On movie sex and movie love...

Lost in Translation

  • YEAR: 2003
  • DIRECTOR: Sofia Coppola
  • KEY ACTORS: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson
  • CERTIFICATE: 15
  • IMDB SCORE: 7.7
  • ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 95%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5

✔️ This does pass the Bechdel Test, but not well – brief conversations that aren’t entirely directed at each other allow it to pass but I’d always hope for more!
✔️ I didn’t think I would but I do want to fuck the cast. Not individually, not in other films, but I do want to fuck Bob and Charlotte.
✔️ And I think it is sex positive. That’s more of a feeling than something that I can support with any evidence, but I’m going with it!
✔️ Although I had to think about it for a moment, it does inspire fantasies. Of making a connection with the right person and the right time, of finding the perfect stranger in a beautiful city…
❓But is it rewatchable? I’m actually only going to give it half a mark as I’m afraid that it won’t ever have the same impact again as it had when I watched it this week. Does it always feel like that good?

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (free with subscription), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster for Lost in Translation showing Bill Murray sat on a bed in a hotel room

There’s a quote from Roger Ebert that I read before I rewatched Lost in Translation this week that could have been written about me: I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they just don’t get Lost in Translation. They want to know what it’s about. They complain “nothing happens.” They’ve been trained by movies that tell them where to look and what to feel, in stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end.’ Because that was me in 2003, or perhaps 2004 or 2005 when I first saw this movie. I didn’t get it. I thought it was boring and I didn’t watch it again. I was too busy watching ‘more exciting,’ more plot-driven movies and I felt that watching it again would be a waste of time.

But too many people had told me that I needed to watch Lost in Translation again. That I was missing out and that it was worth revisiting. And, wow, they were right. What a stunningly beautiful film! The ending has completely overwhelmed me and, now literally days later, thinking about it is still bringing me out in goosebumps. Although I cry at a lot of movies now, I can’t remember the last time I had such a strong and unexpected reaction to a movie. I just wasn’t expecting it. The emotional impact of the last few moments, the last scene, completely winded me and, suddenly, I was sobbing. What. A. Movie!

An image from Lost in Translation of Bob and Charlotte hugging in a crowd

I always warn of spoilers at the beginning of these posts but it feels more unnecessary than usual here because knowledge of the plot doesn’t really ruin or even explain Lost in Translation. It tells a simple story – Bob Harris (Murray) is an aging movie star who has come to Japan to make a commercial for whisky, admitting that he’s taken this job to escape his family for a short while and to avoid needing to test himself with a real acting job. While there, he meets Charlotte (Johansson) who is in Tokyo with her husband as she has nothing else to do after graduating. Bob is having a midlife crisis; Charlotte is having a quarter-life crisis. Both are lonely, both are lost. And they find each other. They spend a few days hanging out in Tokyo, develop an amazing connection and then they go their separate ways. And that’s it.

But honestly, I cannot emphasise this enough – if you’re like me and have seen Lost in Translation but didn’t like it, especially if it’s been a few years since you last saw it, give it another try. Obviously, you may still hate it but there’s a chance that your life experience since the last time (thank you COVID 19!) may mean that you can connect with this movie in a way that you simply couldn’t before. And my friends were right. It really is worth revisiting.

Because I know now that I simply couldn’t empathise with either Bob or Charlotte when I was 20 and so couldn’t see what was happening. Without an emotional connection, I needed more plot and I needed to be led by the hand through the story, and that’s not what Coppola intended. Lost in Translation is so powerful exactly because of its subtleness and its nuance, and the emotional climax would be diluted if the rest of the film was blunter.

I was in my early 20s when I first saw Lost in Translation and I hadn’t experienced, well, anything by that point in my life. It’s a privileged position to be in but I had been protected from the kind of weariness that Charlotte and Bob are experiencing. I was still at uni and still enchanted with my career; I was surrounded by my friends and was living with a lot of them; and was far enough from my sixth form love that I was over him and not yet bored with being single and feeling lonely…I was a student and naive and the world felt like my oyster.

But now, 15 years later, I am different. I do know weariness. I have been almost broken by my career and disillusioned to the dream of medicine. I have had my heart broken and I know how lonely you can feel in the wrong crowd. And 2020 was a year of crap no other in my lifetime. It’s been shocking and stressful and difficult and it’s going to take us years to recover. Pertinently for this film, we have been separated from people. Even though I am living with my loves, I am isolated from too many other people and I don’t think I’d properly realised how much I physically missed contact.

Charlotte, with her head on Bob's shoulder

Which may be why Bob and Charlotte’s final embrace struck such an emotional cord with me. (And I make no apologies for discussing this movie backwards.) For the whole movie before this, they actually didn’t touch that often and so each one felt important – her head on his shoulder at the party, taking his hand in the bar near the end. There may have been others that were even more slight or fleeting, but it felt like each touch mattered. They weren’t casual; they were markers of their connection, intentional moments of empathy. It didn’t feel like they were cautiously avoiding contact or hesitating but the infrequency gave these small touches so much power.

And so I could feel their whole body hug at the end. His arms totally enveloping her, head pressed into his shoulder, whispering in her ear – and I really don’t care what he said because their body language said everything that I needed to feel. Connection when lost; loving company when alone. It was jarringly physical in a movie full of inference and felt like a punch in the gut. It is so powerful and so emotive and so intimate, and I found myself quite unexpectedly sobbing. It made my heart ache and sing all at the same time. Goddamn, I miss hugging!

Bob and Charlotte hugging again in that crowd

This perfect moment only worked because Coppola, Murray and Johansson created a miracle. The whole of the rest of the movie had to work to give this embrace its power – and, wow, it is so delicately poised that it really should have failed – so I don’t really understand why it didn’t win more Oscars. I’m really happy that Coppola won for Best Original Screenplay but it isn’t the words spoken in Lost in Translation that have stuck with me. It was the sights and the sounds and the way it made me feel. I loved the direction and cinematography, contrasting picturesque portraits with frenetic almost Steadicam-style juddery city shoots. I loved the stillness of some of the long periods without words and I loved how we could feel what both Bob and Charlotte were feeling through their glances and gestures, even more than their starkly honest words.

Coppola has said that Charlotte’s character is essentially her. She had just married Spike Jonze and was feeling unexpectedly isolated: ‘I was in this stage where I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choices or what I was doing in the post-college beginning of my adult life.’ The idea of a quarter-life crisis always feels slightly ridiculous, and more than slightly privileged, but I do know that it is a real thing and I like how Coppola has presented it in Lost in Translation, not so much as a difficulty but as a disorientating and unexpected life experience. I know I harp on about how millennials have been disproportionately affected by social and financial changes over the last 20 years, but Charlotte’s disillusionment when her adult life was just beginning will be familiar to many of us. Having graduated and got married, the rest of Charlotte’s life is now stretching in front of her with very little ‘formal’ guidance about what to do next and that’s scary and we weren’t told to expect it. We were supposed to just find a job and, of course, a career and then our lives would be set, but it didn’t work out like that for most of us.

A stylised image of Charlotte in Tokyo from Lost in Translation

I really liked Johansson in the role. Her husky voice and incredible beauty are well recognised now, but this was one of her first ‘grown up’ roles. In the year before, she played a ‘plucky daughter’ and here she is believably married and graduated and already lost. I don’t know whether it is because she was so young but I loved how Johansson also managed to be incredibly relatable despite being staggeringly beautiful. It’s almost as if she hadn’t found her way to be sexy yet, which I certainly understand as I didn’t find mine until I was nearly 30! 

Although it is a shame that a movie with a female director chose to criticise one type of woman to lift another, I did relate to Charlotte when Coppola used Anna Faris’s movie star character to emphasise the differences between Charlotte and Kelly, between a more every day and a more typically sexy woman. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian described how Charlotte, ‘the Yale graduate in her unflattering woollen tank-top, is made to feel dowdy and dull by this jabbering Valley girl’ and I definitely related to that! As I said above, it took me until I was nearly 30 to work out how I could be sexy just as I was and I was so jealous of those people who made it appear effortless, who could make men fall at their feet just because they were hot – like Kelly does when Charlotte’s husband flaps around her. (With hindsight, it is pretty reassuring to see *Scarlett Johansson* as the young person struggling to find themselves!)

Charlotte and her husband with Kelly. He looks amazed, she looks disgruntled. An image from Lost in Translation

And, of course, Bill Murray was a revelation. I’d heard some criticism that he was essentially playing himself but I think that is hugely dismissive of his performance here. Roger Ebert described him as giving ‘one of the most exquisitely controlled performances in recent movies. Without it, the film could be unwatchable. With it, I can’t take my eyes away.’ And he’s right – just think how his character could have gone wrong if it had been played any other way!

I honestly don’t know how he did it but Murray’s Bob managed to hang out with someone literally half his age without looking like a sleaze and without looking desperate. He was over 50 and Johansson was 17 when it was filmed and yet they don’t feel unequal or creepy as you might expect in another movie, which is remarkable because it’s really unusual to see a relationship with a significant age gap represented so positively on screen without any kind of comment, and I like that a lot. More than that, Bob does appear kind of sleazy at other times, such as when he hooks up with the lounge singer, emphasising how unique his relationship is with Charlotte.

The famous image from Lost in Translation of Bob, drinking whisky and looking at the camera for an advert.

It’s also not because they don’t have sexual chemistry, as they definitely do, but their relationship offers so much more. I was interested to read Roger Ebert’s views on their potential sex. Perhaps taking the perspective of an older man, he felt that Bob was being ‘almost studiously proper, as if making it clear he’s not coming on to her,’ which I didn’t see. To me, that suggests a barrier or hesitation that I couldn’t feel but perhaps that’s because I’ve never been a man who is worried about being misinterpreted with a younger woman and so couldn’t empathise with that perspective. Instead, I found his hands-off approach comforting. He wasn’t pretending that he wasn’t attracted to her but he wasn’t being creepy either! Similarly, Ebert’s view on Charlotte’s sexual autonomy also feels quite old-fashioned now, writing that she could ‘plausibly have sex with him, casually, to be “nice,”’ which, again, my post-#MeToo, post-Cat Person 2021 perspective strongly disagrees with. For Charlotte to have sex with Bob simply to be nice would have been awful, undermining the respect that have for each other.

From Lost in Translation, Bob and Charlotte looking fondly at each other.

Would it have been a better or worse film if they had had sex? I don’t know…I suspect that my response to their incredible hug at the end would have been weaker if they had had a more physical relationship before then, but I don’t know if that’s the pandemic talking! But I do think that adding sex would have defined their relationship in a way that would remove some of the magic found in the fact that it was never defined. Their relationship blurs and breaks all traditional barriers and labels. It’s not sexual but it is intimate; it’s paternal but she is also looking after him; they could be friends or lovers or relatives, but you never doubt that they love each other. They were all of us who are lost, finding the person that we need to find exactly when we need them.

For me, the conversation between Bob and Charlotte about having children sums up why Lost in Translation had such a big impact on me:

Bob: It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids.
Charlotte: It’s scary.
Bob: The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.
Charlotte: Nobody ever tells you that.
Bob: Your life, as you know it… is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk… and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.
Charlotte: That’s nice.

What Bob says is true and really wise and it could have been such a profound moment, but Bob just says it casually and Charlotte tells him that it’s nice. And it’s kind of amazing. There’s no misunderstanding here; no misinterpretation and, to steal the film’s title, nothing is lost in translation.

Lost in Translation is a movie without superlatives, and I wasn’t ready for that – in my teens when I didn’t understand and now when I wasn’t ready for how superlative my reaction could be to something so simple.

I’ve really not been able to stop thinking about it, and I don’t know if I ever will.

NEXT TIME… Indecent Proposal

Copyright All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

1 Comment

  1. Malcolm

    Great review. You should check out Ammonite, with Kate and Saoirse Ronan. It’s an interesting film released not long in 2020, that explores a same sex relationship between two women in the 1800s. It might be an interesting film to tackle for a review. Give it a look if you haven’t already!

Do you like this film? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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