Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, Universal Pictures, 2003)
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, Universal Pictures, 2003)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 01 Dec 2020

Lost in Translation – mid-life crisis

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Pauline Tranchant

Visitor Services Supervisor

Questioning ourselves can happen at any age, as Lost in Translation proves.

Midlife crisis: a phenomenon described as a psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a person's growing age, inevitable mortality, and possibly lack of accomplishments in life.

In Sofia Coppola’s second film, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) meet at the bar of their swish hotel in Tokyo (the now cult Park Hyatt, thanks to the film). They don’t really introduce each other but start chatting, nonetheless. Charlotte is in her mid 20s and she’s in Tokyo following her photographer husband on a shoot. She’s isolated and a bit ambivalent about her life after recently graduating in philosophy, which echoes Coppola’s own musings at the same age. Bob is a 50-something actor there to endorse a famous whisky brand for an ad. It’s taking him away from being in a play but the contract is 2 million dollars, so there he is. Bob quickly starts the conversation with big statements: he’s here to take a break from his wife, forgetting his son’s birthday. The mixed feelings of guilt and disinterest are palpable. “You’re probably just having a mid-life crisis” is Charlotte’s wry observation, to which she adds, “Did you buy a Porsche yet?” – the ultimate expression of a mid-life crisis.

The two characters’ musings and the film’s ambient melancholy resonate strongly with generations X and Y. The term 'mid-life crisis', first pinned down by Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, is now widely used in our society and not only by middle-aged people. In fact, you’ve probably used it yourself when questioning your life and wanting to throw it all out. There’s also talk of a “quarter-life crisis”, which Charlotte seems to be going through. Instead of wondering what she’s accomplished in the past 15 years like Bob, she’s unsure about who she is and the years ahead. Who hasn’t gone through this? Backed by a mellow-pop soundtrack and shot on film to create stunning photography, people young and old can watch this film thinking “this is the story of my life!”, bound by the understanding that a crisis of self affects all lives. It’s part of our common humanity, and it’s so common that it’s one of the first things that Charlotte says to Bob.

Bob and Charlotte bond as two wandering souls meeting amongst the mist of their thoughts. The pace is slow, and we join them in trying to figure life out. Because we all want to figure it out, don’t we? When we look at Bob, his marriage and family situation sound complicated, his career has taken a turn that he doesn’t seem to enjoy. He is wondering what he has been doing all these years to get there. But it’s just life and maybe not even a crisis. Meanwhile, Charlotte is looking at this empty canvas in front of her, and you realise there’s only so much you can decide about the future. Some things will happen, others won’t and that’s okay.

Lost in Translation is now regarded as a classic, ranked 22 on the BBC’s 100 greatest films of the 21st century. It also won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, three Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical), Best Performance (Comedy or Musical) for Bill Murray, Best Screenplay and three BAFTA Awards. It’s also ranked #2 on ScreenRant’s 10 Best Mid-Life Crisis movies, losing first place to The Wrestler (2008), which like Lost in Translation cast a real-life, middle-age actor to grapple with the crisis in Mickey Rourke.

– Pauline Tranchant

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