On "Lost in Translation"

I first saw this very strange movie by Sofia Coppola (2003) in a movie theater in Madrid. Like any really good film, it could just as easily be called a comedy as a tragedy. The entire script is played in a very low-key manner by the stars, Scarlet Johansson and Bill Murray, who form an extremely unlikely duo separated in age by twenty-five years, but this movie is about much more than just a May-December romance, or maybe that is exactly what it’s about. Yet there is nothing tawdry or maudlin about their relationship which develops within the environs of a five-star hotel in downtown Tokyo. Both are married, their spouses are absent, and they both find themselves adrift in a culture they don’t understand, unable to understand the people around them or the language they speak, adrift in their lives which seem to have no meaning–she doesn’t know what she wants in life, and he is an action hero at the end of his career, endorsing a Japanese whiskey which is paying him a lot of money. She’s beautiful, but lonely; he famous, but for all the wrong reasons. They share a piercing loneliness, a solitude which speaks to the outer limits of the human soul, leaving them both with a painful melancholy spirit. They meet in this hotel, a cold mausoleum full of marble, chrome, and glass. He’s drinking whiskey, she’s trying to participate in a banal conversation between her husband and a client. If this were a normal, slapstick, seen-it-already comedy, they would just hop into bed and get crazy, but that never happens. They talk, the eat together, they try to participate in Tokyo culture, but this just adds to their isolation, and they must turn to each other for answers. What is lost in translation is human communication, and these to will spend a few days in Tokyo trying to get back their humanity. The movie speaks to the great tragedy of the human being: being left alone (even in the middle of 15 million people, especially when you don’t speak their language and they really don’t speak yours in spite of their imitation of it. The movie is filled with images of video games and karaoke, Japanese people singing English language songs without understanding a word they are singing. The movie riffs on Japanese imitations of American culture, the most ironic being the whiskey which Murray is there to endorse. Charlotte (Johansson) is a twenty-something college graduate philosophy major who has yet to grow up; Murray’s worn-out movie star has banal and pointless phone calls with his wife, none of which is funny–pathetic would be a better word. Both are products of a consumer society which has little use for a philosopher or an old actor, neither of which has any value in a hyper-capitalistic society. They neither produce nor consume, so they drift, untethered to either meaning or value. If they have come to love each other by the end of the movie, it is because they are kindred spirits, damaged, alone, crying out to be understood or loved. A sexual relationship is not what either of them needs or wants, but they do need to be together in an uncomplicated way–just be together. For a lot of the movie-going public, this movie will be slow and unintelligible. The silences and quiet conversations pass equally between these two lonely people, but they do grow to appreciate and maybe love each other. They part in the end, and there is no happy ending, perhaps there is no ending at all.