film belong to neither of the two primary protagonists, Bob and Charlotte. Bob and Charlotte are largely muted by the proliferation of outside noise. This is especially illustrated early on in the film when Bob is in the bar. There is a muffled discussion from two starstruck men who recognize Bob Harris “the movie star.” This conversation between the two men occurs offscreen so neither Bob nor the audience are initially aware of who these voices belong to and where exactly they’re coming from. They are merely strange, unfamiliar voices drifting through the air. As a well-known celebrity, Bob seems to be all too familiar with this type of disturbance. Many people are familiar with the image of him, but few seem to see past that. Charlotte never interacts with him in a way that would suggest he is anything other than a regular human being. Fame is really just amplified applause (or alternatively booing, as the case may be). Real success is a quieter, more stable affair.
This external noise is punctuated by gaping silences of Bob and Charlotte trying to recover from this onslaught. The outside world seems intent on swallowing them, which is why the relationship they develop with each other is so vital to their survival. Both Bob and Charlotte are shown mindlessly channel-surfing just for some distraction. Sharing a quiet moment at the bar or watching a random movie together serve as a refuge from the cacophony of meaningless noise. It is a way to escape the endless monologues, the feeling of talking to someone else but feeling that each individual involved in the conversation is only turned inward toward themselves.
Intimacy and isolation are indicated by the same methods. The “coziness” of two people sharing the screen can quickly turn into alienation depending on who is within the same frame. Wide-open spaces can be either liberating or make one feel small and insignificant. When “So Into You” is sung live in the background of Bob and Charlotte’s final night together at the bar, the song does not appear to have been picked by request. 4 Diegetic songs such as this emphasize certain thoughts and feelings which could not be expressed with the same potency if they were spoken verbally by the characters themselves. Lost in Translation‘s environment seems to support Bob and Charlotte’s newfound connection even at the same time it conspires to tear them apart.
The Power of Karaoke
Lost in Translation is not a musical. The characters do not spontaneously burst into song, openly sharing with the audience their hopes and fears. Yet the film nevertheless uses the clever vehicle of songs to communicate characters’ thoughts and feelings. Since karaoke is a popular pastime in Japan, it is used as an artistic device in the movie to communicate specific character motivations and drives to the audience.
Charlotte chooses “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders, in which she confidently exclaims she’ll “make you notice” anyway she can. 6 Though the song is flirtatious and reveals Charlotte’s fun and carefree side, it also reveals a hidden longing of hers. It demonstrates her need for attention. Not in a cloying, desperate way but simply in a vulnerable, naturally human way. All human beings have an innate need to feel “seen.” This insecurity and longing is present even in someone as seemingly brazen and confident in herself as Charlotte appears to be.
Lost in Translation gives Bob two different karaoke opportunities. He wavers between the songs “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” by Nick Lowe and “More Than This” by Roxy Music. With the first of the two, Bob engages his comical side. He plays to the others through exaggeration, as if in a self-deprecating tone. And yet the lyrics reveal a hidden insight just as Charlotte’s song does. It’s a song of dissatisfaction and existential misery. The singer feels lost and helpless, but knows that despite how others might belittle these nagging thoughts, his concerns are real and legitimate. 7
The latter, “More Than This,” seems to be directed at Charlotte. Perhaps spurred on by the slower tempo of this song, Bob switches tone and becomes slightly more sincere and serious in his performance as a result. As he periodically glances over in her direction, he sings and it seems as though he and Charlotte are the only the only two people in the karaoke room. It is a hopeful song tinged with a vague melancholy. The singer seems caught unawares by some mysteriously inevitable event or experience. 8 In the case of Bob and Charlotte, their meeting is an uplifting happenstance. Yet, as the song alludes to, there is something sad about their meeting . . . that at some point, it will end.
One must also consider the non-diegetic sounds within the film as an exploration of characters’ interior worlds as well. This is the soundtrack that those who exist within the world of the film are not privy to. Only the audience is invited to listen. This is most emphatic by the film’s end. As Bob and Charlotte separate, “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain plays in the background. The song describes a girl taking on “half the world” by herself. The singer describes the difficulty of going back to the girl in this song. 9 It perfectly encapsulates both Bob’s decision to see Charlotte off and Charlotte’s uncertain but nevertheless self-assured journey from here on out.
Perhaps the reasons for loneliness change, but not the essence of loneliness itself. Young adulthood and middle-age are periods in one’s life where time appears to both slow and get faster. Bob and Charlotte feel stuck while life seems to be hurriedly passing them by, contributing to a feeling of emptiness. When they meet, they are both at a major crossroads in their lives. Bob and Charlotte are lingering at the sidelines, feeling their lives either haven’t started yet or the best of it is already behind them. How does Coppola illustrate this feeling of being in a rut?
The focus here seems to be Charlotte. Middle-age is an oft-treaded ground for existential misery. As a young, educated, and attractive woman Charlotte would appear on a surface-level to be exempt from such periods of restlessness and depression that would more eagerly prey on the mind of someone like Bob. As a woman relatively new to marriage and a recent graduate, she is shown to be drifting directionless through her life. Marriage has not, as is usually promised, made her into a more secure and accomplished version of herself. She finds that she is the same person she always was, but simply with a different change of scenery at every turn.
Writing is something she’s pursued, but believes she lacks the talent to do anything serious with it. She expresses she once had an interest in photography as well, a hobby that likely brought her and her husband together in the first place. Yet doesn’t every young twenty-something attempt some “artistic” pictures, claiming to have something important to say? Charlotte feels like a fraud no matter what she does. Nothing sticks for very long. As a former philosophy student, questions about how to live a good life would be important to her. It also makes Charlotte think more deeply about what the universe asks (or perhaps demands) of her that others might not ever think about.
Bob and Charlotte’s first and last encounters are encapsulated by looks alone. There is a momentary act of recognition. They each acknowledge that the other person exists. As simple as that might seem, it is an experience most people feel is lacking in their lives.
The infamous final scene between Bob and Charlotte culminates in Bob whispering something indistinct into Charlotte’s ear. Audiences have craved finding out what those “secret words” were ever since. Of course, figuring out the precise “words of wisdom,” if that is indeed what they were, is missing the point of that scene.
Their connection is not so they can get the answers to life’s questions from each other. Neither of them seem to have those answers anyway. The brevity of their time together contributes to a greater sense of leniency between them that might not exist otherwise. One is perhaps kinder to those with whom time is brief. Their one major argument in the film does not last long. They cannot afford to waste time over petty disagreements.
Both Bob and Charlotte silently struggle throughout Lost in Translation and yet the relationship they share with each other is not without its own difficulties. They do not escape from dull, monotonous relationships and magically fall into a “perfect” relationship with each other with no undue effort on their part. Their bond requires due attention, hard work, and awkward stumbling over hurdles just as much as any other relationship. It’s about missed chances, mistakes, and messiness. And yet the result of all this effort and imperfection is a beautiful one. Their meeting is a happy accident and that in itself is enough. It can be enough to spur a person on toward the next chapter of one’s life. Being “lost in translation” is not a mistake or linguistic gaffe, but a prerequisite of the human condition.
Much like the film process itself, multiple shots and takes are often needed to effectively execute the full power of a scene. The viewer is often only witness to the end-result, the smoothest sequence of events. Though Lost in Translation embraces the idea of an idealized relationship between two people (with few qualms to damper its hopefulness), it does not tread into this territory lightly. It rejects the feverish rush of a typical “star-crossed” pairing. Lost in Translation provides its two protagonists with an insulated space, where the potential for intimacy between two people takes center stage. It uses silence as a tool for which one may confront one’s sense of alienation and sadness head on, knowing full well there is someone beside you doing the same.
- Lost in Translation. Directed by Sofia Coppola, performances by Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, 2003. DVD. ↩
- “Lost in Translation (2003) -- ‘Alone in Kyoto’ scene .” YouTube, uploaded by Screen Themes, 3 October 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CREQ7yyF-e8&t=1s. ↩
- “Lost in Translation (10/10) Movie CLIP -- A Secret Goodbye (2003) HD.” YouTube, uploaded by Movieclips, 30 May 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpOdAHwRnXY. ↩
- Mark Willms. “So Into You.” Release, 2009. Musixmatch, https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/Mark-Willms/So-Into-You. ↩
- “Lost in Translation | A Wild Night in Tokyo.” YouTube, uploaded by Universal Pictures, 25 September 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPKO7C543ls. ↩
- The Pretenders. “Brass in Pocket.” Pretenders, 1979. Genius, https://genius.com/Pretenders-brass-in-pocket-lyrics. ↩
- Elvis Costello. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding. Armed Forces, 1978. Genius, https://genius.com/Elvis-costello-whats-so-funny-bout-peace-love-and-understanding-lyrics ↩
- Roxy Music. “More Than This.” Avalon, 1982. Genius, https://genius.com/Roxy-music-more-than-this-lyrics. ↩
- The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Just Like Honey.” Psychocandy, 1985. Genius, https://genius.com/The-jesus-and-mary-chain-just-like-honey-lyrics. ↩
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