Credit: Focus Features
by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Lost in Translation — Sofia Coppola

October 9, 2023

When was the last time you visited a foreign city and didn’t look up things to do? Didn’t crowd-source recommendations, rely on offline maps and translate apps, or post a constant stream of pictures and videos? Didn’t even take them, maybe? These days, it’s tough to even go out to lunch in one’s own neighborhood without looking up options ahead of time. But in 2003, when Sofia Coppola’s sophomore feature Lost in Translation was released, iPhones didn’t exist; instead, people sent faxes or drew maps by hand. Experiences were meant to be enjoyed, not documented. 2023 marks the film’s 20th anniversary, its famously (and perhaps frustratingly) sparse plot all the more poignant when we consider how much has changed in those intervening years.

Bill Murray, in a role written with him in mind, stars as Bob Harris, a washed-up actor who pads his bank account with lucrative but mind-numbing commercial work and is staring down the wrong side of middle age. He’s in Tokyo to shoot a Suntory Whisky ad, staying in the same hotel as the much younger Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi, loosely based on Coppola’s ex, Spike Jonze). Harris is sullen and sarcastic, a fading star with a faltering marriage and a career that’s running on fumes. But even if he were pulling in more substantial work, he’d probably still be a bit of a loner. Even though Murray plays him as a generally surly crank, he finds an almost tender inner core: a tired, unhappy man whose impatience is in direct proportion to his own shortcomings. As a result, he comes across as somewhat non-threatening, even a little silly — the bumbling tourist doing the bare minimum, not out of disrespect but because he knows no one expects anything more substantial. In this light, even his cringiest interactions with the locals come across as more boorish than intentionally racist, though some critics and audiences have certainly pushed back against that interpretation.

While John is off on assignments, Charlotte, a recent Yale philosophy grad, wanders around the drizzly Tokyo springtime or listens to self-help CDs. She’s frequently perched against her room’s massive windows, trying to figure out where she belongs in the city below. Johansson, who was 17 during production, delivers a vulnerable, yearning performance that conveys the helplessness of someone whose estimation of their sense of self outpaces reality. She’s old enough to be a wife, but too young to articulate her unhappiness in any real terms — instead, she tells a friend that “John’s using these hair products. I don’t know who I married!” After visiting a Buddhist temple, she breaks down and cries, overwhelmed not by emotion, but by her own apathy. This manifests day-to-day as snobbery, especially at the expense of John’s ditsy client Kelly (Anna Farris, whose performance was supposedly based on Cameron Diaz). “I’m so mean”, Charlotte frets as she and Bob lay in bed, fully clothed, talking. “You’re not hopeless,” he replies: not refuting her claim, but nonetheless offering reassurance.

Coppola foregrounds the interpersonal and cultural misunderstandings implied in the film’s title, whether it concerns a semi-hysterical prostitute who’s sent to Bob’s room or the dandyish Suntory director, who gives comically lengthy directions only for the translator to pass along two sentences. But underneath these surface-level misunderstandings is a cache of the deeper, more liminal stuff that Bob and Charlotte, along with viewers, spend the film trying to access and articulate. Separately and then together, they struggle to grasp the limits of their own understanding. Hovering just beyond their sight lines are the things they want to understand and know they never will. At least, not without levels of dedication and commitment and humility that currently seem beyond their reach. Coppola doesn’t ask them to make any decisions, but instead allows them come to the realization that, one day, they’ll have to. Look at Bob and his wife Lydia, who, like many long-married couples, seem to love but not particularly like each other. Or John, who often clutches Charlotte, squid-like, as she squirms out of reach. Since their absent spouses seem to have little regard for (or even interest in) their counterparts’ interior life, the film’s emotional core is the off-kilter acceptance Bob and Charlotte manage to find in each other.

In many ways, Lost in Translation’s autobiographical slant and quasi-romantic depiction of both youthful and middle-aged aimlessness presaged a slew of other critically successful autofictions, even across mediums; two of the more instructive examples include Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series (the first volume published in 2009) and Ben Lerner’s debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011). In the former, Knausgaard transcribes and, one presumes, embellishes his memories and experiences in almost excruciating detail. Over 6 lengthy volumes, the deeply personal act of remembering becomes an overtly exhibitionist activity, his most personal experiences transformed into dinner party fodder for the self-consciously highbrow. Meanwhile, Adam Gordon, Lerner’s fictional analog, is a young poet on a writing fellowship in Madrid, where he masks his deficient language skills with a form of culturally transcendent intellectual posturing that requires the implicit — and perhaps unknowing — participation of his Spanish girlfriend, Isabel. Their conversations have almost nothing to do with actual communication; instead, Lerner scaffolds elaborate layers of presumed meaning that hinge on what he hopes is her idea of him: “[she] assigned profound meaning to my fragmentary speech… and because she projected what she thought she discovered… she experienced, I like to think, an intense affinity for the workings of my mind.” Of course, he can’t ask her outright if this is the case, nor does he actually want to know the truth. For him, these mistranslations are more meaningful than the banality of genuine connection — yet his naked desire to be respected and admired is its own form of honesty.

Like these and many other contemporary narratives, Lost in Translation hums with a now-familiar vein of postmodern melancholy. Bob and Charlotte are stuck in a discomfitingly familiar paradox: their lives are marked by a lack of urgency or forward momentum, even as they’re glumly aware of time passing. Bob is missing his young son’s birthday to shill whiskey, while Charlotte is simply there, tagging along. But when John goes away on assignment for a couple of days, the unlikely pair finally get a chance to shake off their inertia. After meeting up with a couple of her friends, they have the sort of exuberant, serendipitous late night, the kind that can never be replicated, only cherished in the moment. They get chased out of a trendy bar by a stranger with a stun gun; they run through an arcade, in one of many sequences that highlight the city’s gorgeous neon palette; they wind up at a house party, then a high-rise karaoke den, where they serenade each other off-key. Along the way, Charlotte acquires a pale pink wig.

In other words, it’s the sort of night that increasingly seems to exist outside time, and certainly outside modern technology; nowadays, people would be snapping pics, adding each other on socials, Shazaming the music. Instead, Coppola presents an organic ebb and flow of strangers, laughing and drinking and singing to each other with no expectations for anything deeper or longer-lasting than this one shared and delirious night. And in each other, Bob and Charlotte find something more valuable than sex: companionship. Marooned and alone in this densely packed city, they forge a connection that’s intimate but never illicit. In fact, its chasteness casts it even more special, because that’s what makes it so unexpected and irreplicable. Their relationship is platonic and, above all, co-conspiratorial; by the time they part ways in the film’s enigmatic final scene, their brief time together has changed them both. It’s not a sentimental goodbye — they don’t exchange contact info or pledge to be better people. Audiences don’t even know what Bob whispers when they embrace for the last time because the dialogue is purposely inaudible. Once again, any understanding of their relationship is tantalizingly out of reach to everyone but themselves. Despite all the technology now at our disposal, there are still some secrets that are better left unshared.


Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.