Lost in Translation: The Extreme Dreariness of Urban Alienation

Few things can be as powerful and as enriching as silence. Floating, empty, meaningful, meaningless silence. Especially amidst the cacophony of bustling metropolis, new people, and parched past, at times, silence can be the only truth, stripped of all pretensions. Sofia Coppola, the director of Lost in Translation, understands this silence rather well. The movie’s about two people, Bob Harris, an ageing movie actor, married, in his 50s, and Charlotte, in her 20s, recently married, still trying to figure out what to do with her life. Quiet an interesting contrast, this. But they have one important thing in common – they have both drifted, and not in a rambunctious hippie sort of way, where they physically charter new places. They are where they should be, but despite being rooted, their own selves have wandered, and both of them are left with an irreconcilable sense of emptiness. Emptiness they can put their finger to, but can’t do anything about.

The movie opens to Bob getting acquainted with a foreign city, Tokyo. He’s greeted by strange fluorescent billboards which don’t mean anything to him. And then, when he’s shooting for a whiskey commercial, he has to not only endure the mundane, soul-deadening work, but also try to make sense of a foreign language and culture. He can’t wait to get out of here. He sits by his hotel room’s window and quietly watches Tokyo’s panoramic view. He could even be thinking, ‘what did I do to land myself here?’ Just a few scenes and we are living his alienation as well. And there’s no voiceover, no expository lament from Bob, just a wide shot, an empty hotel room, and Bob’s silence.

Lost in Translation

On the other hand, in the same hotel there’s Charlotte. She has accompanied her husband to Tokyo, who’s a professional photographer. But he could be hardly seen with her. He would rather be taken in by the prattling of a young Hollywood star and be gladdened that she considers him as her favorite photographer. Charlotte sits on the same dining table, and befuddlement is written across her face. She could even be thinking, ‘what did I do to land myself here?’ In an earlier scene, she says to someone on phone, ‘I don’t know him anymore. Why did I get married to him?’

Couple of scenes later, we see both Bob and Charlotte having trouble getting any sleep. They meet each other in the bar. ‘What do you do’, Charlotte asks Bob. He says he’s taking a break from his wife, and making multi-million dollars selling whiskey. Taking a break could really have a lot of connotations. And not all of them pleasant. Soon both of them retire for the night. And then in the subsequent scenes, we see both of them crossing each other in the hotel’s lobby, restaurant. They don’t talk much, and even when they do, words come out in stilted, unfulfilled fragments. Strangers are anyway not obligated to be articulate.

And then, Charlotte’s husband leaves the town for an assignment. He doesn’t ask her to come. She doesn’t insist. After that charlotte and Bob keep drifting into each other and then together into the heart of Tokyo – night clubs, drug parties, karaoke nights. It is quite evident both of them like each other’s company. For Bob, Charlotte’s effervescence is as important, as for Charlotte Bob’s maturity. In one of the more important scenes of the movie, Bob and Charlotte are lying on the same bed, and she asks him, ‘Does it get easier?’ For a second, I thought she was referring to marriage, but then she asks next, ‘Does marriage get easier?’ Bob fails to string an appropriate reply. He is not a know-it all, no one can be. He is just one of the many people who’s trapped, and does not know what to do about it. After tucking Charlotte in bed, Bob goes into his room and calls his wife. What we hear on the other end is the voice of a female who is clearly detached. Not angry, sad, sullen, but detached. Gloomy would have been far better, she sounds uninterested. Bob also trudges through the conversation, trying, but maybe not trying hard enough. It’s as sad a scene as you can come across, but Coppola directs it quite masterfully, altering its language, maybe because she knows the sadness here is primarily derived from its absence.

Lost in Translation is a movie that has its own unique flavor, constantly embellished by Sofia’s stylistic flourishes. And yet, it’s a movie that could have so easily fallen apart. But it’s remarkable that it is so tonally consistent. Remarkable because, its main characters’ narrative arc is far from conventional – there’s no real moment of epiphany, or, a definite traceable trajectory in characters’ emotions. Not that having any of it is condemnable, but despite main characters’ floating in and out, Sofia consistently manages to build the mood around.  And not even that, the movie triumphantly avoids the cliché ridden territory that comes so easily with this subject matter. So you don’t see Bob and Charlotte sleeping around, or fashionable avowal of love by either of them. They take their time, and a lot of time, just getting comfortable with each other. But neither is their relationship yawningly platonic, there is definite tension between them, just that it is not overt.

That is why that scene is important – when Bob and Charlotte are talking to each other in the hotel room, lying in bed at a comfortable distance from each other, and the camera looks down at them from the ceiling, because lust, love, and friendship are not the only traits that govern our actions at any given time. Lots of things are in transit. And not all of them find their voice through cinema. But here, Sofia Coppola gives them as much importance as any mainstream film-maker would do to any crowd-pleasing sentiment.

As any cynic would tell you, too much of a hope is not necessarily a good thing, it can be even squeamish. On the other hand, too much of cynicism also at times seems uncalled for. The movie doesn’t meander to any of the two extremes, it’s quite content to float somewhere in between. Because its own truth is painful enough. After all, few things are as pang inducing as prolonged hesitation.

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