Lost in Translation ends with Bob whispering in Charlotte’s ear. He’s out of earshot of the mic. The most rational question in the world once the credits start rolling would be: what did he say? You would ask it with the desperation of someone who discovers that the last page of their novel is missing, or that their show has been cancelled right before the finale. It’s as though Bogie took Bergman close to his chest and said, “We’ll always have Paris,” but only to her. Truthfully, no one knows what Bob said besides Murray and Johansson – Sofia Coppola wrote nothing in the script and never asked. Whatever it was, its deepest meaning is that it was confidential, love in its unutterable form, from one stranger to the only other member of his species. Bob said it for five seconds. If he had said it for 104 minutes, it would be identical to Lost in Translation.
Coppola establishes Tokyo in shot after shot as a city in which someone is lost, from street level, looking up. From his taxi, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) passes through a neon jungle, plastered with things other people must think are quite important to devote the space to them. And among them he sees a clincher of self-hatred: one of Bob’s own Scotch whiskey ads, his face austere and gentlemanly, shrouded in smoky self-assurance. How can someone who cares so little what others think bear the thought of being adored? What would that do to his self-image? Bob must deeply relate to the old Groucho Marx bit, that he’d never belong to a club who would have him as a member. What if the club was the whole world?
Murray’s basic appeal isn’t exactly of a cynic, but of a normal guy who would become a cynic if he ever cared enough to tell you about it. You end up liking him so much more than he likes you. This sad clown never much cares for romance, but they say that it “happens when you least expect it.” That must be why it happens to Murray so much.
As in Groundhog Day, he doesn’t seek romance in the conventional ways. Guys his age have fantasies about the kind of treatment he gets from young Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who only gives it to him because he’s not the kind of man who has those kinds of fantasies. If either of them loved each other too much, they wouldn’t. Lost in Translation runs with these kinds of paradoxes. Bob sleeps with the bar singer because of how much he loves Charlotte. If he had slept with Charlotte, he would have had to face the fact that he cheated on his wife; as the mythic heroes, he would have made himself vulnerable by love. He redirects his sexual energy to a meaningless act, as though he hopes to nullify it. Its insignificance is exactly in proportion to his love. When she hears the singer in his bathroom, she says, “I guess you’re busy, huh.” Name a more torturous “I love you” in the history of movies.
Their courtship is a whirlwind of color and sarcastic glances. It’s like they take their secret clubhouse with them everywhere they go, the club of not having any answers but knowing it. As Bob sings “I Fall to Pieces” at a karaoke bar (not to Charlotte, of course), Tokyo melts into an odd mosaic of colored wigs and neon and glass. It might be a fantasy, as love always might be. A CGI dinosaur waltzes across a building façade and it might as well be real. Women in white gloves thank Bob for allowing them to bow at him and you almost believe the world has some manners left in it.
The way people glance at each other is more important to Lost in Translation than dialogue. Bob’s Japanese fashion photographers speak in exasperated colloquial Japanese at, not “to” him, and we never see any of this in subtitles. His translator gives him the English, often one word for a whole train of thought, such as “with intensity” standing in for something that took thirty seconds to say in Japanese. This is not what the film’s title refers to, though it is a concrete example, which is not about language but about feelings. It’s about how two people don’t even mean the same thing when they say “love”; one of them might have two words for someone else’s entire lifetime.
Bob could light up any room with the Bill Murray he has contained within him, but doesn’t. Since he’s been joyful on the clock his whole life, in his off-time he’d rather drink until he forgets that he doesn’t have any answers for himself. He’s resigned to resignation. The restraint on Coppola’s part is mythic, to be empowered with as versatile a jokester as Murray and to use him for a caustic glance at a bad porn show (instead of as the porn). Even the strippers are polite! They’re more like scantily-clad comfort consultants.
None of the people in this world seem to be ignorant of the bad things in the world; they just all seem to take it like it’s part of their day. Coppola has made a world of children who dreamed they were adults and didn’t like it, but never woke up.
As a result, Lost in Translation is a movie that almost exclusively leads up to sex and yet isn’t a sexy movie. Johansson’s bum could render us comatose if shown properly, but even as her thighs glimmer like Major Kusanagi’s at the window sill of the city of glass, she’s changing lightbulbs and stubbing her toe. She's gorgeous and doesn't seem to mind. She smokes because she can't think of a reason not to. This is a romance in which the lovers having sex would disenchant the whole thing, as though that would typify it. They share that with the spouses they’ve gotten used to. Charlotte’s (Giovanni Ribisi) laughs with a snort when someone recognizes him and never notices that his wife is bored except to call her a snob; Bob’s is a disembodied voice on the telephone, who faxes him shelf diagrams and talks with perfunctory sweetness about the carpet color in the den. Bob says they’ve been married 25 years and it feels like it. Charlotte has been married a few months and it feels like 25 years.
They have sex with those people. With each other they share bad cable, porn theaters, stale wine, an alien city and the meaning of all things. Their connection shoots right down to their stubbed toes, to the people they were afraid to remember they had inside of them. If they had sex it would be because they’re afraid to feel more, to stop the connection at their pelvises and not let it reach the rest of them. That’s how Bob ends up in bed with the singer: it’s emotional self-defense.
That’s what we’re all doing, when we translate things we think are important into real life monotony. We ask how your day went when we don’t care. We get used to being stuck in our own lives. The tiniest thing can become the most important, in the middle of all that absent nodding and hollow sex. The meaning of life can be summed up in words few enough to say in one breath. It doesn’t even matter what words they are. It just depends on who you say them to (and that no one else can hear).
Image is a screenshot from the film.