I think a movie that had me rethinking my assumptions of it was the Sofia Coppola directed movie Lost in Translation. Starring Bill Murray as a washed up actor (Bob) who meets a young girl (Charlotte) played by Scarlett Johansson while filming commercials in Japan and makes a connection with her, this film has captured my mind for years. I’d call it my favorite movie to be honest.
However, I see it very differently as an adult versus when I saw it as an early teen. Younger me found it an endearing story of love in a difficult disconnected time, where Bob unable to deal with his problems at home found escape and solace in Japan and with someone he felt more of a connection to. As an adult, I see that differently. Lost in Translation is a story of miscommunication and lack of communication — one might read it very directly as Bob lost in literal translation, unable to understand Japanese who settles for botched English that does not remotely probably cover what was originally said (a great bonus for bilingual viewers, as there are no subtitles for an audience to hear what Bob doesn’t understand), but I also see Lost in Translation as Bob struggling to truly find love even with the connection he makes with Charlotte. The romance with Charlotte is fleeting and vapid in some ways, it’s a connection built on two people’s feelings of isolation and not a sweet meet-cute of people who relate to each other. It’s because they have no one else that their adventures in Japan together feel romantic to us.
The ending scene of the movie really sells this point home to me. Bob is leaving to head back to his family in the U.S, and the scene starts with him saying goodbye to Charlotte before being forced to take photos with his Japanese entourage. As he leaves, we get shots of him riding alone in a car driving through the dense Tokyo, with shots of crowds underscored by mostly ambient crowd noise, and Bob walking among them as he walks out of the car which only serves to further emphasize his isolation. He finds Charlotte in the crowd as they hug and cry, and Bob whispers something inaudible to the audience to her.
As a literal example of the unsaid, I always wondered what he said. Part of what the scene does is let the viewer fill in the gap with their own assumption about their take on the movie and the relationship, and younger me found it sweet and romantic. Older me really sees it different: it’s just further driving home the narrative of the disconnect, the ‘lost in translation’. This point is lost on us, and us wondering what the point of it is defeats part of the message of the movie, which is not every relationship is built on real feelings or real communication. I conclude this is a moment in the film for us to walk away with a reverse catharsis of sorts: leave the assumptions at the door and feel unfulfilled, just as this romance did for very good reasons, which is what Sofia Coppola and her great actors tried to tell us.
By the way, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson kept what was said between them. Sofia Coppola’s choice to keep it a mystery only sells the narrative mystery and the deeper movie of the meaning further. And you know what? That’s beautiful. For years I and other fans agonized about it, but when I think about how it really gives us a true ‘lost in translation’ moment, I think it’s a great form of storytelling.