Lost in Translation


Gen X Review Lost in TranslationOur world is obvious. We’re so accustomed to life without nuance that we see only bright colors and things that explode. The universe has given up all its secrets – but what translates isn’t often worth hearing.

Lost in Translation is a quiet comedy about the sort of relationship that defies explanation. Starring Bill Murray as American actor Bob Harris and Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte, a young woman seeking direction and an identity of her own, the film explores a relationship that defies ordinary language.

Bob and Charlotte are strangers in a foreign city. Bob is an aging action film star who has been shipped to Tokyo to sell an idea of American style and elegance while Charlotte has recently graduated from college with a philosophy degree and is overseas with her photographer husband. They’re both alienated from their surroundings, placed out of context until they fear that they’ve lost themselves.

The city might as well be the surface of Mars. Tokyo is less a metropolis than a collection of images and shadow puppets. People walk the streets on automatic pilot, cut off from each other and the world. Mirrored walls close around them while conveyor belts feed their bodies to various toothy buildings. Interactions are strange in this climate, and both Bob and Charlotte feel estranged from reality, as though the only way people negotiate with one another is through machines and imperfect translators.

“I’m trying to organize a prison break,” Bob tells Charlotte. But why is the city so oppressive and what lies on the other side of this communication barrier? The city is a symbol of what divides us – the clothes, careers and faux identities – but how many of us could live without these fictions, naked to one another?

Charlotte feels even more lost when her husband leaves on a weekend shoot. Sitting near the window in her high-rise hotel room, she feels like she’s the last living thing on the planet, but also the only thing without purpose or place. She has followed her husband into an alien country without the familiar things that cement her identity, and when he’s not around she is diminished even more.

Meanwhile, Bob is shooting a commercial for a whiskey. The Japanese director barks orders, which are translated to Bob through a young woman who functions mostly as a kind of machine. Act like Roger Moore! More intensity! Mystery! Act as though you are really alive, as though this isn’t all just a rehearsal for life!

Both Bob and Charlotte are dislocated in the profoundest sense of the word. Neither knows how to act in this strange new world, and their interactions with one another are reticent and sweet. When Charlotte sees Bob alone in the bar at their hotel she approaches him. Their initial conversations are no different than most of ours, and we’re struck by how little they have to say to one another once the twenty-word introductions are over.

But it’s the unspoken connections that matter in this film – The shy hand holding and wayward glances, the way they brush against one another in a taxi. This is something new to them, something delicate and strange, like the taste of a new vowel on your tongue or the way your stomach feels when you’re leaving home for the first time.

Lost in Translation is not a love story, however, or even a story about an illicit affair. It doesn’t cheapen itself by pretending that Bob and Charlotte aren’t attracted to one another, but it also resists the temptation to follow in a familiar genre. It challenges our notions about love, lust, intimacy and identity by pushing the boundaries as far as they can go.

Their lives seem far away, and the possibility of something radical and new, some novel relationship, seems close enough to touch. The film sustains this tension until the audience feels like screaming. We want Bob and Charlotte to choose what sort of people they want to be, want them to fall into familiar categories.

But the film toys with our expectation by revealing only what is necessary and keeping the rest confidential.  The characters are naked to each other in a way they never are to us, and a lot is revealed in gestures and body language. This level of intimacy is startling and the film doesn’t talk us through Bob and Charlotte’s relationship.  The words would be so new that they’d trip off the tongue and disappear into thin air anyway.

What moves us most is what we can’t hear– all that strange and confidential stuff that passes quietly from person to person.


Add comment

Security code

Want another opinion? Roger Ebert is one of my favorite reviewers and a personal hero.

Interested in hearing more? Download the eBook bound to change your life for $2.50 by clicking here!

Buy Now