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Controversy, Fashion and The Art of Simplicity in Cinema: Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

by Amy Walter

Four years on from ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ Sofia Coppola’s second film ‘Lost in Translation’ was released. For many film buffs, the 2003 film is held to be the very best of Coppola’s work, and for good reason. 

The movie quietly depicts the struggles of loneliness, alienation, and change, told through the eyes of 20-something Charlotte and washed-up actor, Bob Harris. 

Gaining Coppola’s first academy win, it forced mainstream to finally view her as more than just her father’s daughter, but rather an initiative director and writer.

Though the movie doesn’t have an overarching theme of feminine adolescence, the struggles of character Charlotte and the presentation of loneliness, still allows relatability for female audiences. Relating to the pressures of a world which expects so much of you yet is still so limiting. 

Coppola being inspired by her own experiences of dropping out of college and being alone in a big city for the first time, those feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty reflected throughout the film.

The plot follows the lives of two people at different points of their lives and how they eventually cross paths, forming an unlikely bond under the city lights of Tokyo. Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray, is your typical washed-up actor who’s come to Japan to star in a whisky commercial whilst Scarlett Johansson plays recent college graduate, Charlotte, who feels the world should be at her feet, yet feels second best to her egocentric husband, John. 

The pair eventually meet at their shared hotel in Tokyo and begin forming a bond of knowing glances and shared loneliness. Before returning to his life in America, Bob chases down Charlotte for one last goodbye, whispering in her ear and sharing a kiss, after which, there’s a sense of a definitive goodbye.

We are first introduced to the character of Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray, as he gazes out of a taxi window upon the night lights of Tokyo. Bob has been sent to Tokyo to complete a meaningless advert which he disregards as unimportant. He is shown to be an absent husband and father, but when it comes to Charlotte it's different. 

Whilst Bob’s wife is defined by a voice on a phone, Charlotte and Bob become increasingly close. She seemingly understands his emotions of being an aged actor due to their similarly jaded outlook, but by coming together both Bob and Charlotte begin to grow and love life. 

At the end of the film, Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear as they depart, resulting in thousands of articles, blogs, and videos, asking the question; “what does Bob Harris whisper at the end of Lost in Translation?” - something that remains unanswered twenty years on.

Charlotte, a recent college graduate, has followed her husband on a work trip to Tokyo. The character, played by a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson, reflects the struggle of not knowing your purpose, especially when your partner is so sure of theirs. Charlotte quickly becomes a background character in her husband’s life, in a similar way to Bob’s wife, rotting away in their hotel room with nothing to do but wait for him to come home. 

On the surface, she could be deemed a ‘manic-pixie dream girl’ for the likes of Bob, allowing him to re-find his zest for life as she sings karaoke with him and runs down crowded streets. But Charlotte is far more complex than that. She shows the want to prove yourself but the fear that comes with newness. Telling Bob, she just “doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do,” this being a typical theme of Coppola’s, where the female heroine is transitioning from adolescence to the uncertain world of womanhood. 

Coppola spoke in a recent Guardian article, and how she “was so surprised so many people connected to it” thinking “‘Who cares about a privileged young woman who doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life?’” but the very notion of questioning life and finding the answer in another human being is what makes Charlotte so relatable.

The story is told under a hazy blur of city lights, the reflection of a window, and passing cars. The fast-paced notion of Tokyo contrasting with the themes of a slow yearning for more. For both Charlotte and Bob, the city forces them to realise their own disconnect with their lives, whether it's them gazing out the window in thought or sitting alone in an empty bar, they are overcome with the dissatisfaction with their lives that haunts them. 

Lost in Translation’s aesthetic differing from the rural suburbia we are used to seeing in her work, opting for the fast-paced city, the choice of setting highlighting the loneliness the characters were experiencing. 

By muting the colour palette, utilising warm lighting, and filming at night, the set became a fitting backdrop to a story of “romantic melancholy.” This technique making important scenes more impactful, like when Charlotte and Bob are sitting by at the bar and the city skylights are behind them. The only flickering lights being red and blue, over time the red becomes more prominent, which signifies love, suggesting it has overcome their original sorrow.

One word for the fashion in ‘Lost in Translation’ is effortless. Coppola’s heroines always have an effortless chicness about them, whether it’s a simple long-sleeve or a baby pink wig. After Coppola’s long relationship with Marc Jacobs, it was no surprise many of their pieces featured in the film, resembling the directors own wardrobe. The film, though opting for a muted colour palette, remains impactful. Bob and Charlotte’s wardrobe acting as camouflage, blending into their surroundings, reflecting their feelings of invisibility and insignificance. A more exciting look was during the Karaoke scene to the song ‘Brass In Pocket,’ by The Pretenders, Charlotte sports a pink bob wig, the look becoming synonymous with the film, being the inspiration behind many Halloween looks and is similarly seen on Natalie Portman in ‘Closer.’

After its initial release, it was later revealed that ‘Lost in Translation’ was far more personal than many had anticipated. The movie is based on Coppola’s own experience with ex-husband Spike Jonze, a fellow film director. Depicting her loneliness and isolation due to her husband’s workaholic nature. But 10 years after its initial release, Jonze told his side of the story, through the film ‘Her’. The film follows Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he questions why his wife divorced him. The movies have been said to be in direct conversation to one another, compilations showing the similarities like scenes of characters gazing out of windows and being lonely in a crowd of people. 

However, this shouldn’t be the overarching takeaway from the movie. Though it is an interesting realisation, Coppola’s work being viewed only in the eyes of her past relationships can often make a film seem merely an act of revenge rather than an interesting idea.

Despite the love for this film, it has been far more divisive than Sofia Coppola’s other work. Criticised for its generalised view of Asian culture, the infamous age-gap kiss and the sympathetic lens shown to two rather privileged people. More recently, criticisms have been raised for the film’s depictions of Japanese people as merely a prop. 

Bob, throughout, mocking the staff’s generosity and pronunciation, later mocking a traditional Japanese dish. The film relies on the western world’s ignorance to adapting to new cultures, normalising it further. 

Although Japanese film critic, Yasuhisa Hirada, argued “the film neither tries to dissolute Tokyo nor investigates it; the peculiarity and wonder of the city is accurately reflected.” 

Another criticism, which arose even at the time of release, was the age-gap kiss. At the end of the movie Charlotte and Bob share a kiss, which is almost surprising due to lack of a sexual relationship previously. It was particularly controversial when it was rumoured Scarlett Johansson, who was 17 at the time, was unaware of the kiss happening beforehand. 

Many were also unsympathetic towards the two main characters, wondering why a privileged Yale graduate and a rich movie star were so victimised. Although, many have defended Coppola, arguing loneliness is not limited to a certain class or background.

Though ‘Lost in Translation’ contrasts a lot of Sofia Coppola’s work, for its big city setting and focal male character, it remains rooted in repeated ideas of loneliness, isolation, and budding adulthood. 

The 2003 film being credited for its quiet yet effective portrayal of loneliness, becoming a “must watch” of Coppola’s work, even twenty years on. Continuing to strike a chord with modern audiences, living on through grainy edits on TikTok and Pinterest collages. The film's criticism of individualism and the emphasis of the importance of connection making it more relevant than ever.


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