Two Tales of a Relationship

This is a close comparison of various aspects of Lost in Translation and Her, and as such, spoilers will likely result, so read at your own discretion. Credits for more than a few thoughts and for sparking my new way of thinking on these two films to Cameron Morewood.

After seeing Her a second time, it felt clear to me that Lost in Translation was better in ever conceivable way. Sure, the aspirations of Her might be greater, but in execution, it seems as if Sofia Coppola is more risky and more successful at everything both auteurs attempt.

It is difficult, in a way, to compare the two films note for note, as I view Lost in Translation as fundamentally not a romance movie. It does have, ultimately a kiss between the two (which I did feel was more platonic than romantic), but it is ultimately a film about connection and friendship, about the need to cling onto someone in the troubles of modern life. Her, by comparison, is a more standard romantic film with a twist, but they are more comparable than most films because of the through-line connecting the two: the relationship and the divorce between the two writers. There is no doubt that this has infused both films, informing both the subject and each director’s approach to it. While Coppola takes a more oblique and clever approach that makes the film much more satisfying and enchanting, Jonze constructs his film in a box. It is true that he does quite well in this space, but he seems almost obsessed with making his film absolutely polished and perfect that he fails to think outside of the box, making the emotions of the film seem hollow and more than a little predictable.

The scene that crystallizes Jonze’s approach in confronting his divorce is the very final scene, in which Theodore dictates his letter to Catherine. Throughout the film, the various flashbacks to his relationship feel unmotivated; the emotional effect can be accomplished in one montage, while the film uses at least 3 or 4 (the effect is accomplished in the film proper by the montage that takes place while Catherine is signing the divorce papers). I was left to wonder just what purpose the repetition served, and then realized during the final scene that the ultimate point of the film was for Jonze to work out his feelings over what had happened between him and Coppola. Essentially, the letter can be seen as an apology to her, and while that might be all well and good in the real world, it detracts from the thematic ideas of the film as a whole. By focusing the attention on Theodore’s relationship with Catherine, Jonze devalues the potential complexity and intensity of the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, and ultimately makes the film all about Theodore’s character, with Samantha present simply to support him.

Samantha’s character is, admittedly, not exclusively a crutch for Theodore, but she is nowhere near as fleshed out as Charlotte. Charlotte is without a doubt an independent character, someone who actually has scenes that take place apart from Bob, and focuses a lot of attention on her difficulties in her relationship with her husband and her relative insecurity and doubts. Samantha, by contrast, has very few desires of her own, and while the idea of her being an AI is quite interesting, almost all of her development is directly related to her status as an AI and thus fulfills the science-fiction aspect of the film while developing the emotional aspect only on the part of Theodore’s character, as Samantha is left to simply leave without much development besides the rote statement of her eternal love for him.

The setting of both films is crucial to their identity and outlook on their subject matter. Lost in Translation could not have been set anywhere besides 2000s Japan; Tokyo (as portrayed in the film) is a strange hybrid between the traditional rituals and the hypermodern aesthetic and worldview. It is never portrayed as menacing or mean, but it always feels alien, not just in the language barrier but in the way the electronic overload dwarfs the characters. By contrast, the Los Angeles of Her, despite being in a “20 minutes in the future” setting, feels more familiar than the real-life setting of Lost. It is a world that never feels anything but friendly and inviting, a mood enhanced by the lavish set design and cinematography which, while visually impressive, only serves to dispel any feelings of isolation or alienation, two feelings that permeate Lost. It is counter to the emotional connection that I feel towards Theodore’s and Samantha’s relationship; it feels like it has less vitality because it feels less necessary for Theodore. Though he may be going through an extremely tough time in his life emotionally, the event that leads to his acquiring of an OS, the strange encounter with the phone sex cat lady, is fundamentally linked with the world and with technology, so there is no drive for connection that Bob and Charlotte feel, either in a romantic or nonromantic sense.

This feeling is compounded by the presence of Amy. She provides a character with little characterization of her own and is present almost solely to provide Theodore a shoulder to lean on. This idea further dilutes the importance of Samantha to Theodore, as he can confide in someone else at many points in the film rather than relying on just himself and Samantha to work things out. By contrast, Bob and Charlotte have no one at all to help them. Both characters have uncaring spouses and are isolated by the aforementioned setting, and thus must rely on each other in order to survive. This approach has the added benefit of making scenes like the club scene and the karaoke scene seem almost magical, where people come together in communion, in a celebration of life, a depth of feeling that Her never comes that close to.

The endings of the respective films, too, take entirely different approaches. Lost in Translation goes for a certain type of ambiguity that is both an affirmation of the friendship and special connection the two have shared and a gesture of defeat; both must ultimately go their separate ways, and the expression on Bob’s face when he gets back into his limousine is one of weariness; he is happy and better for the experience, but it is tempered, and the song that plays is one that feels both triumphant and yearning. By contrast, Her‘s ending is almost excessively enclosed and neat, fitting and accentuating Jonze’s approach. Theodore gets over absolutely all of his problems and it seems all but guaranteed that he will get back together with Amy, especially with that final cute, heartwarming, yet superfluous gesture, and the song is as transparently emotional and surface-level as the scene it occupies.

This is not to say that Her is a bad film. It approaches its subject with warmth and sensitivity, does a lovely job of portraying its world and its inhabitants, and the screenplay is quite lovely indeed. Unfortunately, it feels too concerned with its own neatness, and pales immensely in the face of something as inexplicably mysterious and beautiful as Lost in Translation. Coppola understood that the real world is messy and complicated, and made a movie that accurately depicted that, reflecting her feelings on the divorce through mood and setting, while Jonze was too enraptured by his affection towards Coppola and towards his ideas and thus he tinged them with an excessive amount of warmth and sentimentality, making his feelings on the divorce transparent by constructing the plot entirely upon that idea. Her is ultimately not about the romance between Theodore and Samantha; it is about the romance between Theodore and Catherine, and thus, the romance between Jonze and Coppola.