It’s Greek to Me: Love in ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life, and that word is love.” – Socrates 

The image of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sat against a zebra-print wall from Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation has undeniably become one of the defining images of 2000s cinema. The question of why, out of all of the film’s beautiful neon-lit shots of Tokyo, this image has had such an impact is not difficult to answer. 

On an aesthetic level, for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, it is an extremely stylish shot, helped in no small part by Murray’s effortless charm and Johansson’s mystique, which somehow manages to transcend the medium of photography. However, for those who have seen the film, the image’s power lies within its ability to capture the film’s entire 101-minute runtime and distil in into a single frame.

At its most basic level, Lost in Translation is about loneliness. The film follows jaded, middle-aged actor Bob Harris (Murray) and bored college graduate Charlotte (Johansson) after their chance meeting in a Tokyo hotel bar. Bob is visiting the city to star in a lucrative, but professionally humiliating, whiskey commercial whilst Charlotte is exploring the city alone whilst her photographer husband works. During their meetings, the pair grow closer, bonding over their unhappy marriages, disillusionment with life and profound culture shock in the unfamiliar city. 

The photo’s most obvious allusion to the film’s themes lies in the pair’s style choices and facial expressions. Both are dressed in stark contrast to their appearance throughout the rest of the film. Bob hints at his mid-life crisis by eschewing his usual button-down shirt for an inside-out orange t-shirt whilst Charlotte expresses her desire for change by opting for a bright pink bob wig. Their expressions clearly signal a kind of boredom from their dissatisfaction in life, but also present is a contentedness. It’s almost as though they are both safe in the knowledge that their companion is going through exactly the same mental processes, albeit due to very different reasons.    

More importantly though, the position of Murray and Johansson perfectly captures the ambiguity of the pair’s relationship. On an objective level, a woman resting her head on a man’s shoulder isn’t necessarily an intimate act, but does Charlotte’s provocative performance of The Pretenders’ ‘Brass in Pocket’ and Bob’s knowing rendition of Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’ in the karaoke room beforehand change this? At what point does playful friendship transition to romantic intention? 

The photo’s ambiguity plays perfectly into the biggest question that has followed Lost in Translation since its original release – is it truly a love story? 

Screencapture from Lost in Translation. A man and a woman sit at a bar together.
Picture courtesy of Focus Features

In modern Western culture, we tend to view love as a single entity. This is not to say that all love is equal in our eyes, but to say we have limited ways to express the distinction between them. The inability to describe different types of love is the main driver of the debate surrounding Lost in Translation. If your definition of love relies on acts of physical intimacy, the film is not a love story at all. However, if your definition favours emotional intimacy instead, then Lost in Translation may be the greatest love story ever told. 

Clearly disputes about the classification of films into specific genres are nothing new, but these normally focus on the minutiae of sub-genre classification. In the case of Lost in Translation however, the viewpoints are so radically different that to some people it is a question of watching an entirely different film. The question of unifying these viewpoints therefore initially seems unfeasible. That is, until you consider looking at the film from a different cultural perspective – specifically Ancient Greek.

Within the myriad ideas that come from that era’s great philosophers lies an overarching view on the concept of love. In contrast to our modern view, the Ancient Greeks subscribed to the notion of love taking eight distinct forms – philia, storge, ludus. philautia, mania, pragma, agape and eros – based mainly on the subject being loved. When applied to Lost in Translation, this more nuanced view is particularly useful as the film depicts all of these forms to differing extents. 

When Bob and Charlotte first meet, bonding over their shared dissatisfaction with life and sense of aimlessness in a foreign country, they display the first signs of philia, or platonic love. Greek philosopher Aristotle further broke down philia-based relationships into 3 distinct categories – utility, pleasure and virtue. During the film, the pair’s platonic love cycles through all of these. 

Initially their friendship is one of utility. They have both finally found the ability to express their inner turmoil to somebody who, unlike their respective partners, will listen, understand and commiserate with them. This soon develops into pleasure as they spend more time in each other’s company exploring the city. Finally, it reaches virtue as, when the time comes for them to part, neither of them display self-interest, but instead allow each other to return to their normal lives. 

At the beginning of their friendship, there are also elements of storge, or familial love. This is most often described as the familial between a parent and child, but can also refer to instinctual asymmetrical love. This is most clearly displayed in Bob’s concern for Charlotte. As an older man providing life advice, with children of his own, Bob is inherently on some level a father figure in the friendship. This is most apparent after the pair’s night out in Shibuya when Bob carries a drunk Charlotte back to her hotel room, taking off her shoes and pulling a blanket over her. 

The placement of this scene is vital, as their night in Shibuya also signals the pair’s transition from the friendship of philia to ludus, or playful love. Ludus is often considered to be romantic flirting, but is not overtly sexual in nature. This development is first hinted at during Charlotte’s attempts to cut the label out of Bob’s inside-out t-shirt and evolves throughout the night culminating in their attempts at flirtatious one-upmanship in the karaoke bar. The balance between storge and ludus continues throughout the following scenes – one moment Bob is playfully mocking Charlotte’s inability to eat sushi and in the next he is insisting he takes her to hospital to have her broken toe examined. 

Screencapture from Lost in Translation. A man and a woman face each other at a bar.
Picture courtesy of Focus Features

The film’s most nuanced depiction of love is the notable absence of philautia, or self love, throughout. The pair’s shared inability to find their own happiness is most obvious through their mutual interest in a self-help book called A Soul’s Search: Finding Your True Calling. Although they both attempt to find self-fulfilment through exploring the city alone during the day, they invariably end up back at the hotel bar together every night. 

The lack of philautia in both Bob and Charlotte’s lives is the most obvious cause of the pair’s descent into mania, or jealous love, during the film’s third act. It is mainly Bob’s self-hatred that leads him to sleep with the singer of the hotel bar’s jazz band just for the sake of it, whilst Charlotte’s jealousy comes from the realisation that they are no longer lost with only each other for company. This finally reveals the extent to which their happiness is externally reliant on each other and, over a particularly emotionally-charged meal, their friendship breaks down. 

In spite of this, the pair meet one last time in the hotel bar. The deep emotional connection of pragma, or enduring love, that has already formed between the pair ultimately prevents them from going their separate ways without saying goodbye. Although pragma usually takes years to develop, the isolated nature of their friendship and their shared outlook on life predisposes them to quickly accept each other’s idiosyncrasies, developing patience and tolerance towards each other – almost as though they are in an emotional bubble where time moves faster, artificially strengthening their relationship beyond its time. 

But this bubble must eventually burst and give way, as the pair return to their normal lives and partners. This is where the film tackles what the Greeks considered to be the highest and most radical form of love – agape. Agape is the most unconditional form of love and perfectly describes the film’s ending. 

Deep down both Bob and Charlotte know that their fleeting encounter won’t translate to the real world. Even Bob’s last-minute pursuit to say a proper goodbye can’t end with the pair staying together due to the catastrophic damage it would cause to each other’s domestic lives. Their decision to separate, even though every part of them wants to stay, demonstrates their love has finally lost all desire and expectation, having reached the final stage of agape. 

Screencapture from Lost in Translation. A man and woman embrace in a busy street.
Picure courtesy of Focus Features

Almost as iconic as the scene outside the karaoke room is the film’s closing scene which sees Bob kiss Charlotte and whisper something into her ear before walking away. This scene opens up the question of whether their relationship ever reaches the only remaining type of love – eros or erotic love. This type of love is absent throughout the rest of the film and its presence, or indeed absence, in this scene is the main driver of the debate over the film’s status as a love story. 

Perhaps the answer lies within the whispered words, although they are notably absent from the script and neither Murray nor Johansson have ever publicly disclosed what was said. In many ways though, would proving they completed the whole set really mean anything? Or is the question that ultimately surrounds Lost in Translation not whether it is a love story, but instead to what extent it is a story about love?