Having recently watched Sofia Coppola’s first feature, The Virgin Suicides, I was struck by the honesty in which she portrays the young sisters led by actor Kirsten Dunst. It almost feels too honest in its depiction of teenage angst and parental suppression alongside its stunning cinematography and the simplistic observation of its young, doomed siblings. Could something so sad be told so beautifully today?
And then there’s Lost in Translation, Coppola’s Oscar winning follow up. Here we see a relationship between an older man played by Oscar nominee Bill Murray and a younger, Scarlett Johansson, who was 17 at the time of filming. Her character is never actually aged in the film, although likely in her early 20s. It’s a much different observation by Coppola, and one that is much more than initially meets the eye.
Murray plays Bob Harris, a still recognizable actor who is in Japan making commercials and staying in the same hotel as Johansson’s Charlotte who has joined her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) on a work trip to Japan. Bob is also married and with kids, and although we never meet his wife, their relationship is an obvious difficulty in Bob’s life.
Early in the film from her hotel room when John is away, Charlotte calls Lauren, who we assume is a friend, and tries to express that she doesn’t seem to know the man she has been married to for the last two years after feeling nothing while visiting a shrine in Tokyo. Charlotte is completely unheard by Lauren, one of the throughlines of the film.
In a subsequent scene with Ribisi, who clearly only wants to talk, Charlotte tries to open a different door of conversation only to be met with a confused sidestep about her smoking. The disconnection continues when the married couple encounters an American actress, Kelly, played by Anna Faris, who John almost doesn’t introduce Charlotte to, all the while standing right there observing it all.
Charlotte and Bob first notice each other in the hotel elevator and again at the hotel bar, but it’s during yet another sleepless night when they both simultaneously go to the hotel’s mostly empty bar and sit next to each other that they finally have their first conversation. Bob admits that he is in Japan earning 2 million dollars making a commercial instead of doing a play somewhere. Charlotte says that she is in Japan having joined her husband on a work trip because she was home doing nothing. Not only is she doing nothing, she doesn’t know what she is doing at all really. It’s the first time in the movie, 30 minutes in, that our lead characters are not only heard but understood.
Johannsson and Murray have undeniable chemistry. Certainly no amateur, Johansson had been acting since she was an adolescent, and yet she exudes a naturalism accompanied with Coppola’s eye that many directors today would shortcut by casting non-actors. This alongside Murray’s calculated and crafted nonchalance make an absolute perfect pairing.
When the film was released there was a smattering of controversy in regard to Coppola’s choice of Japan as the backdrop for her unsettled characters. A quick google search will find equal parts people deeming it a poor decision and others coming to its defense. It’s not my place to defend against or deny anyone who may feel angered by this choice. My observation is that the setting and situations these two characters find themselves in, particularly in the beginning of the film, allow for these two people who are quite displaced internally to be even more removed and lost. That is until they find each other and explore Japan together. Together they are almost immediately changed, as are the natures of their interactions and their relationship to the setting surrounding them.
After John leaves the hotel for an extended time, Charlotte makes plans with friends and invites Bob along. For the first time that we have seen, Charlotte and Bob light up with possibility. It’s the type of night that anyone who has experienced something similar immediately, nostalgically recognizes.
Although the shooting script was said to be sparse, allowing for improvisation and discovery, these allowances and the execution of the spaces within the screenplay, particularly as Bob and Charlotte go on these adventures together are exactly why Coppola’s screenplay deserved the Oscar.
Perhaps the greatest feat of the film is the ambiguity of its central relationship. It’s not a romance, or is it? Perhaps it’s something bigger, if such a thing exists. When I first saw the film in 2003, a time when I personally ached for love, the innocence of their relationship was something I didn’t quite appreciate. In 2003 I saw an unlikely and impossible pairing, and one that I greatly wished “could have been.” Twenty years later I see something different. What I see are two characters who have a deep longing for the other, for something missing in each of them that the other has – a something that goes deeper than physical attraction.
Near the end of the movie, after they almost implode their relationship over an uncomfortable last lunch, our hearts ache watching the two stare at each other at the hotel bar one last time. In the elevator, heading up to their rooms on the last night they will both be in the hotel together, they share two awkward kisses. Awkward not because of the age difference but because of their inability to fully express what they may or may not feel.
That is, until the very last scene, which I consider one of the great movie endings.
While heading to the airport, Bob spots Charlotte on the street and has the driver stop the car. He calls to her, they embrace, and Bob leans in to say something. This moment where Bob whispers to Charlotte as they say their final goodbye continues to be one of the most intimate moments on film. It allows us to imagine what might have been said, just as we are left to interpret the depths of what they may have wanted from each other.
And then they kiss. This kiss isn’t awkward at all. It’s the only way they can express the intensity of the experience they just had. An experience that is less about anything that happened or didn’t happen between the two and more about the effect they had on each other’s potential futures. Set alongside The Jesus and the Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” it’s a moment of hope for these two, not as a couple, but as individuals taking their next steps at different phases of life. It’s the perfect ending to a great film.
Focus Features premiered Lost in Translation at the Telluride Film Festival in 2003 before releasing the film in the U.S. on September 12. It is currently streaming on Netflix and able to rent on Prime Video.