Everyone is lost. The specific whys and hows, and the degrees to which this is true are myriad and variegated, but regardless of the reason every member of the human race is, in some respect, lost. And that’s okay. This planet on which people have been set to wander for all time is far too large and mysterious to ever be anything but frightening by way of confusion.
Critics and artists alike love to use the term “human condition” when talking about art. Does this artist truly understand the human condition? Does anyone truly understand the human condition? After all, what is this so-called condition that all people on Earth seem to be affected by? Whittling this condition down to a few choice platitudes and convenient emotions would be of little help to anyone, yet it is certainly fair enough to say that at least a meager fraction of this oft-discussed human condition is the feeling that one is lost. Alone.
In a world of over seven billion people, it sometimes seems as if no one really knows anyone else. Often it feels as if all of life is a late night in what might as well be a nameless city where the only company for a wandering soul is the flickering streetlights and garish neon signs that seem to be advertising everything except what one really needs, which, not to be repetitive, is really just some human interaction. For someone to just say, “I understand.” In her dramatic masterpiece Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola not only fully understands that to be human is to be alone, but also portrays said loneliness cineamtically. Her film is that kindly stranger, and Coppola understands.
The two main characters in Lost in Translation could never be anything even remotely considered as friends in any other circumstance other than the one in which they find themselves in Coppola’s film. They aren’t lost souls destined for one another. He is Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an aging film star far past his prime, grasping at the final straws in a depressing marriage to a wife that remains faceless; a nagging voice, distant and unloving; something that elicits a sigh and a sense of dread. Unlike many famous people, his life is not a car wreck, but rather a slowly dilapidating old ancient clunker that will run, but sure as hell won’t do much else. He is puttering along until something comes along. Maybe a big comeback role. Maybe death.
She is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent college graduate trapped in a marriage with a photographer that seems not all that different from Bob’s own marriage, only not quite as far along. Her car still has some mileage on it. She doesn’t know where she wants to go in life or even what she wants to do in her life. She is in the beginning of her life and he is in the middle of his. They are both lost. Malaise and sleep deprivation has stricken the both of them in the metal and plastic Blade Runner-esque cityscape of modern Tokyo. Mere exhaustion of places to go, ideas, friends, and care has brought them together. In any other situation they would not be friends. Yet this film is not just any other situation.
Much of what makes Lost in Translation so undeniably great is Coppola’s absolute mastery in framing her picture. Nearly every shot is made to mean something, to continue furthering her thesis. Towards the beginning, there are several scenes in which Murray is framed with lots of white space, alone in the frame, and he feels alone in every way. When playing golf in the shadow of an enormous Japanese mountain the scene works not only aesthetically, but ideologically. The mountain is Japan, strange and large and looming for Bob, something he doesn’t truly understand, yet has no choice but to simply stand in its wake. Yet, what Bob, and by extension Charlotte, are frightened of isn’t really Japan, but what it represents: Uncertainty.
Likewise, Charlotte doesn’t know what is to come for her. Her career path, marriage trajectory, and life in general is a total mystery. Bob doesn’t know where his own washed-up movie star career is going and feels his own marriage slowly falling into shambles. What awaits for him in the future is very possibly death. Japan is all of that to them. Contrary to the trope made so popular in books and films such as Eat, Pray, Love and Million Dollar Arm, they did not find themselves in some foreign country, but found themselves even more lost, and in doing so found something else: A friend. An unlikely one, but a friend all the same.
At one point early on in the film, Charlotte makes a trek to a Japanese monastery. She does not receive some life affirming spiritual enlightenment, but instead falls even deeper into what is becoming an almost unshakable anhedonia. Nothing at the monastery affects her. She feels detached and distant, a feeling which alienates her even more in the large and frightening wilderness of Japan. Things don’t work the same there as they do at home. In this icy world of metal and artifice, everyone feels more disconnected, and of course, more alone than ever, and the spiritual starvation she feels can only be sated by someone who is just as, if not even more, starved as her. The voice of God may be silent, but that doesn’t mean she is helpless.
In the latter half of the movie, Bob and Charlotte watch Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita while drinking sake in Bob’s hotel room. It’s an engaging and heartwarming scene that wouldn’t seem totally out of place in some run-of-the-mill, superficial romantic comedy. But there’s more going on underneath. La Dolce Vita is about the massive discontent that comes along with wealth and a life of pleasure, and the life crisis of Marcello in the Fellini’s film echoes that of Bob’s. He is a washed up celebrity fading from everything and feeling like the things that once brought him joy no longer do. He feels just as lost as Marcello does in the final scene of La Dolce Vita where he ends up drunk and exhausted at some beach at dawn, alone. Both Bob and Marcello are past their prime and thirsting for something more than they have. They want meaning in their lives.
Meanwhile, Charlotte is beginning to go down a similar path, feeling the existential pangs that come midway through one’s life a little too early. They’re watching the film not by chance, but because it applies so specifically to them. Art can be a wonderful means for catharsis, something to work out one’s fears and issues through, and this scene is merely an example of that.
If Sofia Coppola never makes a film as good or better than Lost in Translation ever again, it will be okay because she made Lost in Translation and that’s an achievement enough for an entire career. Like Bob and Charlotte watching La Dolce Vita to work out their own problems, Lost in Translation is a film that helps one deal with one’s own fears of loneliness. Coppola is the Fellini of the modern era, portraying the crises that hit us all on some level or another. The malaise and deep seated sense of coldness in the soul. The fact remains that everyone is lost, but that’s okay. Coppola understands. While the film succeeds on so many fronts, its best quality is that it can help everyone feel a little less lost. A little less alone. It is a kindly stranger. It is a guiding light. It is Lost in Translation.
Featured Image: Focus Features