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Double Take: Lost in Translation (2003)

Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick

As Bill Murray's character sings, "It was fun for awhile, but there's nothing more than this." Is there more to Sofia Coppola's 2003 character study? Double Take takes a look.

Lost in Translation

Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Catherine Lambert, Giovanni Ribsi
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Focus
Year: 2003
UK Release Date: 2004-01-09
US Release Date: 2003-10-03

Steve Leftridge: For our 17th Double Take, we finally get to a film directed by a woman. Unfortunately, it may be a long while before we get to another. A glance at our 500 Great Films reveals precious few female-directed films, a sad reflection of an historical and ongoing problem in Hollywood. As more and more women are enrolling in film schools, we still don’t see them getting directorial jobs nearly as often as men do. Sofia Coppola, who directed Lost in Translation, is one of only four women to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. (Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have won, for The Hurt Locker, in 2009.) So perhaps we can talk about the female angle as we discuss Lost in Translation. But first let me start by asking you, What is this film about?

Steve Pick: Well, Steve, for one thing, it’s about the fact that karaoke bars in Japan are cooler than the ones in the U.S. I’ve never had the option to sing “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols, “What’s So Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding” by Elvis Costello, “Brass In Pocket” by the Pretenders, or “More Than This” by Roxy Music. Those who were there to experience my one-man version of “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls just may have been deprived if I’d had these other choices.

But seriously, Lost in Translation is about communication, about the rarity of connection between human beings, about the ways this precious commodity can slip through our fingers and only be found in discrete moments. Bill Murray’s Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte are both taken for granted by their spouses, both feeling as if it’s not worth trying to be heard. They find each other, and they find, perhaps because of their large age difference, the ability to speak to each other without fear. The connection between these two characters is remarkably tender, and the actors use every muscle in their faces to show the slowly shifting relationship as it grows throughout the film. There is also a beautiful meta-element to the title, as Bob and Charlotte each love to use sarcasm to express truths, and neither one ever misunderstands the other.

To return to your point about female director, why do you suppose Coppola, who does such a wonderful job of avoiding exploitation throughout the film proper, opens with a close-up of Johansson’s ass in such sheer underwear? Was that the only way to get financing?

Leftridge: Beyond being an obvious attention-grabber at the beginning, I think Coppola is, as this is a sort of fish-out-of-water story, attempting to show images that are somehow incongruent with their surroundings. For instance, Bob doesn’t fit his bed or his shower. Bob and Charlotte don’t know the language, they can’t sleep, and they are disconnected from everyone else around them. So Charlotte is in a loveless marriage, yet we see her wearing sheer, pink panties while lying in bed as though to signal that she’s ready for intimacy with her husband. The important detail is that her underwear is still on her body rather than on the floor. So she’s in a passionless marriage with a husband who focuses on his job and friends and hair products rather than on her and apparently doesn’t really want her around, which isn’t helping her ongoing crisis of feeling purposeless and adrift.

I love that you mention that karaoke scene because, besides reminding us of Murray’s classic Nick Winters The Lounge Singer skits on Saturday Night Live, the song choices help inform these characters’ emotions at the moment. Charlotte sings “Brass in Pocket” and directs key lines straight at Bob that describe what she’s getting from him: “I gotta have some of your attention / Give it to me”. Likewise, Bob sings “More Than This” with the key lines, “It was fun for awhile” but “there’s nothing more than this”. That sentiment describes the emotional pull and ultimate limitations between these two characters. It feels good to them both, but they know it isn’t going to last beyond these few days.

You mention that Bob’s wife takes him for granted. Let’s stick with the female perspective for a minute. Shouldn’t we actually be pitying his wife rather than feeling sorry for Bob? After all, he’s off having an adulterous one-night stand with the hotel lounge singer (who is another reminder of Nick Winters) and forgetting their son’s birthday, while his wife is at home dealing with the details of raising the kids and working on the house. Can you defend Bob against accusations that he’s an asshole?

Pick: Bob Harris is bitter; Bob Harris is depressed; Bob Harris gives in too easily to situations he could control. Does that make him an asshole? I don’t see enough evidence. He does sleep with the lounge singer, though he regrets it as soon as he wakes up. Coppola doesn’t give us any scenes with Bob and his wife together, but he does tell Charlotte that they had a lot of fun together until the kids came along. He loves the kids, but, clearly, their presence came between husband and wife. Of course, somebody has to stay home with them while the other is earning two million dollars pretending to drink whiskey, and it’s easy to blame the wife for taking the responsibility he’s dumping in her lap. On the other hand, two million could buy a pretty good live-in nanny for a week, with more than enough left over for a Porsche and some change.

The phone conversations to which we are privy paint the wife as being disinterested in Bob’s actual experiences, which can only build up his frustrations. He is clearly not going to just tell her how this makes him feel; witness the whole bother about the burgundy carpet choice, which doesn’t matter to him in the slightest, but he pretends to go along with her rather than argue. That’s on Bob, but the wife is portrayed, to our ears, as someone not very likable.

Turning the tables, what about Charlotte? Yes, we see her husband act a little less enthralled with her than most heterosexual men could imagine being around Scarlett Johansson. But, they do walk with their arms wrapped around each other, which suggests some physical intimacy; he does include her with his friends (albeit belatedly and with some hesitancy); and he gives her bottles of her favorite champagne before he takes off on his trip. She’s the one who can’t quite get into his head (though, admittedly, Giovanni Ribisi does a great job of making it seem that head is hard to get into). She pouts when he won’t join her for a drink when she knows he’s about to walk out the door -- what is her score on the asshole scale?

Leftridge: You know, my father once told me that “the world is full of assholes”. If I were to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he meant that everyone is flawed, which appears to be the case in Lost in Translation. I asked you about Bob’s character, but I don’t really find him more reprehensible than anyone else in the film; it’s just that we have more access to him and therefore his missteps, like that overnight tryst with the singer (and I don’t think he’s exonerated just because he regrets it in the fog of his hangover). But Lydia, Bob’s wife, is rude and sarcastic and dismissive when Bob tries to reach out to her. And, yes, she has millions of Bob’s dollars to mitigate her suffering.

As for Charlotte’s assholery, I think she battles it to a draw. Like Bob, she’s moping around a luxury hotel in downtown Tokyo -- apparently with plenty of money to eat, drink, and explore the city -- and yet acts as though she’s unlucky. Isn’t she among the most privileged people in the world, with her youth, beauty, affluence, and Yale education?

At the same time, depression so often doesn’t make perfect sense, and Charlotte’s malaise and stilted relationship with her husband are universal enough to appear real in the film. She tells someone (her mother?) that she “didn’t feel anything” when observing the ceremony at the Buddhist temple. Does this make her an asshole? She thinks it might. “I’m so mean”, she tells Bob. His response, “Mean’s okay.”

Let’s get the heart of this one. What kind of relationship is this? Are these two falling in love? Or is this sort of an avuncular bond? If they had a few more days together, how far would they go? Do Bob and Charlotte even know?

Pick: Avuncular? Is a duck falling from the ceiling and Groucho Marx congratulating you for using the secret word? Nice one!

I don’t know if they know where they might take things with a few more days, but I don’t think they would be likely to make it sexual. Sure, Charlotte was jealous when she caught Bob with that singer, but that seemed more driven by her demands for attention than anything else. They have a connection, to be sure. They enjoy each other’s company. They listen to each other’s words. They bond over their common malaise. But they had the chance to do more when they fell asleep talking in bed, knowing they had a time limit, and yet neither one made the slightest move. These two are not exactly falling in love so much as injecting some hints to each other that life could be more interesting than they had made it so far. I’m not sure that either one will take those hints. It’s entirely possible that each needs the other to serve as a translator of the pleasures life throws out there.

So let’s take a moment to talk about those pleasures. What exactly do they do together (and apart) that makes them feel bonded? Is it the drinking, the sarcasm, the party-going, the karaoke, the food? And what is the significance of the short scene of Bob Harris playing golf, other than to make us think of Caddyshack?

Leftridge: One of the aspects of the film I find alluring is that, although it’s full of memorable scenes, it also takes time to just sort of meander. The characters are, like all of us, trying to fill their days with things that make them feel good and make them think that they aren’t just marking time, which, of course, is what they suspect is happening anyway, hence their depression. Charlotte walks through artful scenes in Tokyo and listens to self-help CDs. Bob hits the treadmill, swims in the pool, plays golf -- assuming the role of a successful middle-age man who must keep up appearances for a life he isn’t that sure he wants in the first place. These crises of identity are what draw these two together, and I like your description of the relationship. But, unlike you, I think they’d be humping before long.

You can see their relationship edging closer to that inevitability, and I think it’s to Bob’s credit that it never gets that far. There are definitely times that what seems more paternal gets closer to romantic, but each time Bob pulls back at the critical moment. He carries Charlotte when she’s drunk and puts her to bed, reminiscent of both a father/child and a groom/bride. Yet when they get to the bed, he kisses her on top of the head and otherwise leaves her alone. We eventually see them on a bed together, but they’re lying on top of the bedspread rather than under the covers and are making only slight contact. In the elevator just before Bob leaves Tokyo, they don’t know quite how physical to get -- a hug? A kiss on the cheek?

Still, there’s no doubt that they dig each other. As they lean over the lounge table toward each other, the strains of “I am so into you...” being sung in the background, it’s clear that saying goodbye is painful. Finally, all of this ambiguity is punctuated in that very last scene, when Bob stops the taxi to jump out and give Charlotte a more substantial goodbye. If our question when we talked about Do the Right Thing was, “Why did Mookie throw the trashcan?” the question in Lost in Translation is, “What did Bob whisper to Charlotte at the end?” I ran this scene through my home speakers at muscle-failure volume in an attempt to figure it out. No dice. (The subtitles, when activated, merely read, “inaudible murmuring”.) So I must rely on you. What did he tell her?

Pick: I don’t think it matters much what he tells her; the important thing is he had to tell her something that made their relationship completely cemented in their own minds. And, yes, I guess there can be alternate universes where he said, “Let’s meet again at the Empire State Building roof on New Year’s Eve,” or even “Let’s figure out a way to go to bed together at an undetermined date in the future.” But what feels right to me is that he said something akin to “Thank you and you’ll be alright.”

I don’t think either one of them have figured out how to be happy, but they are both now are that happiness, of a sort, exists. That’s progress in both their lives. Charlotte is young enough that she may even be able to act on it with or without her husband. Bob will probably settle for expanding his relationship to his children, although, who knows, maybe he’ll try to find a way to have fun with his wife again. I think Bob and Charlotte have found the beginnings of ways to make their lives better, even though they both continue to be more reactive than proactive. Coppola manages to make us feel slightly better about things at the end, without creating anything akin to a Hollywood happy ending. That’s a neat touch, especially with “Just Like Honey” by the Jesus and Mary Chain leaving us with a song on our lips and in our hearts.

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