May-December Romance

Lost in Translation
is far and away my favorite May-December romance written for the screen. None of the countless others come close. There is no lust in Lost in Translation. There is none of the awkwardness that usually characterizes most depictions of a couple like this. She is young, about twenty; he is almost three decades older in his fifties. In spite of this difference, they find themselves at loose ends and similar mind at the swanking Park Hyatt in Tokyo. They never talk about their age difference, although early on she says he must be going through a “mid-life crisis.” I thought it was the only false moment in the film.

The fact that these two people, at opposite ends of their lives are drawn to one another is the heart of the film. They banter, they jest, or simply gaze at one another. There is never any hint that he can’t keep up with her or that he is uncomfortable playing around with her friends. He is as young as they are. Sofia Coppola, the film’s author and director, put it this way: “But I think that, you know, that early 20s kind of 'what am I going to do with my life?' crisis I felt was similar to the guy having a mid-life crisis. I just related to his character and allowed them to both be kind of going through similar things, but from other ends of the spectrum.”

Yet I didn’t think it was necessarily a younger woman older man crisis. It is a crisis that any two individuals can have at any time in their lives. The connection between Bob and Charlotte is startling. I kept wondering what could they ever do? What kind of a relationship could they possible have? I wanted them to have a future. And yet I knew that was impossible. At the end Bob says he doesn’t want to leave. Charlotte replies, well don’t. We’ll start a jazz band. Age is so irrelevant. And yet it colors everything. She is newly married and unhappily so. He has been married 25 years and finds it is growing tedious. The emotional torpor of their separate lives is the springboard of their relationship.

I often find myself puzzled why the characters depicted in contemporary films act the way they do. They may be indecisive or ambivalent or violent or they may feel strongly about another person. But it isn’t clear why. And so they are less compelling than they might be. None of this is the case for Lost in Translation. I knew why Charlotte and Bob were there, why they were at loose ends. I understood them and thought about them for days. One night they entered my dreams.

Charlotte is luminous, totally unadorned. There is nothing racy or pretentious about her. She is quiet, inquisitive, reflective. He learns she was a philosophy major at Yale and so there is a reason for her doubts and curiosity. There is also a sweetness about her, a sweet and melancholy wistfulness. She is thoroughly irresistible. She speaks softly. She is quiet. While she doesn’t say much, when she does, it is smart, clear, and to the point. She seems years older than her age. The rhythm and tone of her words is lovely.

Bob is detached, bemused, and full of hilarious wit and innocuous nonsense. She approaches him in the bar and asks him what he’s up to. He says he is planning a prison break and asks if she is in or out. When she tells him she studied philosophy, he tells her there must be a “good buck in that racket.”

What is it that he sees in her? Is it her youth? The good times they have together? The escape from his sleeplessness and boredom? Or a trifling fling far away from home? The depth of their apparent feeling argues against those possibilities. Yet, I wonder if they would have been drawn to one another had they not been geographically removed from their spouses.

The ending is wrenching. They depart from the Park Hyatt rather clumsily. On the drive to the airport Bob sees Charlotte walking down a crowded street. He tells the driver to stop and races after her. They embrace and with tears in her eyes and maybe his too, they finally kiss for a heartbreaking moment. He whispers something to her. And then, as they must, they go their separate ways.