From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week we are celebrating Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Get your tickets here.
In 2003’s Lost in Translation, we meet Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an aging American star in Tokyo to film an ad for Suntori whiskey. He’s feeling alone, his marriage is falling apart and he can’t sleep. He’s perplexed by the culture around him, where he is in his life and the passive aggressive wife and carpet samples waiting for him at home. Then there is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young college graduate who’s husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) is in Tokyo for a photo shoot and brought her along. She is starting to question her life and trying to decide what to do with her career. John is dismissive and barely notices that she’s there. He thinks she’s a snob for not liking the super perky Kelly (Anna Faris), an actress they meet in their hotel. Bob and Charlotte are lost in their lives and they make a connection that can only happen when you’re traveling overseas. Saying very few words to each other, they communicate so much that you can practically hear the unsaid lines.
Writer/director Sophia Coppola doesn’t begin dialogue until almost ten minutes into the film, just drawing Bob’s mood and disconnection from his surroundings with music and the familiar yet foreign flashing lights of Tokyo. In fact, Bob and Charlotte rarely speak. When they do, it’s like no one understands them; like they’re speaking a different language. Charlotte’s husband only half hears her as she asks to go on a trip with him or tells him she’s lonely. He just keeps talking at her. Her distress call home is met with the same, as her friend is too distracted by what’s happening around her to hear the tears in Charlotte’s voice. Bob’s wife spends their time on the phone trying to make him feel bad for being gone. She can’t hear his sadness. When he’s trying to shoot the Suntori commercial, he knows the director is saying more than the translator is telling him. They’re talking around him, his group of hosts are like smiling robots, doing the same for him as any other guests and even in the bar, two men talk about Bob like he can’t hear them. Then he sees Charlotte in the elevator and she gives him a genuine smile. She might not remember it, but it’s a silent moment across a sea of people. Coppola makes you feel the utter relief of that moment of connection.
Watching this film for the 8th time (not kidding), the thing that struck me is how little Bob and Charlotte actually say to each other. It’s as if too many words might get them to cross a line with each other. Whether they’re out on the town, having lunch or sitting in the bar, their connection is done with looks and leaning in to each other. The silence is at once full of the tension of knowing they share this connection, and knowing that the usual line this crosses is one neither of them can afford. It’s full of the longing to be heard by someone. They say more to each other with their choice of songs in karaoke than they do with words. Charlotte can let herself out and be an extrovert with “Brass in Pocket,” though with her outgoing husband, she fades into the background. It practically screams, “Someone see me!” Bob picks “More Than This,” which speaks for itself. After their first night together out in the city, both of them are finally able to sleep. They don’t talk about it. They just drift off.
We never hear Bob say that he sort of wishes that he could have an affair with Charlotte. We know it because of the look on his face as he tucks her in. You can see him hesitate, and then make the decision to leave, We don’t hear Charlotte say how much he hurt her when he sleeps with someone else. We see it in her face. The two times they really speak are the fight they have afterward, though they don’t really say why, and their shared moment in the bed where they finally talk about their loneliness. Even that conversation isn’t long. They’re not looking at each other, and when they finally touch, it’s Bob’s hand on her foot, no more. That’s all they need.
When dialogue is this spare, what is said is important. From “Let’s never come here again. It wouldn’t be the same,” to “I’m stuck,” the silence gives the words more impact. There is a hurricane of sound around them; video game beeps and jingles to applause on a Japanese TV show, but each of them is an eye in that hurricane. Mostly silent, but actually connecting. It makes the final moment of the film even more powerful. Bob is leaving, they know it couldn’t be the same after this, but he sees her in a crowd, kisses her and whispers something into her ear. Whatever it was (and there are a number of videos and theories) isn’t really important. What matters is that it’s obvious from that moment that they both feel less alone. Once again, Coppola uses silence, even over dialogue to give Bob and Charlotte a sort of peace.
Though, I admit…I still want to know what he said.