The Sound of Silence : ‘Lost in Translation’ and how it unfolds the feeling of loneliness

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‘Lost in translation’ written and directed by Sofia Coppola, was released in 2003. The plot follows the journey of two completely different Americans isolated in Japan because of different circumstances but end up finding solace in common with one another. The film essentially portrays the blossoming romance between the protagonists, Bob and Charlotte. It also explores the theme of loneliness, life and the culture of our society. ‘Lost in translation’ is also a popular saying. It implies the original meaning of a word or sentence was lost once translated. Translation as a concept merely exists to communicate better globally, throughout cultures and languages. Thus, when translated, the meaning of the word or sentence in a particular language loses its subtext. However, this saying can also be applied metaphorically to another context, especially regarding emotion and sentiments. This review will highlight the different ways used to portray the concept of loneliness in ‘Lost in Translation’ using various elements of the film.

Sofia Coppola is an American filmmaker, famously known as the daughter of filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola. Coppola made her first feature-length directorial debut with ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999), adapted from 1993 best-selling novel by American author Jeffrey Eugenides. In 2004, she received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for ‘Lost in Translation’ and became the third woman in history to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. Coppola won Best Director for her film ‘The Beguiled’ (2017) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the second woman in the festival’s history to win that award.

When it comes to film, it is considered a powerful medium to construct a meaningful text. Elements of film such as cinematography, perspective, sound, camera angle, camera shot, etc., help build the text and provide depth. All these elements were vital when illustrating loneliness in ‘Lost in Translation’.  Throughout the entire film, the audience can notice the presence of various literary devices such as symbolism, metaphors, setting and round characters. These devices can guide the audience to understand the focal concept of the film, which is loneliness.

The film is not scared to explore different and unusual dynamics between its characters. Starting with newlywed Charlotte with her young husband, who cannot spare her any time of his day. On the other hand, Bob shares a dull relationship with his wife for a long time; their interactions are limited to talking about children, carpet colour and other domestic subjects. Bob and Charlotte meet unusually and are immediately established as an odd pairing, even uncomfortable to some extent. Despite all the odds, they bond over their dissimilarities and unexpectedly falls for each other. The film never fails to recognize life is full of surprises, and one can find comfort and even a sense of belonging in the most unexpected places.

The film’s portrayal of loneliness is present throughout the screenplay, cinematography, score and the making in general.  The film’s very first scene is an intimate and sensual frame, reflecting the loneliness and emptiness of the protagonist’s life. Both characters are shown to be at an impasse in their lives where they feel mutually neglected and disoriented by their close ones and the world. Coppola’s feature film brilliantly captured the lingering feeling of displacement and the insatiable burning to belong.

If a film is a text, the cinematography is the language of the text. The cinematography of ‘Lost in Translation’ plays a vital role in characterizing how emptiness can feel.


Lost in translation (2003), Sofia Coppola, USA

This shot is prevalent when it comes to discussing ‘Lost in Translation’. In a busy metropolitan city like Tokyo, the main character sits on the top floor of a skyscraper. However, darkness and melancholy looms around her. The scene is shot from a Bird’s eye perspective, so the camera is placed at a slightly higher angle than the protagonist. The framing of this shot is critical since it symbolizes the class and emotional difference caused by capitalism in society. The protagonist is distant from everything happening down in the main city. She can afford to be disconnected from reality with the help of her money and privilege. Practically, she is far from all the noises and smells. This can be interpreted as a commentary on systemic classism and elitism in society. Rich people can afford to climb to the top of social tiers, where they don’t have to struggle leading a daily life. A similar framing style has been used historically throughout cinema to portray class differences, for example, in ‘Seemabaddha’ (1971), ‘Two’ (1964), ‘The wolf of wall street’ (2013).


‘Seemabaddha’ (1971), Satyajit Ray, India


‘Two’ (1964), Satyajit Ray, India


‘Two’ (1964), Satyajit Ray, India


‘The wolf of wall street’ (2013). Martin Scorsese, USA


The shot subtly guides the audience that Charlotte is disconnected from reality. However, the darkness around her also hints that she is disconnected from herself, too, since she feels void and lost.

Disconnection is one of the principal themes used to embody loneliness in this film. The conversations between Bob and his wife are a constant reminder of how disconnected their relationship is from reality. They discuss the colour of carpets for their home, but every time Bob tries to talk about something more personal, he is immediately dismissed by his wife. The same theme follows in the relationship between Charlotte and her husband; they are disconnected from one another. This theme contributes to constructing this film as a metaphor for depression.

A metaphor is a figure of speech where comparison is made between typically objects and action. The film’s title, ‘lost in translation’, is a metaphor itself, as mentioned earlier. This metaphor is cleverly portrayed through different scenes to portray a larger metaphor for depression. In one of the scenes, Bob is shooting a commercial for a whiskey, and the director is seen trying to direct him thoroughly. However, when the translator translates his directions, she only ends up using one sentence. This scene is a direct example of being lost in translation. Since neither Bob nor Charlotte speaks Japanese, they are stuck in a place where they cannot talk to and communicate with anybody around them, which can be considered a metaphor for depression.

The hotel plays a significant role throughout the entire film. It is portrayed as a satire of how materialistic and artificial people’s lives have become. It symbolizes a luxurious prison to both protagonists. The satirical elements can be observed by the quirks of Japanese culture around the hotel, safe jazz music and people who experience westernized Japanese culture within the hotel. The film isn’t hesitant to show how materialism, capitalism and westernization actually contribute to the emptiness; people rely on inanimate objects to feel and live life. As the saying goes, ‘money cannot buy happiness.

The colour-grading used for this film is also quite notable. Conventionally, the concept of loneliness, melancholy and emptiness would be automatically associated with darker tones such as grey and black. However, Coppola chooses to use the bright neon colours of the lively Tokyo city and the hyper cyberculture surrounding the city. The lyrical loneliness that lies underneath those colours is vivid and present as subtext throughout the entire film. Despite using the colours of Tokyo, the film still uses a muted version of those colours to render the gritty and realistic scenes. It helps the audience experience Tokyo from the perspective of the protagonists. This technique accurately displays how solitude exists in our daily bright, technological and commercialized lifestyle. Despite being surrounded by people, lonesomeness takes over one. Humans are never alone but always lonely.

The sound was quintessential when portraying the theme. ‘Silence’ is the strongest element used. It expresses the theme of loneliness as synonymous with things unsaid. Besides the brilliantly timed silence and beautiful score, the non-diegetic sounds used throughout the film, especially that of technology, helped to illustrate the modern capitalist life. Non-diegetic sounds are sounds that are not dialogues from the characters or created by any known source. This type of sound is often sound effects, and music added post-production. The sound of a fax machine, voice announcing train time, the narrators of the glossy ads and a host of hyped up television shows are all trying to sell a perfect life that does not exist. The sound of these noises echoes throughout the scene, the void of life is impossible to fill like this.

When discussing all the elements of this film, the acting by Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte and Bill Murray as Bob should not get unnoticed. Both actors delivered stunning performances and really brought the characters to life on screen. Johansson was only 17 years old during filming but effortlessly played a character in their twenties. They were both critically acclaimed for their works and The New York Times even remarked that Billy Murray “supplies the kind of performance that seems so fully realized and effortless that it can easily be mistaken for not acting at all.”

Nevertheless, the real meaning of the title in the context of this film actually comes from the protagonists. They are unable to properly comprehend the language; that is their lives. Ultimately, ‘Lost in Translation’ succeeds as a thoroughly crafted film that portrays loneliness and provides insight that helps the audience understand life itself. The film concentrates on Bob, Charlotte and their internal struggles, which are magnified. Sofia Coppola, the director of the film, said in an interview once

“Tokyo is so hectic, but inside the hotel, it’s very silent. And the design of it is very interesting. It’s weird to have this New York bar, the jazz singer, the French restaurant, all in Tokyo. It’s this weird combination of different cultures.”

The city of Tokyo is fundamental to the plot since these characters would never experience such discoveries in places like New York or Chicago. It needed to happen in a setting where the protagonists felt alone, and Japan can often be considered a completely different world than the West. The characters needed to be in Tokyo to find themselves. When there is something to be found, first, it needs to be lost.









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