Or, In Defence of Self-Indulgence.
This post isn’t so much about Lost in Translation as it is about one of the main retrospective criticisms of it. As a film that came out in 2003, many who first saw it as impressionable teenagers now consider themselves (perhaps rightly) as more discerning adults. The film was well made and very atmospheric – that much is undeniable. But it had an agenda of self-indulgence, self-pity and generally embarrassing ennui. That, at least, seems to be the message of the comments on an article from 2015 I read recently on Jezebel. Though the article focused on Bill Murray’s alleged domestic abuse and all-round dickheaded nature, the comments featured a strong vein of criticism levelled at Sofia Coppola’s sophomore itself.
Below are a few examples of some comments along the lines of “How was I taken in by this film, apologist as it is for people who just go on holiday and feel sorry for themselves?”
What I think these comments ignore is the fact that however cosseted it might make them seem, people do have these existential moments. They do feel sorry for themselves. It’s very well and good to remind them that they actually have incredibly comfortable lives compared to the rest of the world, and to tell them to pull themselves together, but ultimately, it’s this aspect of the film that makes it so relatable.
Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of examples of men like Murray’s character in the film, who in middle age suddenly up and leave for what seem like inexplicable reasons. 19-year-olds do cheat on their boyfriends with 40-year-old men. Sure, they’re idiots. But this film aims to understand why they’re idiots.
There’s a certain vulnerability to everyone, no matter how much they hide it. Everyone was once a child, everyone has something dear to them, or something they either miss or are scared of losing. Sometimes that undefinable thing, be it youth, independence, the search for fulfilment, makes someone act stupidly – at least from the point of view of an outsider (or a Jezebel commenter, perhaps the most cynical and blunt on the internet). But to them, it seems important.
Sure, Bill Murray’s character Bob is an arsehole (and bear in mind Charlotte’s reaction to him sleeping with the singer from the bar – she thinks much less of him for it). But people do act like this, for whatever reason. I think the point of the film is not so much to celebrate as to recognize this, and to explore why. Two people of different ages but not dissimilar basic backgrounds (they both seem well-educated, well-off and are foreigners in Japan) both happen to have sudden onsets of introspection and uncertainty. Cut them some slack and realize you have probably been there too, at some point in your life.
People who have nothing to really worry about still find something. Always. In a way, that’s the premise of most of Sofia Coppola’s films. The sisters of The Virgin Suicides kill themselves out of boredom and hatred of suburbia. Marie Antoinette’s biggest concern is that her husband won’t shag her, whilst his invisible subjects are outside Versailles, starving to death and agitating. Stephen Dorff’s protagonist (if you can call him that) in Somewhere has an empty existence where the Chateau Marmont provides everything he could ever want. It’s only when he sees his daughter that he has anything resembling real purpose or drive.
And so it becomes clear that it is the very self-indulgence of Lost in Translation that makes it important. Because if you want a story about true human hardship, watch 12 Years a Slave, or Hunger, but if you want something that you can relate to on a more day-to-day existential level, watch Lost in Translation, and recognize that even your stupid little issues about what you’re “doing” with your life are important to you.