My favourite film
Why I love… Lost in Translation
Nothing happens – at least not on the surface… Verity Burns, whathifi.com’s multimedia editor, defends her favourite film
“I can only say why I wanted to make the movie: to convey what I love about Tokyo and visiting the city. It’s about moments in life that are great but don’t last. They don’t go on, but you always have the memory and they have an effect on you. That’s what I was thinking about.”
As a child, I watched a lot of movies on repeat. I wore out my VHS of David Bowie’s Labyrinth, sat endlessly through Pretty Woman (never truly understanding its story until much later) and could recite every last word of Clueless (and still can). Yet while I could still watch all of these movies over and over again without ever getting bored, it took me until my university years to stumble across a film to call my favourite.
Lost In Translation was actually released in 2003, but I missed it at the cinema, and only got around to seeing it the following year when I asked for the DVD for my birthday. I’m still not sure what it was that had me so intrigued by it, but, curled up on the sofa in my small university flat, I fell completely and unexpectedly head over heels in love with it.
There are so many people that tell me that they didn’t ‘get’ Lost in Translation. That “nothing really happens”. But this is a movie much deeper than the Hollywood clichés of fast-paced action, cookie cutter characters, passionate embraces and predictable storylines. It portrays the raw human emotion of loneliness like no other film I’ve seen before or since, and truly captures the essence of two people, feeling lost in their lives, finding solace in one another.
Those two people are Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) – two very different characters, whose paths cross against the stunning, but alienating, backdrop of Tokyo.
Bob is an aging movie star, with a distant wife and a flailing career that sees him in Japan endorsing a whiskey when he’d much rather be doing “a play somewhere”. Charlotte is in her early 20s, a recent Yale graduate and a newlywed, unsure of where she is going in life and already unsure of her two-year marriage to an oft-gone photographer. Writer and director, Sofia Coppola, makes sure she establishes them and their situations with the audience separately long before they meet.
Once they do, an unexpected friendship is formed, built on their only common ground – loneliness. It’s beautiful to watch as it unfolds over a handful of intense days together, and stunningly acted by both Murray and a young Johansson throughout. They accept one another completely, and share their inner most feelings and fears. They talk and they listen. Some would say they fall in love. Some, that it’s an infatuation that would never last in the real world. Are they soulmates or kindred spirits? The film lets you make that decision for yourself – there’s no Hollywood hand-holding here.
Whatever you decide, their discussion on life, marriage and children, laid on Bob’s hotel bed, is one of most beautifully scripted, perfectly acted and brutally honest scenes I have ever seen in film. As they finally fall asleep, fully clothed, on top of the covers – simply comforted by one another’s company – Bob slowly reaches out and places his hand on Charlotte’s foot. It’s perfect – more delicate, tender and intimate than anything physical would’ve brought to the scene. Their relationship doesn’t need to be diluted, punctuated or defined by sex, as Hollywood might suggest it should. Instead, it’s the subtlety that speaks volumes.
It’s not all heavy going though – it’s actually very funny too, with Bill Murray playing Bob Harris’ dry humour with aplomb and delivering a number of laugh out loud moments over the course of the film, many of which Coppola admitted were ad-libbed. In fact, his performance is reason alone to watch it, walking the line between comedy and drama perfectly, and fully deserving of the Oscar nomination that he received for it. Would the film be the same without him? I very much doubt it.
At the very root of it, Lost in Translation is a simple film, filled with stunning dialogue, beautiful cinematography and fantastic acting. It’s a love story, but not as we know it, and the more you watch it, the more you pick up on the smaller, subtler moments that make it so special.
And just try not to fall in love with Tokyo. No other place could personify the feeling of alienation both Bob and Charlotte are feeling in their respective lives quite so perfectly or so beautifully. I challenge you to watch this movie and not want to book a flight there immediately.
Of course, there’s ‘the whisper ‘, which has caused so much speculation. Those few private parting words that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear so quietly that the audience, who have been given so much insight into their lives and growing friendship, are denied that last bit of knowing exactly how it all ends. Not even Coppola knows – those lines were intentionally unscripted.
Not content with that, some people have taken to putting the scene through advanced sound engineering to try to find out what makes those last words so meaningful. To find out how the story ends. The thing is, I don’t want to know. Of course, any fan of the film will speculate, but to know for sure would ruin a large part of its charm. And it’s this charm that has kept it at the top of my favourite films list for nearly 10 years now, with no signs of moving any time soon. If you’re one of those people that didn’t “get” Lost in Translation because “nothing really happens”, you missed out on so much that the irony of its title is certainly not lost on me.
Verity Burns is multimedia editor of whathifi.com