Over the course of 100 minutes, Lost in Translation explores the relationship between two lost souls. Romantic and well-observed, with rich performances from Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, the movie captures the longing shared by two people who don’t belong anywhere. And yet, despite the film’s many achievements, the conversation around Lost in Translation has been dominated by one question: “What did he say?”
At the end of the film, aging actor Bob Harris (Murray) hugs young grad student and newlywed Charlotte and whispers something in her ear. Writer-director Sofia Coppola puts just enough of the whisper into the mix to suggest that maybe it should be heard by a viewer who pays enough attention, but not enough to register, even with subtitles.
For 20 years, some corners of film fandom have obsessed over the question, as if hearing that brief bit of dialogue would unlock the meaning of the movie—as if then they could understand what Charlotte was thinking when she watched a Japanese wedding or what carpet color Bob finally chose for his home back in the States.
Lost in Hollywood
When Lost in Translation premiered in September 2003, it found its three principal creatives at a key point in their collective careers. Coppola was following up her well-received 1999 debut feature The Virgin Suicides, which starred Kirsten Dunst as one of six sisters who capture the attention of neighbor boys in 1960s suburban Michigan. Despite the film being the toast of Cannes, to plenty of mainstream moviegoers, Coppola was still best known for her lackluster performance in The Godfather, Part III, which was directed by her father Francis Ford Coppola.
Bill Murray, meanwhile, had gestured more difficult work, such as his Hunter S. Thompson movie Where the Buffalo Roam, or the crime comedy Quick Change, yet most still knew him as the Saturday Night Live funnyman who starred in Ghostbusters and What About Bob? Wes Anderson finally gave him a heavier role that resonated with viewers in 1998’s Rushmore, but no one was prepared for the depths of sadness he the actor was about to bring to Coppola’s Bob Harris.
And only 17 at the time of filming Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson hardly had any reputation at all. She had a few notable roles in indie films, such as Ghost World and Manny & Lo, the latter of which caught Coppola’s eye, but was she was almost entirely unknown to audiences.
Yet these disparate figures proved to be the perfect alchemy to make Lost in Translation into a success. The trio creates a story about malaise and disconnection, observing the alienation as Bob and Charlotte wander throughout Tokyo. Bob has arrived in the Japanese capital as an American movie star who is far past his prime; he’s now reduced to shooting whisky commercials overseas while avoiding his wife and children. Charlotte, conversely, comes with her young husband John (Giovanni Ribisi), a photographer hired to shoot a Japanese rock band. Neither feels like they belong until they encounter each other and grow increasingly close during the few days they share.
The movie was a bonafide hit, earning $118.7 million on a $4 million budget. The film earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Murray, and won Coppola the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. And yet, people still obsess over that final whispered line.
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Speaking about the movie’s 15th anniversary with IndieWire, Coppola revealed the significance of the final whisper… sort of. “That thing Bill whispers to Scarlett was never intended to be anything,” she admitted. “I was going to figure out later what to say and add it in and then we never did.”
But in retrospect, she sees the unfinished moment that closed the film as a happy accident and not a mistake. “It was between them,” she says of the statement. “Just acknowledging that week meant something to both of them and it affects them going back to their lives.”
However, this hasn’t prevented people from searching for a deeper or definitive. In 2007, Youtube user Vid Vidor claimed to have digitally scrubbed the audio, thereby allegedly isolating Murray’s dialogue. According to their video, Bob tells Charlotte, “I have to be leaving, but I won’t let that come between us, okay?” Shortly after that video went live, it received a boost by the website EW, which in turn caused Vid Vidor’s reading has become the standard answer. Yet if you listen to their scrubbed audio, it still sounds fairly inconclusive, and others have indeed challenged it.
For example, in a video posted in 2009, YouTube user DaeOh suggested that Bill actually says the following: “When John is waiting on the next business trip, go up to that man and tell him the truth, okay?” And even a decade later, reddit threads continue to argue and joke about it. One 2018 user, seems to think Bob says, “Promise me, that the next thing you do, is go up to that man and tell him the truth.”
Does Coppola endorse any of these interpretations? “People always ask me what’s said,” she told IndieWire. “I always like Bill’s answer: that it’s between lovers – so I’ll leave it at that.”
Lost in the Question
While it’s easy to understand why audiences would want to hear what characters say to one another, dialogue is not always the point. In fact, miscommunication is a common theme in Lost in Translation, which Coppola builds by omitting key parts of her narrative.
Take a significant scene in which Bob spends the night with an American Jazz singer (Catherine Lambert) in his hotel bar. We simply see the singer sit down next to Bob after her set. As soon as she says the word “hi,” Coppola immediately cuts to Bob waking up in bed the next morning, aware of the empty space next to him. We don’t see what their romance was like, nor do we see how the two separate. We just see Bob’s loneliness, even in this encounter, and the wedge it drives between him and Charlotte.
Coppola most obviously uses misunderstandings for comic effect, usually involving Murray and his Japanese co-stars. In one of the movie’s most ridiculous scenes, a sex worker (Nao Asuka) tries to seductively play with Bob, only to have him fumble her flirtations. The scene ends with the worker flailing on the floor, pretending to be ravaged by Bob while Murray flops listlessly atop of her.
In another sequence, an intense commercial director (Yutaka Tadokoro) gives long instructions in Japanese to Bob, only for translator Ms. Kawasaki (Akiko Takeshita) to give short, terse explanations in English. “Is that all he said?” asks an exasperated Bob, rendered impotent by his inability to share a language with his co-workers.
Although less comedic, Charlotte has her own share of misunderstandings, often with her husband John. After ranting about a creative disagreement with the band he’s shooting, John looks befuddled when Charlotte asks his opinion on a scarf she’s knitting. Later Charlotte joins John for dinner with his friend, the air-headed Hollywood actress Kelly (a scene-stealing Anna Farris). Coppola keeps her camera largely on Charlotte during these scenes, capturing the hints of despair and disappointment betrayed by Johansson’s face.
Coppola applies the same techniques to the warmer parts of her film, silently watching the characters when they find belonging. Even away from Bob, Charlotte experiences peace when she visits a garden in rural Tokyo or sees teens playing video games in an arcade. The late-night karaoke sequence signals the consummation of Bob and Charlotte’s relationship and while it does feature plenty of talking/singing, the defining moment occurs when Charlotte rests her head on Bob’s shoulder, no words shared between them.
As these scenes demonstrate, words do not make meaning in Lost in Translation. Anyone who demands to hear what Bob tells Charlotte at the end will find only words as useless as the faxes John and Bob’s wife send throughout the film.
Finding the Point
One may ask if the whispered words don’t matter then what is the point of that final scene? We get the answer when we quiet ourselves and engage with what the film does give us: the close-up on Bob and Charlotte’s faces, the buzz of crowd noise enfolding them, the soft grays in cinematographer Lance Acord’s color palette. Those elements come together to provoke a feeling in the viewer, and that’s where the meaning lies. That’s the connection that both the viewer and the film want.
To look for meaning in something that’s not there is to recreate the errors that Bob and Charlotte make at the start of the movie, leaving viewers lonely and disconnected, missing the depth of feeling Lost in Translation offers if we would only let it be.