As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the film, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Lost in Translation is a romantic comedy film that was released in 2003 (now 20 years ago, believe it or not), and was directed by Sofia Coppola. Starring in the movie we have Bill Murray as Bob Harris, a washed up actor now doing commercials in Japan, and Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte, a recent college graduate who majored in philosophy. Both characters find themselves undergoing a bit of a life crisis—Bob, the traditional midlife crisis, and Charlotte, the what to do after college crisis, quarterlife crisis.
Bob, having reached midlife, having achieved greatest—fame, fortune, and the life that comes with it, now also potentially faces the downward spiral that comes with getting older. Instead of taking meaningful gigs, like doing plays which pay little to nothing, he is instead selling out and doing commercials which may millions. Seeing Bob speak to his wife, seeing Charlotte speak to her husband (or most of the time not speaking to him)—the film makes us yearn for an "I love you," but neither in Bob's conversations with his significant other, nor Charlotte's, would we get that satisfaction.
In Bob's case, with his family back in America, him and his wife speak only through phone, and yes, also by fax. The topics they speak about are furniture, carpet color, their kids, but the conversations are all empty, hallow, void of any real emotion—time has done what time does to so many marriages—it has turned the beautiful union of two souls, into nothing more than psychological solitary confinement. Two people might be contractually together, may talk, and may even talk more through the use of technology—but say less, feel little. The correspondence is out of obligation instead of love.
Charlotte, however, is just starting out in life. She sees the future, sees what the future could hold for her and her marriage. She feels the early signs of a listless marriage, small arguments turning into major ones—small arguments turning into resentment, into fights, into hate for one another—and eventually would even ask Bob (who is twice her age, if not more) if it (marriage) gets any easier. The answer ... no. Add kids to the mix, and your freedom to live as you choose is over. Yet, those kids are some of the most wonderful people you'll ever meet. Bob yearns for freedom, Charlotte thinks internally, its not too late to escape—but escape to where? Become who, become what? Even the Buddhist monks can't help her.
Charlotte's husband bumps into an old female acquaintance where there is an obvious connection, the connection and attention Charlotte seeks. The old female acquaintance had checked herself in under the name, Evelyn Waugh, which Charlotte finds to be comical, as Evelyn was a man in real life (her husband finds Charlotte pointing this out to be annoying). It is unclear here of the connection in real life to the famous author. But an online article, not related to the movie, did highlight perhaps a relevant passage towards the end of one of Waugh's books, Decline and Fall.
Shall I tell you about life?…Well, it’s like the big wheel at Luna Park…the nearer you can get to the hub of the wheel the slower it is moving and the easier it is to stay on…at the very centre there’s a point completely at rest, if one could only find it…Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. How they all shriek and giggle! Then there are others…who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that. But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit everyone.
People don’t see that when they say “life” they mean two different things. They can mean simply existence…They can’t escape that — even by death, but because that’s inevitable they think the other idea of life is too — the scrambling and excitement and bumps and the effort to get to the middle. And when we do get to the middle, it’s just as if we never started. It’s so odd.
Now you’re [Paul] a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump…you’re static…they ought to class people as static and dynamic. There’s a real distinction there, though I can’t tell you how it comes. I think we’re probably two quite different species spiritually.
Shortly thereafter, we find Charlotte, alone in her room, listening to an audiobook entitled, A Soul's Search, which opens with the lines,
Did you ever wonder what your purpose in life is? This book is about finding your soul's purpose or destiny. Every soul has its path, but sometimes that path is not clear. The Inner Map Theory is an example of how each soul begins with an imprint, all compacted into a pattern that has been selected by your soul before you've even gotten here.
There is also the quote on the back of the audiobook, The simplest and most powerful technique for finding your true calling is knowing the right questions to ask. - Michael Rohatin, PhD
Both Dr. Rohatin and the audiobook appear to be fictitious.
Later, we find Bob and Charlotte having a conversation about how long they've been married (25 years and 2 years respectively), and the following conversion ensues:
Charlotte: You're probably just having a midlife crisis. Did you buy a Porsche yet?
Bob: You know, I was thinking about buying a Porsche.
Charlotte: Twenty-five years. That's a... Well, it's impressive.
Bob: Well, you figure you sleep one-third of your life. That knocks off eight years of marriage right there. So you're down to 16 and change. You're just a teenager at marriage. You can drive it, but there's still the occasional accident.
Later, in another scene, Charlotte would joke that Bob was really having a midlife crisis after seeing him in some god awful looking shirt (which Bob thankfully turns inside out).
It was interesting to read some reviews of Lost in Translation online, like the one on streetdictionary.com. The author on StreetDictionary wants more from the film in terms of relationship complexity, and though the article was well written, misses the complexity film is actually capturing; it is capturing two individuals lost in a totally foreign country for a short period of time; where they don't speak the local language and only have each other to find a true connection. This experience is hard to describe unless you've experienced it (unless you've traveled), but, most of us can relate to some extent at least to having been involved in a relationship that lost its passion. Some of us, superficial or not, perhaps even had another connection or mini-relationship with someone else, wondering where it could lead, but never having it go anyplace because we're struck—either by prior commitments, fear, or actually loving your partner. Yet, the wanderlust of where that relationship could have went often remains with us.
Though I do not believe the film gives us an answer to the question of meaning, partially because that answer has been lost in translation—either from globalization, or technology, or our listless relationships and failures to communication; what it does tell us, is that we won't find the answer unless we look within. This fact becomes apparent right from the start of the movie, where, infamously, we see a picture of Charlotte, from behind, in a see through pair of panties. We can objectify a person, and often do just from looks alone (in our society—women, doubly so), but we cannot know a person just by looking at them. Similarly, we'll never find meaning superficially without looking into ourselves, without looking into each other, seeing through the exterior to what lies beneath. It is what is within that can provide meaning—and that, that is what the Sofia Coppola captures so beautifully in this film.
Ultimately, Bob and Charlotte part ways. Bob goes back to his wife, to his family, but not before cheating on them (physically with another woman—not Charlotte; emotionally, with Charlotte); and Charlotte, maybe she goes back to her husband, maybe she escapes (we never find out). Both kiss before reluctantly parting ways at the end of the movie.
Lost in Translation is a beautiful film that expertly captures what it is like to get lost living a mundane life, to travel and have a fleeting experience of escape, to experience brief moments of connection—the exhilaration, the fear, the joy, that can come from deeper connections, and the wanderlust to run away from all commitments. For those of us that have experienced this, reality usually sets back in; because living, for most of us, has commitments and responsibilities, so we return to that mundane life. Yet, if we could somehow harness that wanderlust and continue exploring the world, exploring life with the ones we love, perhaps, just perhaps, we can find some solace in a universe that can at times appear to be meaningless.
Overall - 8
Meaning of Life Relevance - 6
Uniqueness – 6
Did you see the movie? What did you think? What is the connection with Evelyn Waugh? What did we miss? Comment below and let us know.