“Lost in Translation” is a movie about loneliness, the pitfalls of introversion and the secret (but widely held belief) that it’s impossible to be fully understood by or profoundly connected to someone else. This mutual disillusionment with human relationships turns out to be precisely what allows the film’s leads, Bob (Bill Murray, “Rushmore”) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin”), to bond and, ultimately, experience the kind of togetherness they once thought was unattainable.
Given the subject matter of the film, it’s hard to conceive how its soundtrack could possibly belong to it. The music — mainly shoegaze songs that found their home in the late ’80s-early ’90s alternative scene — is noisy and thunderous and totally uninhibited. In other words, it’s exactly what the characters — shy and secretive and insecure — aren’t.
Perhaps the music serves to express what the characters can’t bear to. So much of “Lost in Translation” is about disguise and the artifices we use to hide our genuine selves, doing things not because we want to but because we think it’s what we’re supposed to do. Bob, an accomplished actor, is filming whiskey commercials in Tokyo when he’d rather be performing in plays. Charlotte is in the middle of an unfulfilling marriage, without any sense of purpose in her personal life or work. They both let themselves be carried along by life instead of taking control of it. They have become strangers to themselves, people who live not with passion but with timidity.
On the contrary, the soundtrack is anything but timid. It is loud and chaotic and beautiful precisely because it is ugly. It’s a glorious explosion of honest, unobstructed emotion. It challenges our impulse to hide from each other and from ourselves, like in the song “Sometimes,” when Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine sings, “you can’t hide from the way I feel.” The music says what Bob and Charlotte can’t find the words to tell each other, while hardly using any words at all. It is pure noise, noise you can feel from the very bottom of your heart, noise that demands to be listened to at the absolute loudest volume possible.
Many things in this movie are, as the title might suggest, lost in translation. Bob and Charlotte’s inability to speak or understand Japanese gives them a sense of alienation from the culture they are surrounded by. Both characters struggle to faithfully express their thoughts and feelings to other people, even the people they are married to. But the title of the film also seems to be a reflection on the act of filmmaking itself. Something about the story being portrayed and the experience of being there to film it is lost when it is viewed just as a movie. Director Sofia Coppola seems fully conscious of this, and it’s probably why she chose to make Bob’s parting words to Charlotte unintelligible to viewers. While there’s been much speculation about what exactlyhe whispered into her ear, we’ll probably never know for sure. Yet, when I watch Scarlett Johansson’s face as she gazes out on the streets of Tokyo in the film’s final sequence, set to The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey,” I feel as though I understand what she’s feeling in that moment in response to Bob’s words. And it’s all because of that song, which tells me more about her emotions than any words ever could. The music requires no translation, and because it’s there, nothing is really lost.