Lost In Translation – Living in an Alien World

Director: Sophie Coppola

Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson

Release: 29 August 2003

IMDB Rating: 7.7

Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 85%

Well, once again it seems as if a lot of people have already written a lot about this film, but then again it certainly is one of those films that have been beautifully crafted, yet also in a way given to the actors to be able to take their characters and mould them into their own – which is one of the reasons why the only two people who know what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansen at the end of the film are Bill Murry and Scarlett Johansen (though apparently some geeks have used sound enhancing techniques to be able to find out what was said, but the thing is that it is one of those mysteries that are much better is they remain unsolved).


One of the things that definitely stands out is how Sophia Coppola picked the main actors – a relatively unknown, at least at the time, Scarlett Johansen (apparently she was 17 at the time the film was made, and it is definitely before she became quite well known as Natasha Romanov – aka The Black Widow). At the other end of the scale we have Bill Murray, who is playing a struggling actor who has in the past been the star of many hit films but is now left making Whiskey commercials (though I’d hardly consider Bill Murray to be in the twilight of his career).
Anyway, here is the trailer:

What’s It About

Okay, this really isn’t one of those films that has a clear plot running through it. Well, it sort of does, but it is actually more about relationships as opposed to any coherent storyline. Sure, we do start off with our heroes (for want of a better word) lost in an alien world, but they slowly come to realise each other’s existence, and in doing so begin to connect. This in a way is what the film is really about – it is a film driven not by plot, but rather by themes.


So, we have Bob Harris (which sounds like a call back to one of Bill Murray’s more enigmatic characters of the past) who has come to Tokyo to film a number of commercials. While it isn’t particularly something he wants to do, he is getting paid a substantial amount of money, so he agrees. However, the one thing that is pretty noticeable is that he really doesn’t want to be here. Instead, he simply wants to get the job done and then leave.


Then we have Charlotte, who is here for completely different reasons. Namely, her husband is a photographer, and he is here, well, doing some photography (though it is never suggested that the photography he is doing is the same that Bob Harris is involved in). Well, she has come along because she is, well, his wife, and it is also pretty clear that she is absolutely bored out of her mind. Mind you, I’d love to be in a foreign city, for whatever reason, because I would be using the time to literally explore every nook and cranny. However, not everybody is like me, and this certainly seems to be the case with Charlotte.


Well, they seem to spend time in the bar at the top of the hotel, and it is during the time when both Bob and Charlotte are drinking that they notice each other, and Charlotte makes the first move by buying Bob a drink. In a way, it seems as if they are two people, clearly out of their comfort zone, who seem to be able to make a connection in this way. Mind you, this isn’t the only time that people have attempted to reach out to Bob, but many of them just see him as this great actor, and in a way it seems as if this is something that he basically wants to avoid.




In many cases, this is a film about alienation – both of the main characters seem to be alienated from the world around them. Sure, there is this instance where they happen to not only be in a foreign land, but in a foreign land that is so alien from their own that they seem to feel lost and alone. However, we will touch on that idea next, but instead, let us consider the characters and the way they seem to be alienated.


We will start with Bob, because there is one thing that stands out a lot with him, and that is that he is an actor. One of the things that the film seems to touch upon is how alienating being an actor is. In a way you cease to be yourself and in the end become the characters that you play. Mind you, Bill Murray, as an individual, apparently has completely the opposite character to Bob. For instance, he has a habit of gate-crashing parties because, well, because he is Bill Murray. Mind you, I doubt people are going to tell him to get lost, namely because, well, because he is Bill Murray.


However, in the film we see a different side of the acting business because we see that it really does alienate Bob. In a way the whole bowing and scraping of adoring fans, and the people screaming out his name in bars because, well, because he is this big-time actor, really seems to have taken its toll on him. In fact it seems as if Bob simply walks around in this perpetual trance. In another sense, it really seems as if he simply cannot be alone, cannot have a quiet drink by himself without being dragged into a conversation with a bunch of complete strangers about how great his films were.


Charlotte, on the other hand, seems to be alienated in a completely different way. The only reason she is in Tokyo is because her husband is here, and her husband is here on work. She has nothing to do with his work, so she basically finds herself here alone, spending her time puttering around the room, or trying to find things to do. Even though she goes into the bar with her husband and his friends, the thing is that they are his friends, not hers, which is why she seems to be so alienated here.


Another thing that I want to touch upon, something that strikes us at the beginning of the film, is that there is this scene where Charlotte is lying on a bed in a T-shirt and her panties. Normally the scene would just cut away, giving us some voyeuristic pleasure, however Copolla holds this position much longer than normal, and in turn it starts to makes us feel uncomfortable. In a way, this process, I feel, is an attempt to create another feeling of alienation within us, to help us understand what it is to be uncomfortable, and this sets the scene for the film.


Foreign Lands

It goes without saying that people do things differently in foreign lands, and when we travel to foreign lands and start behaving as we would at home, well, we are bound to cause offence. Ironically, we are meant to accept the habits of foreigners who come to our lands to live, one of the major ones being the idea of pushing in line – something that is just not tolerated here in Australia or walking in front of people taking a photo. Yet, ironically, we are told to respect their cultures, despite the actions of some of these people, in our mind, are quite rude.


However, let us take my experiences in Europe for instance – such as the idea of table service. The thing is that in Australia, only the real high-class restaurants have table service (or the modern hipster cafes in the inner city). Pretty much every other place you walk up to the counter and order your meals. Well, that certainly isn’t the case overseas, where pretty much every place is table service. This does create a bit of a shock, especially when you go up to the counter to order, and you are literally blasted by the person standing there.


Anyway, this is the sense of alienation that you get when you are in a foreign country, though of course it is much different in places like Japan. However, the thing is that many of the touristy places have a different sort of culture than those places where only the locals seem to live. This is particularly noticeable in places like Thailand, where Phuket and Bangkok seem to go out of their way to not only make tourists welcome but also feel at home.


Yes, this may be true in Japan, but the thing is that neither Bob, nor Charlotte, are in Tokyo as tourists. It is interesting that when Bob first arrives (and also when he leaves) we see the neon lights of the city, the scene that immediately strikes our eyes as being Japan (though it is also noticeable that Hong Kong is quite similar). However, for most of the film we see a rather drab, and dull, image of Tokyo, the city that exists beyond the more touristy parts. Mind you, Charlotte does try some of the touristy parts, but it feels that without her husband, it is all meaningless.


The interesting thing is that when Charlotte and Bob get together we suddenly see another side. All of a sudden they seem to be having fun. In fact, they end up having one quite wild night, experiencing everything that Tokyo has to offer. In a way, it seems to be the secret side of Tokyo, the side that normal people, particularly the tourists, do not get to see.


Stale Marriages

I’m not really sure if we can consider Bob and Charlotte’s respective marriages as stale, but in a sense there is something alienating about them. Okay, Bob does have an affair while he is in Tokyo, and I suspect that this isn’t the only time that this has happened. What is interesting though is how his wife actually faxes copies of carpets to Tokyo for Bob’s attention. In a way, this seems to be something that is actually a little odd, and one does wonder why they can’t wait for Bob to get back. In fact, it does feel at times that Bob wants to get away from his wife, spend some time alone, by himself, but she always seems to be there, not far away at all.


Then again, as we can see, Bob is an aging actor, which suggests that Bob’s marriage has been quite a long one as well. Mind you, it turns out to be quite rare for celebrity marriages to actually last all that long, particularly when you take a look at the celebrity profiles on their respective Wikipedia pages. Mind you, it still seems as if Bob simply cannot escape his wife – no matter where he goes, she seems to be there, not all that far away, even if they are separated by an ocean, she still seems to be able to get in touch with him, and for some of the most inane reasons at that.


With regards to Charlotte, it is clear that they haven’t been married all that long, but then again the age difference does work to provide some contrasts between the characters. It seems that when it comes to Charlotte, it seems that there isn’t really any connection between her and her husband’s associates. Look, we don’t actually know the situation back in the United States, and we aren’t meant to, all we need to know is what is being seen here. It is interesting though that despite the significant differences in ages, they still manage to make a connection.




This is the interesting thing about the characters, and that is the connections that they make. I guess in a sense it has to do with both of them feeling alienated in Tokyo. It is clear that Bob really doesn’t know anybody here, and all of his business associates are Japanese, so there simply isn’t any connection. All of the people that he works with are back in the United States, and even with that, it is also clear that he is self-employed, which means he takes what work that comes. He doesn’t work for a company, but rather he is a commodity to be used whenever necessary.


The connection comes about because they both feel isolated, yet what is interesting is the age difference. It is almost like a father/daughter connection, though I also get the impression that Bob has children of his own. However, they are both lost in this world, and as such they see each other as two individuals looking for some companionship in an alien realm. Yet despite the contrasts being quite staggering, the fact that they are both able to develop a connection is what makes this film so great.


A Sexless Romance

This is what brings me to my final point – it seems like it is one of those romances that develop when people are on holidays. They develop close friendships, but the context of the friendship is what defines it. I know because I have experienced similar friendships myself. Basically, it is the context and once the context is removed, the friendship is simply not the same. I guess it is clear with that last whisper that Bob gives Charlotte, namely because he knows that after he leaves, nothing is going to be the same between them.


It is interesting how there is a tinge of jealousy when Bob sleeps with that singer. This is why I suggest that there is some form of romance between them, but the dynamics of the relationship suggest to me that there was never supposed to be anything physical. In fact, to create a physical element would go a long way to completely destroy the relationship. This is something that comes across as being quite realistic.


This is the whole idea of the translation, not the idea where we are speaking different languages, and the subtleties of the language mean that we can’t always mean what we say, or say what we mean, but rather the subtle languages of relationships. In many cases, people misinterpret the nature of a relationship, and in many cases head in a direction where it isn’t supposed to go. There is always this talk of ‘the friend zone’, that zone being where two people become good friends but never go beyond that.


This is one of the lies that we are told because, honestly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the friend zone. In fact, friendship relationships can be much more fulfilling than sexual relationships, especially since many relationships fall apart after they become sexual. It is a sense that it is something that was never meant to happen, and because we took it in that direction, the friendship that could have been has been destroyed. Sometimes, in fact, many times, we need to cherish those friendships that we have, as opposed to trying to add another conquest to our list.
Creative Commons License


Lost In Translation – Living in an Alien World by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me at david dot sarkies at internode dot on dot net


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