Why Does "Lost In Translation" End With a Mystery?
Why don't we get to hear what Bob says to Charlotte at the end of the film, and what does this secret tell us about the movie's themes?
Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation begins and ends with questions. As the movie fades into its opening shot, we are confronted with Charlotte (a twenty-two year old graduate played by a precociously mature seventeen-year-old Scarlett Johansson) lying on a hotel bed, with her back to us, trying to get some daytime sleep as she adjusts to the time difference here in Tokyo. But I am being somewhat coy in this description, in a way that the movie decidedly isn’t: The opening shot is an unbroken view of Charlotte’s ass in sheer pink panties. The shot holds, lingers, the title eventually appears on the screen and dissolves away, before the image finally fades to black and the movie proper begins.
It’s a shot that unquestionably has some eroticism implied; it is an unusual opener, in its framing, subject matter, and duration; the length of time it lingers has us waiting in some expectation – will this person turn over or speak? That opening shot is an invitation to questions, not least of which is What was that all about?
But we’ll come back to that.
If we fast-forward through the film – through Bill Murray’s Bob, actor in decline, arriving in Tokyo to shoot a commercial and avoid the disintegration of his marriage, through his meeting Charlotte, a fellow insomniac hotel-wanderer, through the next several nights exploring the city together and revealing the extent of their respective existential crises (hers: Who will I be in this life I am at the beginning of? His: What do I have left as I near the end of this life I have been living?) – we come to the final scene in the movie, which acts as a bookend to the spiritual or thematic purpose of the opening shot by raising one last, big question.
A taxi whisks Bob away from Tokyo, and Charlotte, when he catches sight of her in a crowd. He jumps out of the vehicle and catches up with Charlotte, who has clearly been saddened by their parting. They stare wistfully at each other, as if there is so much to say that neither of them can say anything at all. Then he pulls her into him and they hug. With his mouth by her ear, he says something to her that is muffled by the sounds of the busy street, people’s feet hitting concrete, and cars rushing by, honking in the background. Only Charlotte hears what he says, which ends with, “Okay?” and her responding, “Okay.”
It is a subtle, tender, nuanced moment; it offers some closure but not in any conventional sense; it frustrates while satisfying; and it has led innumerable viewers, over the almost twenty years since the film’s release, to ask, “What did Bob say to Charlotte?”
There has been no shortage of proposed answers to this question, and some theories have been raised to the status of semi-gospel truth with the evidence provided by software that enhances Murray’s voice and mutes the surrounding audio. Probably the most popular hypothesis depends on a single interpretation of the still garbled sound of Murray muttering into Johansson’s hair. This guess about Bob’s final words to Charlotte is:
“I have to be leaving, but I won’t let that come between us. Okay?”
The strength of this theory is that it responds to the central preoccupation of the film – connection. When Bob says (if Bob says) that he won’t let distance come between them, he is acknowledging that they have developed an unusual bond over the few days they have known each other. This connection explains the depth of their sorrow at parting in spite of the brevity of their friendship.
When we first meet Bob, arriving at the hotel where he will stay for the duration of his trip, he is immediately out of place. He is plastered with fawning attention of questionable sincerity from the concierge, hotel manager, and porters who express their pleasure at his being there. In spite of this, or perhaps even because of the excess of this, Bob seems completely alone. He is isolated by his celebrity; he literally stands out when he gets into a crowded elevator and his head rises well above those of the locals crammed in around him.
A small number of critics have seen Bob’s “out-of-place-ness” as racist, as if it is a running joke the Japanese are the butt of. While there is undoubtedly an element of “these locals are strange”, this is an unavoidable fact of any traveller’s experience. Spend enough time in a place and you will see that people are as strange here as they are back home; they are just strange in their own ways. But this is not the point of Bob’s inability to ingratiate himself into Tokyo life. He is the punchline, he is who looks ridiculous as he struggles with an exercise machine and calls out absurdly for help, or has to crouch foolishly to fit underneath the showerhead in his hotel room.
There are two scenes that sit back to back in a manner that suggests Bob’s experience of disconnectedness echoes Charlotte’s, and vice versa. In Bob’s scene, he is attempting to please a director whom he cannot understand. As the animated director shouts advice, gesticulating with great emphasis and yet little meaning, Bob sits impotently aside, reliant on the translator. When translation comes, the lengthy, expressive speech is reduced to a simple, single line of banal direction: “He want you to turn, look in camera.” Bob feels that there is clearly some information he is not being given (literally lost in translation), so when the director is displeased with his performance, Bob has no clue how to fix it.
The next scene sees Charlotte discovering a temple where she witness a ceremony of some kind. She watches but – as she later, distraught and near tears, tells an American friend on the phone – she fails to feel anything in response to what she sees. She is unable to connect because she is outside of this shrine’s meaning and lacks the necessary knowledge. The friend to whom she attempts to communicate this sorrowful disconnectedness does not register the importance of what Charlotte is telling her, treating the call like a glorified postcard, the kind of vacuous communique full of platitudes intended to incite little more than reassurance or envy.
This is the kind of existential disconnectedness each of our lead characters are feeling when they enter each other’s lives. Little wonder, then, that they are both so loathe to give it up when the time comes for them to part ways.
Of course, there is one obvious method of discovering what Bob says to Charlotte, and it comes with the attractive quality of having some objective standard to it: Check the script.
Unfortunately, the script turns up nothing. There are three lines of dialogue that don’t appear in the movie (Bob asks her why she is crying, Charlotte says, “I’ll miss you,” and he replies, “I know, I’m going to miss you, too”) but it is nowhere indicated that these lines are whispered or inaudible to the audience. They also do not end with the only words we can all hear for sure – “Okay?” and “Okay” – so these are almost certainly not the lines uttered in the film.
The next safe bet would be to ask the actor himself, but when Bill Murray has been asked for clarification on what he said to his co-star, he has given different versions of, “None of your business.”
The final place we might hope for closure is with the director. In a 2018 interview with Little White Lies, Sofia Coppola said that what “Bill whispers to Scarlett was never intended to be anything. I was going to figure out later what to say and add it in and then we never did”. According to other interviews, she had workshopped a bunch of potential lines, none of which held the requisite power for such a moment, and in the end she gave it over to Murray, whom she told to say whatever he liked in the moment. Not even Coppola herself knows now what he chose to whisper and, as she suggested, it never really mattered what words he chose. It was always about what the secret itself meant.
Here we see that the question we most immediately want to ask – What did Bob say to Charlotte? – is secondary to the question that really matters, the question that sits beneath every missed connection, every misunderstanding, every inability to convey oneself fully or articulate clearly what is supposed to be communicated with our feeble, failing words. The fundamental question is: What does this communication mean? Ultimately, meaning is what communication is about, not the words or intonations or accompanying facial expressions – at least, they don’t matter in and of themselves. They only count as far as they carry meaning between minds.
So we might ask ourselves, even as we wonder what it is Bob whispers to Charlotte: What does it mean that he told her anything at all in this final moment? And what does it mean that we do not get to know what he said? It is a matter not of “what” but of “why”; not What did Bob say? but Why don’t we get to hear it?
At the top of this essay, I discussed the opening shot of Lost In Translation, and I described it and the final scene as being in the business of asking questions. To address the question raised in that closing scene, I recommend returning to the beginning of the film.
Scarlett Johansson’s ass in those sheer pink panties filling the opening frame – a direct reference to the work of artist John Kacere (just look up Jutta for proof of this) – is an unabashed confrontation with the viewer. Coppola is making a statement – that much is clear from such a deliberate stylistic choice – but we are then confronted with the question: What statement is she making?
Coppola herself has said that although she knew early on this was what the first shot would be (it is scripted with specific reference to the type of underwear), she is unsure why she chose it. This means that, just as with the closing question of Bob’s whispered words to Charlotte, we are free as viewers to explore our own ideas about what it means.
There have been as many responses to this question as there have been to the final question. Wendy Haslam believes that the director’s intent “appears to be to defy taboos and to undermine expectations surrounding what might be considered the ‘money shot’ in more traditionally exploitative cinema”. Others have argued that it foreshadows the films aesthetic and mood. Todd Kennedy has said that the shot “lasts so long as to become awkward – forcing the audience to become aware of (and potentially even question) their participation in the gaze”.
This last idea by Kennedy is not far off what I think. I take this shot as a self-conscious invitation to voyeurism. We are made to look, forced to keep looking, and at some point – in the darkness of the cinema as the eyes adjust and the mass of surrounding people become visible again, or sitting beside a friend or lover on the sofa, or alone but with one’s own self-consciousness to draw attention to one’s gaze – we become aware that we are looking.
Once this “scene” is over, it is followed by what we might take as the movie’s “real opening” (if that first shot serves as a prologue), with Bob asleep in a taxi speeding through the neon streets of Tokyo. We see his face off-centre of the shot; behind him, outside of the window, the blur of colours and cityscape speeds by. As Bob wakes and rubs the sleep from his eyes, we are given clear shots of the city, no longer out of focus. As the stranger looks out on this strange land, we also see it and become sightseers with him.
At the climax of the movie comes the culmination of the connection these two characters have developed. Here, they share a moment of intimacy so profound and so deep that it can exist only between them. In turning away from the world, including the viewers, Bob and Charlotte share something that exists, by definition, solely for and between the two of them. A connection always means corresponding disconnection; if I am connecting with you, I am tautologically not connecting with any other person. Even when I am connecting with a group, when I and others form a community bond, the in-group defines an out-group.
In this moment, where we are shut out of the connection between Bob and Charlotte, we are given a more complete experience of the movie’s theme of connection: We have witnessed the alienation of the two lead characters, which inaugurated the growing bond between them, which we have also been some part of by viewing it, and finally we experience disconnectedness for ourselves. This is not the vicarious experience of Charlotte or Bob’s isolation, but true disconnectedness, shut out from the characters’ experience, from the moment they share, and from the film itself. We are as viewers, after all, used to assuming some right of access to personal scenes in characters’ lives. Movies invite us to be sightseers, but here, at the close of Lost In Translation, we are denied that.
There are potentially as many interpretations of the opening shot and what is said in the final scene as there are viewers of Lost In Translation. In practise, its fans have gone quite some distance in demonstrating this fact. There are so many views of what happens in the film and what it is about because there are, as John Berger showed us, many “ways of seeing”. Lost In Translation never closes itself to any particular reading, and Sofia Coppola deliberately made a movie that was generous in its openness, allowing a variety of ways to form our own connections with the film.
Lost In Translation draws our attention to two things, one via the other. First, it makes us aware of the act of watching; then, it reminds us that we don’t simply see, we must interpret what we see. We must continually ask ourselves as engaged movie-watchers, “What does it mean to see what I am seeing?” This is the philosophical bedrock on which cinema as an art exists. All cinema is voyeurism. At its best, it is a self-reflective voyeurism that discovers what is beneath and inside our looking.
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• Lost In Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola (2003)
• Lost In Translation: shooting draft, Sofia Coppola (2002)
• Lost In Translation (Bill Murray’s WHISPER revealed), Vid Vidor [YouTube] (2007)
• “‘I never expected people to connect with it so much’ – Sofia Coppola on Lost in Translation at 15”, in Little White Lies, Simon Bland (2018)
• “Neon Gothic: Lost in Translation”, in Senses Of Cinema, Wendy Haslam (2004)
• “Off with Hollywood’s Head: Sofia Coppola as Feminine Auteur”, in Film Criticism, Todd Kennedy (2010)