With the upcoming trial exams for English Advanced looming before us, it's time to refine and improve our essays to make sure we have the very best analysis of our texts. As one of the more obscure texts studied in the English Extension 1 course, there isn’t much analysis available for Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film ‘Lost in Translation’.
The film is definitely not for everybody and having spoken with many people who have watched it, reviews are a mixed bag, with some loving every bit of it (like myself) and others despising its drawn out atmosphere, the way it protracts the silence and stillness that comes with not knowing where in life we are and where we want go, as it places us in its extended observation of feeling displaced. At its heart, Coppola’s film is a slow burning meditation on a breadth of themes such as miscommunication, disconnection and loneliness, utilising the foreign backdrop of Tokyo, Japan as a channel to accentuate the feelings of alienation and disorientation that surface in those moments of our life when we become displaced by our own emotions. Her treatment of this sense of foreignness is nuanced, providing a visually seductive narrative on how one feels when life begins to blur as we lose clarity on what precisely it is that we crave.
A closer analysis of the film
The sense of feeling ‘lost’ in one’s life is powerfully evoked through our main characters Bob and Charlotte, through which Coppola offers audiences an intimate glimpse into the universal yearning to be understood. Whether its Bob’s mid-life crisis as he struggles to maintain a dissolving marriage and navigate his personal failure as an absent father despised by his family yet loved by the world, or Charlotte’s own sense of displacement as a newly married wife who starts to question whether or not she has made the right decisions, the sense of ‘not knowing’ occupies the emotional core of the film.
Yet, Coppola does not provide answers to these characters or the audience on a silver platter, instead submerging us in the slow, drawn out movements of her camera, her thoughtfully composed mise-en-scene, and the awkward exchanges between the characters' seemingly platonic yet semi-romantic relationship, to push viewers into an ambiguously shaped emotional world that is only loosely defined by half-understood feelings. As such, Coppola encourages us to relish in what the feeling of being ‘lost’ brings, to hopefully bring us closer to being ‘found’ and rediscovered, even if the problem remains unfinished.
Though the landscape of Tokyo becomes a character in itself, the film is much about how we navigate ourselves (as opposed to the physical environment) - our desires, worries, anxieties - and the relationships we have with others, when communication becomes thwarted and our own emotions and feelings become alien to us. Yes, the Japanese landscape from the perspective of the Westerner is an undeniably foreign and alienating world, but this serves only as a catalyst for a culture shock and language barrier that metaphorically stands to visualise the sense of restlessness and disconnection that arises out of not knowing where in life one is. The Japanese landscape is rich with fluorescent light, pixelated screens, hidden alleyways and bright colour, a hyperstimulation world of movement and sound. Just as one has to adjust to the cultural and physical shock of a new country, the human being has to emotionally adjust to the continuously changing form of their mind and feelings as they navigate through life - Bob tries to resurrect a lagging career and negotiate the conflicts he has with his family at home whilst Charlotte is simply a peripheral afterthought in her marriage, tagging along with her husband on a business trip.
The use of setting in Lost in Translation
Thus, the exotic, impersonal landscape of Tokyo, an environment filled with technicolour and neon, dislocates the characters and intensifies their feelings of being ‘lost’ as they are not part of their immediate physical surroundings nor do they completely understand the inner world of their minds. The film's mood and atmosphere feels oddly nostalgic, as if suspended in a dream-like haze that is meant to be only half understood, invoking a sense of confusion that is resonant of the characters' own unresolved inner worlds. Hence, they both occupy what one might call a space of ‘liminality’, a sort of transitional zone, neither here nor there. It is these feelings of loneliness and displacement which then sparks a beautiful relationship between Charlotte and Bob who are then able to connect with each other, ironically through their shared sense of disconnect. Their moments of interaction, despite what impressions the viewers may receive, whether it concerns the seemingly inappropriate nature of their relationship or the sense of awkwardness and hesitancy both characters portray, is undeniably sweet and objectively innocent - even up until the point they share a kiss with each other, which for me has always symbolised platonic connection, a true friendship and understanding between two souls.
Lost in Translation is about what anthropologists call the liminal experience, poised between two phases of life. Cinema typically evokes the realm of the liminal in its hormonally-charged stories of teenagers, full of violent desire and longing for a better world. Coppola brings a slightly precocious ambience of world-weariness to this in-between state: for her, it is not about being ecstatic, but about being lost, dazed and confused. (She had already turned the teen formula on its liminal head in what remains her best film, the slow-burning directorial debut The Virgin Suicides .)
In this luxury hotel – a seemingly airless vacuum underscored by the maddening low-volume buzz of Muzak and air-conditioning – Bob and Charlotte roam like vampires, unable to sleep. Their insomnia takes them out into the night streets for flashes of groovy bars, strange strip clubs and private karaoke rooms. The feeling of spaced-out, low-key intoxication they share has no relation to drugs; instead, Bob’s embarrassed, drawling rendition of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This” registers as indirect personal revelation.
The main ideas of the film
Equally important is Coppola’s exploration of how we can find comfort and intimacy, even if it is only temporary, with the people we cross paths with in our life who share the same apprehensions as we do. Though Bob and Charlotte are stationed at completely different coordinates in their existence, the brief intersecting of their narratives in the foreign land of Japan becomes a reminder that even when one feels lost, drifting without a clear sense of direction as we are being tugged forward by the world and the people around us (whether it's Bob’s work obligations to shoot his whiskey commercial in Japan, or Charlotte’s obligatory role as a wife to support her husband, letting go of her own dreams), there are always answers to be found - whatever these answers may be. In fact, much of their connection is illustrated by silence, an established understanding, that does not require vocalisation. The hotel for instance is quite a symbolic space, particularly as an environment where transient connections are formed. Hotels are characterised by the fact that they are inhabited only by people who intend to stay for a short period of time, and so Bob and Charlotte’s relationship is in a sense, doomed from the beginning. However, it is this fleeting nature of their time with one other which then becomes a reason for them to cherish what they can learn from the other.
Sofia Coppola explores feelings of loneliness and uncertainty. In Charlotte’s case, it’s the absence of her husband that creates doubt in her life. In Bob’s case, it’s the unhappiness of his routine life with his family. These characters, in some sense, complete each other and fill each other’s voids, but at the same time, restrain themselves from going past the point of no return. Charlotte questions Bob on life and marriage in bed and immediately says, “I’m stuck. Does it get easier?” Bob’s reply is ambiguous. “No. Yes. It gets easier.” (Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian).
Whilst Bob and Charlotte’s relationship is definitely a unique one, it is worthwhile to appreciate their ability to understand one another in a time and space where they feel lost in their personal lives, offering comfort through shared experience. Their connection is far more subtle and subdued than your typical Hollywood romance and does possess a dreamlike almost surreal quality. Though the age difference is obviously a clear aspect of their companionship (along with the fact that both are married as well), Coppola crafts these characters as if their physical bodies are simply vessels for their souls to intertwine with each other. They both hurt but are able to find solace in the other. Indeed, a lot of their relationship is blurred and smudged, and it remains unclear what exactly the extent of their connection was. Additionally, even what Bob whispers in Charlotte's ear at the closing of the film before they part ways remains unknown - but it is this sense of not knowing, this sense of drifting which I believe Coppola intentionally crafts to emulate how it feels to truly be ‘lost in translation’.