Lost in Translation

Dramatically recommended, but not morally. This is the sleeper indie film of the year. A real milestone for Sofia Coppola, coming into her own as a writer-director. Great dialogue, great acting, humorous understated moments, and poignant cultural insights about people’s alienation and search for human connection. Just bad morals. The story is about a has-been 50-year old film star and a newly married young woman making a human connection in the midst of great alienation. Bill Murray is the bored celebrity, Bob Harris, boringly married 25 years, who has to do some whiskey commercials for a week or so in Tokyo and Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, a young woman, married two years to an entertainment photographer who is on assignment in Tokyo as well – and much too busy to spend real time with his beloved. Well, Bob and Charlotte meet in the hotel bar and strike up a friendship based on mutual alienation from the world around them. Everything in this movie very creatively communicates our alienation and our desire yet inability to “translate” or make real human connection with other people. Some of it is very amusing, and all of it is tragically poignant and true. Murray trying to understand the directions of his Japanese commercial director, who speaks for 30 seconds but is translated into a few English words; the differences of East and West culture; and even the tendency toward alienation in marriage. Charlotte’s husband’s world is vain emptiness as we meet one of the actresses he has photographed and her empty-headed shallow lifestyle. Bob is visited by a prostitute who is sent by the Whiskey company, who mistakenly thinks he wants or needs one. She can’t speak English so she plays a role of “being forced upon” all the while not realizing that Bob really doesn’t want to have sex with her. The whole lack of human connection in prostitution or anonymous sex is really spelled out well here. The movie does drag out a couple times with some overlong sequences that tend to bore. For instance, there is a karaoke sequence that is, oh I don’t know, about 5 minutes long or so, and it could have been a mere 30 seconds. Instead they croon on and on, singing their songs, long after the funny point has been made about the shallow false human connection we have with our own entertainment. Bob’s removal from so much of the shallowness and insanity around him is revealed in a great line when he says to Charlotte, “The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less things upset you.”

Interesting that this is Scarlett’s second movie this year about intimacy without sexuality, the other one being Girl With A Pearl Earring (see my 2003 movie blog). I have to say that for all the clever moments, and all the great writing and acting, etc, this movie is unfortunately a story that celebrates emotional adultery. The very clever and unique thing is that the lead characters never consummate their relationship with sexual intercourse, and so the sexual tension is the essence of the subtext throughout. Of course, this is only a tension because we are brainwashed in our Romanticized humanistic entertainment culture into thinking that a deep connection must lead to sexuality, that the ultimate human contact is the sexual love of another person. Not necessarily true. But unfortunately, this story is a celebration of a human connection that is made in the midst of great loneliness and alienation. The bad thing is that this connection is not shown to be illicit, but redeeming. As the characters share their experience with one another, they find a connection that neither of them have with their spouses. Bob’s marriage of 25 years has degenerated into mere function, raising kids and being a father with an unromantic relationship with his wife. They don’t talk about missing one another, but about what color should he pick for the carpeting in his new home office. At one point, his wife senses he is experiencing the mid-life crisis when he says he wants to eat more healthy and be more healthy (the typical response of a man who has a newly discovered lust, I mean “love”). She asks him, “Should I be worried about you?” He replies, “Only if you want to.” He is so desperate for intimacy, and yet she glosses right over it by pointing out that his kids miss their “Father,” with an emphasis on that word “father,” stressing his moral responsibility. No mention of HER MISSING HIM. She stresses moral obligation over emotion, which is empty. This story is another “follow your heart over do the right thing.” Feelings over morality. Charlotte’s husband is insensitive and a workaholic, which also is a rationalization for her emotional infidelity. After they go through their experiences and fail to sleep together, Bob is on his way to the airport home, never to see Charlotte again. The tension of them wanting to be with each other is at its apex. Bob sees Charlotte walking down the street and stops his car, runs to her and shares an intimate kiss and whisper that we as the audience cannot hear. They then leave each other and there is a sense of satisfaction, of that verbalization of what they were both suppressing the whole story, and not really saying. They make the human connection. One almost has the impression that it gives hope for the future. Deliberately ambiguous to keep some openness, but the connection is definitely made, and it is a connection outside of their marriages, rather than a revelation pointing them back to their marriages. It is adultery of the heart, which Jesus said is just as serious to God as physical adultery. But rather than Charlotte’s and Bob’s experience leading to an appreciation and celebration or redemption of their own marriages, their “connection” turns out to be their little secret with one another that they cherish outside of their marriages. This is the Romantic humanistic selfish worldview, the easy way out. Rather than working hard and fixing your marriage, rather than “do the right thing,” the story suggests “follow your heart” and find connection elsewhere. These kind of movies miss the heart of what real love and intimacy is all about, changing one’s self through interdependency with another. Real love is often painful, because real love is as much about becoming a better person as it is making a human connection. Real intimacy and love reveals one’s selfishness and forces you to change yourself. Lost in Translation is wasted potential. An almost-great movie.