Misery loves company: cinematic emotions in Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
About an hour into Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s much-discussed 2003 feature, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) give in to insomnia and meet up in his hotel room for a Japanese-subtitled TV showing of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), another film about love and modernity in an urban landscape. Some time elapses, a dissolve indicates, and the camera gazes out into Tokyo’s night without leaving the room, Bob and Charlotte’s reflections alive in the glass, tattooed onto the city behind them (Fig. 1). She then verbalizes what the cinematography has already spelled out: “Let’s never come here again ’cause it would never be as much fun”. Their relationship, whatever it is at this point, is contingent on its own preordained finality, bookmarked by this foreign environment; an experience not to spill over into their real lives, ones they’ll eventually have to get back to.
Thus, in this and other instances that we’ll explore in this essay, Lost in Translation shows what I posit is its ideology on love, which I will divide into two aspects: its model for the perfect version of romantic love as being self-contained, and love as an observational quality. We will also remark on the main emotion the film “embodies” — to use Laine’s (2011a) term — which is also the engine for its romance: loneliness.
All by Ourselves
As mentioned in the introduction, Tarja Laine (2011a) writes that films “embody” emotions, and there’s no emotion more embodied by Lost in Translation than loneliness. In this section, we will discuss how the film presents and evokes this feeling, and then connect it to the topic at hand, love, for it is their loneliness that pushes these two characters together and allows love to arise.
First, a brief summary of the plot: Lost in Translation is the story of Bob, a fading movie star begrudgingly shooting Japanese commercials just for the money, and Charlotte, a recent college graduate who doesn’t yet know what to do with her life. Both stranded in a hotel in Tokyo (one for work, the other for her husband’s work), they keep each other company to alleviate their loneliness and anxieties.
We find both these characters in the midst of an identity crisis, with some similarities (their unhappy marriages, for instance), but some important underlying differences. Backman Rogers, A. (2018) puts them succinctly when she connects their troubles to the script one of them is lacking, and the other feels sunk in:
Charlotte is a young woman who is seeking potential modes of being in the world and Bob is someone who is continually reminded of what he represents by extraneous sources, such as advertising and cinema, all of which remain largely outside of his control… If Bob is too tightly (in)formed by a suffocating series of images that are exterior to his ‘self’, Charlotte is seeking a role to which she can attach herself that would eradicate her restless and meandering search for identity. (pp. 71–73)
Charlotte is searching for what to do and who to be (her words: “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be”); Bob doesn’t feel like what he found works for him anymore. Her lack of a stable identity pushes her to try to build a “we” with Bob, following a “love’s code” that “when internalized… becomes the exclusive source of identity, meaning, and significance in the lover’s world” (Luhmann, as cited in Laine, 2011b, p. 11). I would argue that she meets a blessing in disguise when she discovers Bob has slept with the hotel singer, this ‘rejection’ freeing her from the same cultural and social script that got her into an unhappy marriage in which she can no longer recognize either party (“I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be” joins an earlier “I don’t know who I married”). This frees her to create her own identity, indeed forces her to.
Let’s backtrack a little and examine more closely this connection between loneliness and love in our film. Citing Johnson, Israel (1999) pokes at the romantic idea of a “soulmate”, deeming it a “rationalization or justification for the intense heightened feeling of passion” (p. 9). In a similar vein, Israel also describes James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), one of the most popular romance films ever made, as the “juxtaposition of mundane passionless existence with the ephemeral heightened feeling of romance or passion” (p. 1). With all this in mind, Lost in Translation’s approach seems all the more striking, since passion or desire are no longer the engine or kick-starter of romantic love, as they conventionally might be, but are instead substituted by loneliness.
To illustrate this idea, Backman Rogers (2018) again, whit this fascinating passage about how bodies are presented in the film (not as objects of desire but as reflections of the characters’ anxieties):
Bob is someone for whom time is running out; his own body functions as a repository of duration that situates him on a timeline in comparison with his former self — a body to which he can never return or assimilate — and Charlotte’s young, fleshy and seemingly unformed body, to which we are introduced in the film’s opening moments, is ripe with so much potential and possibility that it is a source of anguish to her. (p. 73)
This is but one element the film uses to represent its dominant embodied emotion, as Laine (2011a) would say. There are more, most of them revolving around, or working in conjunction with, the setting, which the movie presents as a study in contrasts: between the “majestically hermetic” (Cardullo, 2004, p. 464) hotel Charlotte and Bob are staying at, and the vibrant city surrounding it; a constant play between these characters’ inner and outer worlds. Thus, the shot mentioned in this paper’s introduction (Fig. 1) is part of a recurring motif, with Charlotte spending good portions of her screen-time looking out her hotel window (Fig. 2). Similarly, sequences of Bob taking in the sights of the city from a moving car bookmark the film.
Although as a secondary emotion, the setting also expresses a sense of wonder, making tourists of us as we navigate Tokyo’s hectic, neon-filled streets, and accompany Charlotte as she visits a Buddhist temple and discovers old Japanese customs. Lovejoy (2003) writes: “the light/sound interplay is as overwhelming and intoxicating as wandering through a foreign city with headphones on”, a feeling the movie evokes again and again, in its characters as well as in us viewers.
If these techniques serve to express loneliness, understood in this film as an engine for love, then they are also a precondition for it. Indeed, I posit that much of the beauty and seemingly uncontaminated nature of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship (in opposition to their marriages) lies in the fact that it never ceases to be a traveler’s fantasy, by its very nature restricted and delimitated by its setting. Like Titanic’s “ephemeral heightened feeling of romance or passion, which becomes sealed forever by the death of one or both of the lovers” (Israel, 1999, p. 2), Lost in Translation’s central relationship (though with much different roots, as we’ve discussed) becomes sealed by Tokyo, protected from the mundane hardships of normal life. As Cardullo (2004) astutely remarks, “Tokyo’s mix of the familiar (neon and skyscrapers) and the remote (language and customs) seems to press Bob and Charlotte together, to push them to find rather than lose each other in translation to another world” (pp. 465–466).
In their last night together, their most explicitly romantic, Bob says he doesn’t want to leave, to which Charlotte tellingly replies, “So don’t. Stay here with me. We’ll start a jazz band”, demonstrating the ridiculousness of the premise. In its final scene, Lost in Translation moves from melancholic loneliness to an overall sense of hope (the lighting does a lot of work here: the bright orange tones of the sunset, which usually stands for decadence but here it means renewal, contrast Bob’s literal dark night of the soul as his car drove into the city at the start of the film). Bob’s inaudible whisper into Charlotte’s ear leaves things somewhat open-ended plot-wise, so one could argue they’re making plans to meet up back in America; however, regardless of one’s reading there, the scene’s emotionality is still what it is: we see him walk away, then her, and for us, for this “cinematic event” (Laine, 2011a), their relationship has begun and ended, encircled by Tokyo’s crowds.
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”
That’s a line from Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, a beautifully concise summary of that movie’s themes. It feels like it could also be Lost in Translation’s, a quiet film that spends much of its runtime merely observing, or showing characters doing just that. I’ll let Backman Rogers (2018) sum it up: ““the questioning and observant nature of the characters is central to the film’s existential project — that is, it is a film that questions and observes” (p. 75).
This is most realized, of course, through Charlotte, the film’s “contemplative center”: a character “delineated through silence and examination of the world and the people surrounding her” (Backman Rogers, 2018, p. 74). We see Charlotte “observe” a lot: the city’s skyline, a marriage ceremony; and the film shares her contemplative nature. As Cardullo (2004) writes:
None of the feelings that are writhing within Charlotte and Bob are ever spoken aloud, however. The film itself — simply through the very presence of these two people, in our knowledge of them, our following of them in the commonest activities (shaving, bathing, eating and drinking, lolling about) — does most of the talking. (p. 465)
Love as contemplation, as attention, is the film’s philosophy, as shown as what it presents as its opposite: Charlotte is ignored by her husband, as well as by someone back home (whether a friend, mother, sister, etc., is not made clear) to whom she tries to open up about her existential pain. At one point, she finds solace (maybe even some of the purpose she so desperately needs) in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement; a contemplative exercise that nurtures attention.
Laine (2011a) writes that films have both an “emotional core” and an “emotional attitude” toward viewers. When those match up, she talks of “affective synchronicity” and “emotional resonance”: we “respond by reproducing the emotion embodied in the cinematic event” (p. 5). I believe this is the case with Lost in Translation: simply put, we feel what the movie feels, which is, for most of its runtime, loneliness, alienation in a strange place (which of course comes with some wonder, too).
Laine says, also, that spectators, with their emotional response, co-create the cinematic event; and thus, an interesting thing happens with Lost in Translation: we and the film mirror Bob and Charlotte, keeping each other company in our joint loneliness. In doing this, by the film’s logic, we might just fall in love with it. A love made all the sweeter by the knowledge that, sooner rather than later, the credits will roll in, as an indie rock band sings of honey.
Backman Rogers, A. (2018). Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure. Berghahn Books.
Cardullo, B. (2004). Love Story, or Coppola vs. Coppola. The Hudson Review, 57(3), 463–470. doi:10.2307/4151446
Gerwig, G. (Director). (2017). Lady Bird [Film]. IAC Films.
Israel, I. (1999). The myth of romantic love in western culture, its recent portrayal in American popular cinema, and its relation to finitude. http://www.geocities.ws/ra_sully66/myth.pdf
Laine, T. (2011a). Introduction. In Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film Studies (pp. 1–11). New York: Continuum. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781628928693.0004
Laine, T. (2011b). Love. In Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film Studies (pp. 123–141). New York: Continuum. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781628928693.ch-007
Lovejoy, A. (2003). Two lost souls adrift in Tokyo forge an unlikely bond in Sofia Coppola’s 21st century brief encounter. Film Comment, 39(4), 11. https://search.proquest.com/openview/b18c7662478b59129509a408c3f22bdc/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=24820