With the world on pause and a pandemic sweeping the globe, life is drastically different from what it was mere months ago. Urban cities like New York feel particularly dystopian: businesses are shuttered, lines outside grocery stores stretch for miles, and face masks—the S/S 2020 accessory-turned-official symbol of these precarious times—are as common as a pair of shoes. What’s more, the information surrounding COVID-19 can be conflicting (at least politically), murky, and downright depressing. Combine this with isolation due to strict social distancing guidelines and you’ve got a recipe for ennui—or at least some form of existential dread. It’s a theme explored heavily in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 comedy-drama Lost in Translation, which stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.
Murray plays American actor Bob Harris, who’s in Tokyo to shoot advertisements for a popular Japanese whiskey brand. With his marriage and career on the fritz, he’s in the throes of a perfect midlife crisis. Johansson, who was only 17 at the time, plays a recent college graduate named Charlotte who follows her celebrity photographer husband to Tokyo for a project. Due to his work—and fascination with a vapid, green juice-drinking actress named Kelly (played brilliantly and hilariously by Anna Faris)—Charlotte is often left to wander about Japan alone, struggling with culture shock and loneliness in the confines of their hotel room. A particularly powerful scene shows Charlotte crying to a distracted friend from back home on the telephone. “I went to this temple and all these monks were chanting and I didn’t feel anything,” she says. (A sentence that perfectly encapsulates the numbness of depression.) Charlotte and Bob both stay at the Park Hyatt Hotel and frequently cross paths in the hotel bar. Finally, they converse, drawn to each other by mutual feelings of listlessness and jet lag.
Charlotte eventually invites Bob for a night out on the town, which results in what is arguably one of the most beautiful scenes in film history. Illuminated flowers dance along a wall at a nightclub as Phoenix’s “Too Young” plays overhead. A citywide chase ensues, karaoke happens, and Charlotte sings “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders. Clad in a bright pink wig, the night ends with Charlotte resting her head on Bob’s shoulders—a solidification of their unsuspecting and blossoming bond that isn’t romantic nor platonic, but simply bound by shared existential crises. The morning of Bob’s departure from Tokyo, he and Charlotte share an anticlimactic farewell at the hotel. On his taxi ride to the airport, he spots Charlotte in a crowd and gets out of the car. The two hug for a while and he whispers something in her ear, though it’s unclear what was said. (Theories, of course, are abound.) They share a kiss.
Lost in Translation‘s clever balance of humor and melancholy—as well as the symbolism of the color tones, lighting, and use of chiaroscuro—resonated deeply with millennials and indie film-lovers alike, but it received universal acclaim. With a budget of just million, it grossed 0 million worldwide and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
On a personal level, I watched Lost in Translation for the first time during a bout of depression in my early 20s after recently moving to New York. It led me to book a flight to Tokyo, where for two weeks (and one cliché night at the Park Hyatt) I reveled in post-grad misery with strangers among the neon glow of Shinjuku and Shibuya City. Years later, I watched Lost in Translation after an especially bad breakup, and now, during the coronavirus pandemic, I find myself reaching for it again. At its core, Lost in Translation is a story about misunderstanding and how excess and cheap gratification do little to lessen despondence. And right now, such a story feels like a salve.
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