Looking Through You: Framing and Reflection in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

By  · Published on January 12th, 2017

What recurring images teach about character that dialogue does not.

Sofia Coppola’s character-study Lost in Translation is ultimately about framing and reflection. It’s about taking the life one is in the midst of, looking at it outside of context and in its entirety, discovering the peaks and valleys of one’s persona and status and then wondering if what you see is what you want to see and if not, then how to negotiate the difference. The characters of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) are two very different people who have led two very different lives and find themselves at a similar crossroads. Both are in relationships that have fizzled – hers due to inattention, his to familiarity – both are mired in the humdrum of their stability, and both are longing for something more, even if they can’t define what that “more” is, other than just being “something else.” In each other, though ultimately they don’t find the solutions they were seeking, they find the proof such solutions could exist – or if not solutions, alternatives – and in turn the courage to continue seeking them back in the respective worlds and lives from which they took brief detours.

While the majority of the film and these themes do unfurl in the conversations between Charlotte and Bob, Coppola – like her father before her – is a visual poet, she likes to tell as much of her story with imagery as she does with dialogue. One recurring way in which she manages to deliver the themes of framing and reflection is by setting her characters against windows, either ones they are looking through at the world beyond, perhaps wondering their true place in it, ones in which they see themselves reflected, perhaps wondering what their truths are, or even just ones in the backgrounds framing their internal reflection. By positioning Charlotte and Bob within these frames within frames, Coppola makes them almost like caged animals longingly looking outside the bars and dreaming of release, or worse, oblivious to or complacent in their captivity.

In the following montage, I’ve collected the most significant instances in Lost in Translation in which characters are framed by windows, either directly or indirectly, reflected sometimes and other times washed out of reflection by the brightness on the other side of the pane. What I believe these images shot by cinematographer Lance Acord reveal is the undercurrent of introspection Coppola has set her story upon which grants it the freedom to remain unresolved and open-ended, like life, while simultaneously settling on some definitive truths like change as possible, attainable, and constant. Considering this, Lost in Reflection seems an almost more-fitting title.

Music: “Sleep” by Azure Ray off the 2001 album Azure Ray (WARM)

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Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist