Last month saw the ten year anniversary of one of Sofia Coppola’s most acclaimed films, Lost In Translation. Using Neorealist film techniques, Coppola sets her unconventional story about human companionship against a Postcolonial theoretical backdrop. Coppola’s modern approach to a veritable mixed bag of influences won the hearts of audiences and critics worldwide, a feat which saw her second feature film awarded the prestigious Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, closely followed by three BAFTAs and three Golden Globes.
Filmed entirely on location in Tokyo, Coppola uses techniques introduced by Italian Neorealist directors such as Rossellini and Fellini in order to explore traditionally Colonial themes of foreignness, unfamiliarity, and miscommunication.
Like early twentieth-century Colonial literature from writers such as Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad, Coppola uses an East-meets-West backdrop upon which to layer more predominantly postmodern concerns such as solitude, insomnia, and misunderstanding.
There is a double consciousness of unfamiliarity; as Coppola launches her actors and actresses into the authentic Tokyo setting, she heightens the viewer’s own sense of foreignness and disorientation. As a result, all the traditional and colonial concerns arise out of Lost In Translation: feeling lost, feeling homesick, feeling confused.
Much of the foreground dialogue, and the majority of the background dialogue, is also foreign, which contributes to this sense of disorientation. Western and Eastern cultures co-exist with difficulty in Coppola’s film, but the aggression with which Western and Eastern languages clash against one another speaks not for a provincial or national culture clash, but for a wider, more general sense of miscommunication which pervades modern life on both an international and highly personal scale.
There is miscommunication between the actor and the director, between the young college graduate and the old spiritual monk, between the middle-aged man and the unwanted prostitute, between both protagonists and their respective partners. Most poignantly, there is miscommunication between Bob and Charlotte at the pivotal moment at which Bob decides to sleep with the resident hotel musician. There is a general lack of feeling and existential meaning which pervades the atmosphere of the film, transcending the culture shock and language barrier against which Coppola sets it.
In this sense, Coppola does not attempt to estrange the East from the West, but carefully chooses Tokyo as a place foreign to both her Western protagonists and her predominantly Western audience. And, as such, this film speaks of strangeness on an international level. It is not Tokyo that is strange – any person lifted from the familiarity of their own context and placed in a new one will have a heightened consciousness of the strangeness of apparently familiar human relationships.
Suddenly Bob’s wife’s musings on carpet colours and Charlotte’s husband’s specialised industry vernacular become strange to their respective partners, leaving Bob and Charlotte wondering how they never noticed this fundamental lack of basic, let alone spiritual, communication between themselves and the people they are closest to. Varying shades of burgundy and photography jargon become just as foreign to Bob and Charlotte as the Eastern culture into which they are thrust.
However, with the unsettling nature of the foreign context comes a certain comfort. Bob and Charlotte set out on a journey to find themselves again, and to find themselves somewhere new. In the same way, Coppola finds aspects of the amusing and the heartwarming in the ways we cope with loneliness – and in a modern world so rife with miscommunication, the magic of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship lies predominantly in its gestures, in its unspoken and mutual affection, rather than in its words.
The scenes of real human, emotional, and spiritual connection are found in the scenes in which they sing together, eat together, drink together, go to hospital together, and, most memorably, when Bob sees Charlotte in a crowded street in the final scene of the film. Coppola’s film is often shrouded in silence, and in the final scene Bob whispers something into Charlotte’s ear. The words he whispers, however, no longer matter, and their inaudibility certainly communicates no significance to the film’s audience. But it is the gesture that communicates more than his words, and their parting kiss that bears more significance than any and all of their conversation. In a foreign land of foreign languages, customs, and rituals, Coppola points to something deeper: the unspoken and the spiritual aspects of human companionship.