Lost in Translation

I rewatched Sofia Coppola‘s Lost in Translation a few weeks back.  When I first saw it at the cinema in 2003, it was one of my favourite films.  I rewatched it again about a year ago and wasn’t sure what I’d liked so much about it.  On the most recent rewatching either I rediscovered what that was or discovered new things to love about it.  It is once again one of my favourite films.

What I like most about the film is its emphasis on detail (as anyone who reads my blog regularly might be able to guess as detail is something I bang on about all the time).  The nuance of how the story is told attracts me and, indeed, it is nuance that tell the story.  To begin with we realise our two main characters are each living in quiet desperation.  This is a state of affairs with which I have a great empathy (more so, I might add, when I first watched the film) so I am immediately pulled in to the story.  Of course, it is quite difficult to convey quiet desperation with big expression or great impact.  To do so would be incongruent.  The film opens with the Bill Murray character travelling through Tokyo to his hotel.  The music is quiet and understated.  We experience, though him, the small details of the hotel room, the soft click of the curtain rail as the curtains open automatically.  The mild frustration that is almost imperceptibly channelled into defeated resignation at the fact that the shower head is impossibly low.  Humour comes from the recognition of being somewhere and feeling out of place by a thousand tiny little differences.  None of them big enough to make one feel justifiably aggrieved, but they are culminatingly and quietly overwhelming.  What really makes these scenes, however, is the attention to facial expression given by director and actors.

The relationship between the two main characters builds in a similar way.  The two find themselves both just slightly out of place, knowing things aren’t as they perhaps should be but unable to put their fingers on precisely why.  For Bob shooting the whiskey ads and the promotion that goes with them are demeaning, but quietly, in a having-crept-up-on-him kind of way.  You get the sense that at an earlier point in his life he would have laughed about it more.  As he alludes to in a conversation with Charlotte he shared adventures in places half way across the world with his wife before they had children, but this is no longer possible.  Underlying his actions is a gentle resignation to the choices he has made, his commitment to his family and the realisation that he has ended up feeling like a stranger in his own life.  Charlotte has yet to find anything that gives her purpose in life.  She is clearly convinced she never will and feels oppressed by the search for something to do with her life.  I remember that tail end of adolescence and its feeling of being out of place well as it was not so very long ago I was there, in the thick of it myself.  Bob knows that she will find her way, make choices that give her that longed for sense of purpose and then these will then constrain her in ways she never could have forseen.

What they find in the foreign country and in each other is some measure of freedom to explore who they each are, to gently explore other possibilities for being.  Their relationship isn’t about sex or love, more about solace.  They each find a measure of comfort in the recognition of their shared out-of-place-ness. Finding another who manages to correctly interpret all those details of expression of how life isn’t quite working out the way each of them planned gives them both comfort.  The essence of their connection is expressed neatly in the importance of insomnia in the building of their friendship.  It is the time of the day when no one else is awake; no one else is paying any attention.  When I first watched this film it made me ache with longing for someone to pay that much attention to the details of how my life wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to.  I wanted someone to tune into the minute ways in which I expressed my unhappiness because the constraints I’d chosen to abide by didn’t allow me to make it any more obvious.  Things have now changed for me, but I still love the emotional subtlety and content of the film.  I find in it an affirmation that feeling a little out of place is not necessarily a bad thing and the subtle shift in perception that comes from questioning where/who/why you are is part of being human.  In my experience, all the interesting stuff happens as a result of the nuance and detail that requires of us that bit more care/thought to decipher and, sometimes, also in plain luck of being on the wrong side of the glass, looking in, for a bit.

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6 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. It’s a quiet masterpiece. I have only seen it once, & was reminded of The Belljar, so your analogy of being on the outside looking in is interesting: a barrier works perfectly well whichever side you’re on, indeed ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ lose meaning when one is isolated and Bob & Charlotte’s comradeship in isolation is beautifully portrayed.

  2. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and make a comment 🙂 I have not yet read the Bell Jar and your comment may finally inspire me to actually do so.

    I hadn’t quite thought about it like that, but indeed isolation does become a world of its own after a certain point. I am often persuaded to think of things in terms of inside and outside, perhaps because I feel that I am often outside and everyone else is inside, is in on whatever the secret clique is. As I learn more, however, I am slowly realising that no one feels completely at home/safe/encapsulated all of the time – it isn’t just me! Perhaps (just maybe!) I am growing up …

  3. I’d only seen this film once but it really annoyed me (sorry to say that about a film you really like). It’s all down to the timing of my viewing I’m sure; I’d just returned from 11 days by myself in Shanghai and I don’t speak or read any Chinese. That didn’t stop me getting out & enjoying myself and interacting with lots of smiling, nodding & pointing so the whole way through the film I was just shouting to myself GO OUT & HAVE FUN YOU GRUMP. Really I’m due to watch it again to see how I feel about it now.

    1. Hi Luke,

      It really is okay if someone disagrees with my taste in films! Though if you watch it again and you feel differently then let me know as I’m always really nosey to find out what other people think of films I like 🙂 I have the DVD if you want to borrow it, I’m sure I could drop into campus with it one day.

    1. Hi Gareth,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the kind words, that has made my day. I thoroughly recommend rewatching it – it is definitely one that stands being rewatched.

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