2020 was a strange year. Together we took part in what will eventually be seen as the world’s largest psychological experiment: Lockdown. Furthermore, just in case the 1st lockdown wasn’t a strange enough experience, we now find it leaking into a sequel, and I think we all know how these go.
Among the many resolves we have at our disposal to better cope is to use the leftover time from not socializing to catch up on a few good films. I’m sure that most of you have a handful of relics you could do well by re-watching. One of the films on my list is Lost in Translation.
I think it’s a great film on many levels. Bill Murray’s humour is extraordinary. On a personal level, I imagine many can relate to the struggles and feelings of displacement the film conveys with such masterfulness, and as you’ve probably come to expect, I have a special interest in the lighting.
In case there is anyone out there that hasn’t yet seen the film, Lost in Translation revolves around the two main characters, Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who meet in Tokyo at the Park Hyatt Hotel. Bob is a weathered actor in his twilight who is going through a midlife crisis and has gone to Tokyo to cash in with less-than-inspiring work. Charlotte is a young, quiet, yet quirky introvert who is tagging along with her husband (and in life) hoping to eventually stumble upon a greater purpose.
The two find themselves feeling lonely, lost and isolated in the city and encounter in each other a lifeline of hope. They form a platonic/ borderline romantic bond that is centred on a mutual understanding of their deeper feelings towards life.
The film is densely populated with the type of feelings and emotions that tend to be left unsaid. Yet here they’re raised to the forefront against a contrasting backdrop: Tokyo. This contrast is overarching and becomes as important as the characters themselves. There is a contrast of culture, contrast of language, contrast of numbers. Contrast is presented to us in a variety of ways, a favourite of mine are the many window scenes where we see the character plotted against what seems to be an innumerable city. It is here where we find the ultimate contrast of light vs dark.
When we look at how light is expressed in Lost in Translation, we find a lit world that is much like our own. Lighting is not hyper inflated. Both in cinema and theatre, in order to help nurture an emotional response in the viewer, theatrical and cinematic lighting designers do a phenomenal job at creating hyper-real lit scenes. Lighting in film tends to be more real than the real world, and we feel it so.
Lost in Translation is different, in the sense that it has quite a naturalistic feel to it, to the point that it can feel raw. A good example of this are the few instances where spotlights are aimed slightly off. The world does not revolve around the characters of the film in the same way it does not centre on us. Relying mostly on the existing lighting conditions, the lighting design rather focuses on finding the ordinary contrasts that occur in our day-to-day lives.
Lighting is desaturated and as diffused as an overcast sky. This minimises the visual hierarchy of the brightness composition and results in our eyes needing to search for what is important. This tactic goes hand-in-hand with the subtleness of the characters presence or even impact within the scene. We tread along the film with the characters uncertain of what we should be paying attention to.
Overall, the film renders itself with soft wrapping light and muted colour tones that help frame the feelings of loneliness and isolation. Again, this is even more so when contrasted by the backdrop of Tokyo, mostly relegated to a view through a hotel window.
The hotel itself is a contained microcosm of artificial life and light. Whilst Tokyo is presented as a city washed in deep blue light, the hotel is home to warmer lighting tones. The hotel bar becomes the safe place where the characters meet and find refuge, and houses the warmer lighting tones of the film.
Lost in Translation is a romantically realistic film filled with subtle nuances that emphasises sincere human emotion and presents it as an authentic aesthetic experience.