Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) is one of my favorite films. Apparently, it is Bill Murray’s favorite that he’s ever done, which is saying something.
In the film, Murray plays Bob Harris, an aging actor consigned to doing whiskey advertisements as he shifts away from film. These advertisements bring Bob to Japan, where he stays for a week at a high-class hotel. During this time, he meets Scarlett Johannson’s Charlotte, sharing his stay at the hotel because her husband is a music photographer.
Bob, too, is married, and it seems that neither his nor Charlotte’s marriage is happy. Bob’s wife hounds him by fax about decorative choices in their home—all meaningless to him—while Charlotte’s husband seems utterly ignorant of her emotional needs. Furthermore, Charlotte clearly floats far above her husband intellectually, for which he brands her a “snob.”
In this state, Charlotte and Bob form a sort of romance… or is it a friendship? Or something even more platonic than that, a father/daughter dynamic? These lines blur, and neither Bob nor Charlotte seems sure of what they want or are doing through the film’s very end.
In a scene so palpable it drew physical “mm”s from me on my most recent viewing, Bob and Charlotte say farewell to each other on Bob’s last night in Japan. They stand in an elevator, and thinking the doors are about to open to Charlotte’s floor, Bob says “goodnight” and kisses her. Clearly, he intends to plant this kiss on her cheek, and yet the two’s intimacy is such that he cannot resist drawing closer—and the kiss lands halfway on her cheek, half on her lips. Then, it turns out the elevator had not, in fact, reached her floor, and Bob and Charlotte share a laugh and awkward moment while waiting a few additional seconds. When Charlotte’s floor is finally reached, they kiss again—this time, the kiss lands even more achingly in-between lips and cheek.
Even more famous is the film’s final scene, in which Bob chases down Charlotte in a public walk to say one ultimate goodbye. This time, he kisses her directly on the lips—something that seems relieving to them both. Then, he whispers something in her ear—and we as the audience never hear what it is.
Nearly twenty years later, there are numerous fan theories about what Bob must utter, with some even having audio-analyzed the footage to hear it for themselves. Famously, neither Murray nor Johannson told even Coppola, the director, what was said, so the truth may be that we will never know.
Similarly, there is a theory that Charlotte and Bob in fact sleep together following their awkward elevator kiss, a theory well grounded in the film. Prior to their final meeting in the public square, Bob calls up to Charlotte’s room, telling her that she needs to return his jacket, which she “stole;” however, if we watch the elevator scene carefully, we notice that Bob is wearing the jacket when Charlotte leaves the elevator. So, some fans surmise that he must later return to Charlotte’s room or vice versa—hence the jacket’s residing with her.
For me, this occurrence would undermine the film’s final scene, with the mystery of Bob’s hushed utterance to Charlotte and the perfect climax of their kiss’s finally joining lip to lip. If they had slept together the night before, this moment would not contain the same impact, since in all likelihood they would have shared many full-on kisses the previous night. As the film stands, satisfaction is never fully reached but in the briefest moment, and even here is bittersweet.
To me, Lost in Translation is a film about the myriad ways in which we miss one another, perhaps infinitely. Both Charlotte and Bob find themselves in Japan, where neither of them speaks the language; much of the film’s comedy arises from that dynamic. Charlotte is scarcely out of college, while Bob is at least in his fifties, so there is a significant life experience gap; they are both married, yet clearly more attracted to each other than to their spouses; as mentioned before, it is unclear—perhaps even to them—whether their relationship is platonic, romantic, or filial, and we as viewers leave the film without any clue whether it will continue.
To me, all this is as it should be. Reflecting on the final utterance and fans’ desire to decipher it, I wonder if even that intention is misplaced, if Coppola seeks a broader statement on obliqueness, on isolation, than such an “answer” would provide. After all, regardless of what Bob says to Charlotte, regardless of whether their relationship continues, the beauty of the encounter resides entirely within this moment; stretched beyond it, the impracticality of their age and situational differences, of transporting their relationship to a different cultural context, would wither any hopes of longevity.
And so to me, the film embodies the saying that we are as ships passing in the night; in the end, all we achieve of one another are these parting glances, moments where clarity seems forthcoming; however, the more we dwell on such moments, the more even they are revealed as illusions, and in the end we know no one but ourselves. And that is the language in which we swim.