Sofia Coppola movies tend to have that “dreamy” quality the narrator of The Virgin Suicides ascribes to the Lisbon girls, by which I mean there are many passages, but not many scenes. A scene might be three minutes long and represent three minutes in the lives of the characters. A passage, on the other hand, might be a minute long and represent hours, days or weeks in their lives. Coppola’s characters are reflective, contemplative, sublime and inspiringly quiet; because most scenes are built around dialog, and because her characters have little to say, she typically forgoes the scene.
However, Lost In Translation contains one of the longer scenes in Coppola’s oeuvre. Charlotte is the newly married wife of an aloof photographer, both on holiday in Tokyo. Bob is a tired, famous and older actor. In this scene, the two find themselves seated beside each other at a bar.
I sometimes show this scene to students studying short fiction as an exemplar of dialog which is both lucid, but believably ambiguous. Quickly, Bob and Charlotte want to be known by the other, and yet they do not hilariously blab everything they are thinking. Each person wants the other to invest something, and so they speak vaguely and mysteriously of themselves and hope to be interpreted.
The conversation occurs very, very late at night.
C: So what are you doing here?
We’re left to assume that Bob is no less famous than Bill Murray himself. The two immediately bond because they are Americans, and the significance of Bob’s celebrity is somewhat abrogated. SJ poses the question just a little less than accusatorily.
B: Couple of things. Taking a break from my wife. Forgetting my son’s birthday. And, uh, getting paid two million dollars to endorse a whiskey when I could be doing a play somewhere.
While Bob is the celebrity, and Charlotte immediately knows who he is, yet Bob is a little ashamed to speak to her. Charlotte looks directly at Bob while he answers this question, and Bob only once looks up at her. His response to what might have only been a polite question, easily blown off, is unexpectedly weighty. Charlotte is beautiful, and so when he says he is “taking a break from [his] wife,” Charlotte doesn’t know if he is coming on to her. Of course, the remark is made with such ennui, it seems hard to believe Bob has much desire left in him. He openly confesses to prostituting his talent, but he does not fail to include how much he is getting. The ambiguity of his words, and whether or not he is making himself available to Charlotte, begins in their first exchanged words and lingers through all the way to the final minutes of the film.
Charlotte finally looks away to tap out a cigarette, and her smile fades a moment. Newly married, she is not much interested in an affair, and perhaps she initially interprets Bob’s words as more forward than he intends. Bob might also have represented himself ambiguously, such that he could plausibly deny anything untoward, but might also make use of what he has told her if she seems interested.
We know from elsewhere in the film that Charlotte’s husband photographs rock bands for promos, a line of work which seems disparaged by Bob’s comment here; while Bob had no intent of being critical of Charlotte, he has mildly insulted the line of work her husband is in. In earlier scenes, Charlotte seems to ponder how much she has in common with her husband, who enjoys laughing and schmoozing with ditzy actresses who Charlotte would prefer to mock. The brevity of Charlotte’s reply might betray her feeling embarrassed for her husband, even though she also has thoughts of the vanity of his work.
B: But the good news is the whiskey works.
“Even though I don’t work anymore,” seems to be the sad, implied joke. Murray finishes the line and confidently looks her in the eye. When he takes a sip, he looks away, contemplating what to say next.
Charlotte laughs quite a bit during this scene, although she appears neither comfortable nor anxious.
B: What are you doing?
Bob returns the same question Charlotte posed, perhaps hoping she will be so honest with him as he was with her.
C: Uh, my husband is a photographer, so he’s here working. And I wasn’t doing anything so I came along. And we have some friends who live here.
She has not been as open as Bob, although neither has she revealed nothing.
Bob and Charlotte look at one another while Charlotte speaks. She begins with the claim that her husband is a photographer, casually letting Bob know that she is also married. Of all that Charlotte might claim about wanting to see Tokyo, being intrigued about Eastern culture, needing a break, she instead presents herself passively as someone who “wasn’t doing anything.” She has this in common with Bob, who wasn’t doing a play and so he came to shoot a commercial.
B: How long you been married? (lights Charlotte’s cigarette)
Having been little to go on from Charlotte, Bob inquires further into the most personal thing Charlotte has given him. This might also put Charlotte at ease; were he making a pass at her, he would not likely dwell on her marriage.
Bob says nothing about lighting her cigarette, he simply does it; most people, even friends, will comment to a person in need of a light, “I’ve got a light” before holding out a flame. Charlotte thanks him, but a bond has been established between the two. Coppola emphasizes the bond by cutting away (for the first time since the two began speaking) to Bob’s perspective, as he looks on while she holds the flame to her cigarette. Charlotte lightly cups her fingers around Bob’s outstretched hand, and the two very briefly, very lightly touch for the first time. The need for the cut to Bob’s perspective reveals the significance of the gesture to Bob. Coppola presents Bob thinking, “She touched me.”
C: Two years.
B: 25 long ones.
“Long ones” as a slang term for years is quite old. In Les Miserables, Valjean uses the expression “fourteen long ones” to describe how long he has been in the Bagne of Toulon.
Charlotte very quietly bellows “Ooh” before her next line.
C: You’re probably just having a midlife crisis. Did you buy a Porsche yet?
To hear this line, we cut back to Bob’s perspective of Charlotte. After posing the question, Charlotte maintains a comical expression, although it is hard to know if she is joking or making fun of Bob, for whom the purchase of a Porsche would be economically meaningless. He makes two million dollars to appear in commercials.
B: You know I was thinking about buying a Porsche.
Bob delivers the line straight, perhaps unsure whether he should feel insulted or play along.
C: 25 years. That’s… well, that’s impressive.
What was Charlotte going to say? She pauses a moment, wondering if her own marriage will last 25 years. Bob needs “a break” from his wife after 25 years, although earlier in the film, it appears that Charlotte will need a break from her husband far sooner. She has little knowledge of what those 25 years of Bob’s marriage have looked like, how well they have passed. Perhaps she means, “If I make it 25 years, I’ll be impressed.”
B: Well you figure you sleep one third of your life… that knocks off eight years of marriage right there. You’re down to sixteen and change. You’re just a teenager at marriage. You can drive it but… there’s still the occasional accident.
Bob does not find his 25 years of marriage particularly impressive. The analogy he crafts, that of marriage being like a distinct human life— having a personality completely alien to the persons involved, fits seamlessly into the existentially and spiritually “lost” themes of the film. His marriage seems to have gotten away from him.
Charlotte laughs because she thinks Bob is trying to be funny, although he isn’t.
B: What do you do?
C: Uh, I’m not sure yet. I just graduated last spring.
Again, Charlotte’s answer is dismissive. She might have told him what she wanted to do, jobs she was seeking, papers she was trying to get published, thoughts of a masters degree. Most recent graduates are full of claims about the certainty of future employment. Charlotte does not want to reveal much of herself, though, or else what she most wants Bob to understand is her own ambivalence toward a career.
B: What did you study?
B: You know there’s a good buck in that racket.
Actually, there’s not. Like many Americans, Bob has confused Philosophy with Psychiatry. Psychiatrists charge by the hour, and philosophers write books no one reads. We also learn, perhaps, what separates Charlotte from her husband, John. John photographs Japanese rock bands and hangs with Hollywood-types. Charlotte reads Schopenhauer and Boethius. Whether Bob understands philosophy or not, his jokingly-embittered remark suggests he has been to a psychiatrist before, and that the psychiatrist did him little good.
C: Well, so far it’s pro bono.
Charlotte takes Bob’s comment in stride, perhaps kidding him that the conversation he is presently enjoying is free; he has certainly revealed far more than he might have first intended.
B: Well, I’m sure you’ll figure out the angles.
“You’ll figure out how to get something out of me.” He hopes.
C: I hope your Porsche works out. Cheers to that.
“I don’t take psychiatry seriously either.”
C: Wish I could sleep.
B: Me, too.
The coda might reduce everything which has come before as a façade. Were both characters merely beating around the bush? Did they reveal anything substantial about their persons prior to this? Or it might be that the only thing they want to communicate is their own restlessness. The study of philosophy, the two year marriage, the twenty-five year marriage, the commercial and the commercial-photographing husband have culminated in the kind of dull anxiety which allows for no genuine rest. Both are tired of their lives, and simply tired from lack of sleep.
Neither Bob nor Charlotte nor the viewer knows entirely what to take away from the conversation, although the feeling that something significant has transpired is unavoidable. Too often, rookie writers bring big conversations to pass with a budget of words worthy of Cecil B. Demille. Yet upon examination, how often do terribly significant conversations in our own lives pass with nothing more than a Robert Frost-like suggestiveness? How often is a coy “Maybe” far more revelatory than a full explanation of the possibilities?