Life imitating art is a funny discussion for me. It’s the silly notion that life is recycling situations that occur in works of artistic expression. If anything, I find that art imitates (or at least influences) life. There are no better examples to this notion than Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Spike Jonze’s Her. For those who don’t know, the two directors were married for several years before the release of Lost in Translation. Both movies are insanely personal for these directors and I could be totally, 100% wrong here, but maybe they were even a bit therapeutic?
What makes these two films fascinating to me is the amount of personal experience presented onscreen. You don’t need inside baseball to figure out the central characters, Charlotte in Lost in Translation (LIT from here on out) and Theodore in Her, are essentially stand-ins for the directors. The characters are handled with nuance, never straying toward self-serving “what if?” territory or devolving into power fantasies. Both projects explore the melancholy state of mind these people were dealing with at that point in their lives. Having recently double-featured these two movies (LIT followed by Her) I was unsurprised how well these stories and characters complement each other.
Charlotte, a recently married college graduate, was trapped by an unintentionally distant husband and a language barrier in Japan, all building to a sense of isolation where she has nobody to confide in but a stranger in a strange land. During a phone call to a friend, Charlotte pleas “I don’t know who I married,” solidifying a relationship that is built on misunderstandings and bad timing. It’s through meeting Bill Murray’s character, Bob Harris, that she finds a kindred spirit and enjoys herself enough to smile again. He’s older, an intellectual equal, and just as lost as she is. Neither character really knows where they’re going. All they know is that they found each other. The age of the characters, timing, and location all attribute to the inconvenience presented in the film. In some parallel universe, the stars would line up for the shared love between these two. Their time together would only last for a moment, but they would cherish it for their whole lives.
Theodore’s state at the start of Her (currently in the middle of a divorce, depressed) is the aftermath of the Japan excursion. Even with the crowds of people surrounding him, often out of focus, he avoids friendly outings and is confined to his solitary life (Her is also about how humanity might focus too much on technology; however, we’re only looking at personal inspiration from Jonze himself). Instead of meeting another physical person, Theodore meets Samantha, a character who still qualifies as a person to Theodore, but is ultimately an ethereal presence. As the film progresses, he begins to interact and open up again. He acknowledges his faults as a husband during his marriage but isn’t ready to let go yet, at one point even stating, “I like being married.” This further exemplifies his faulty misunderstanding of his marital situation. Samantha is more than just an object of affection for Theodore, as she has a greater arc than even he does (I’d say ascending to a higher state of being is a pretty big arc). Theodore guides her by the hand from her conception to deactivation but in the end, she really helps him more than he ever helped her. Though their time together was short, and never physical, like Bob and Charlotte, they would always carry a piece of each other.
These small slices of life are surrounded by negative space, acting as a bright enforcement of the positive energy that comes from humanity’s most universal emotional ambition: Love. We don’t know these people or the deeper parts of their shared history together. But through the language of cinema, they were able to convey a year’s worth of emotion into a few hours of screens flickering.
It doesn’t take inside information to see how marriage deeply affected these two projects for these highly respected directors. That’s not a slight at either Sofia Coppola or Spike Jonze. Life is inconceivably frustrating, and too chaotic to ever control. The fact that either, let alone both, directors would willingly allow themselves to share life experiences with theaters full of strangers, truly speaks volumes about how much respect they have for their audiences. Art is a form of expression, and in some cases, a shared experience. I couldn’t be happier these two directors shared theirs.