Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part I

I moved to Montreal on a hot day in May. I felt summer in the air, saw it on the streets. Gorgeous women in sundresses. Blocks of Boulevard St. Laurent closed to traffic so food carts, funky clothing vendors, and DJ booths could set up on the sidewalk.

I didn’t know anyone.

The first Friday night that came around, I met Eric at Sona. I danced all night, emerging from the club in the wee hours, sweaty and satisfied. My calves got the workout they longed for; my muscles were raw, ripe for soreness.

As we said goodbye outside, I learned that Eric was a waiter at a restaurant in Old Montreal. I agreed to meet him again. The next time I saw him, we drank and played pool at Bar St. Sulpice. A professional pool player, he pretty much kicked my ass, but let me win a few games. Another night, we explored parts of the Latin Quarter I had not yet seen, then hung out at his apartment, watching his roommates play video games and looking through old photographs in his room. He was French; he told me about where he was from, and chatted about his ex-girlfriend when photo booth pictures surfaced. I shared my stories, too—I had ended my first relationship the year before, and had been dating someone that spring.

And now I was in Montreal. I was 22.

A few weeks had passed, and I acclimated to dorm life on the McGill campus—the university rented rooms to long-term travelers over the summer. On another night, Eric took me to the movies; we watched Star Wars: Episode II. He admitted he had never watched the Star Wars films, so I said we should see something else. But he noticed I really wanted to watch it, so he said it was fine. Charming, he was.

As the night progressed, I sensed a magnetism—sitting next to one another in the theater, hands awkwardly not touching, then sort of touching, then not touching. When the movie was over, we walked to the metro station, stopping at the escalator leading to the platform. He looked at me, and I knew.

I remember his face, his accent. He looked young, but his voice was mature and deep. When he said my name, I had to stop myself from giggling. A Frenchman calling me cherie? Really, Cheri. This is too much.

I knew he was about to say something that would end our summer before it even started.

“I would really like to kiss you,” he said. He inched closer.

“I like you,” I answered. “But can we hang out as friends?”

He looked disappointed. “I don’t know if I can do that, Cheri. When I look at you, I just want to kiss you.”

Couples walked past, heading down to the train. His eyes locked on me. I looked away, staring down the street, to Rue Sherbrooke—toward my dormitory, my escape.

“I really just got here,” I said. “I’ve got my French classes, then when those are done I’ll start my other program. I like you, but can’t we just be friends?”

He took my hand and kissed it. “I cannot just be friends with you.” He smiled, kissed my cheek, and stepped onto the escalator. He didn’t look back.

And so I walked home. Part of me had wanted to say I did yearn for a summer love affair. But if I was to have a true love affair, it was going to be with Montreal, not a man.

* * *

I was leaving for Thailand in several weeks.

I met him one night, after-party style, chilling at my friend Jesse’s house in Hayes Valley. There was a computer in the room, so we logged onto Friendster and showed each other our profiles. First name, last name. Noted.

He was an artist—a famous one, I was told. A Google search the next morning confirmed this. The first night we met on our own, we drank at an art gallery in downtown San Francisco. Another night, we met at a dive on Polk and played a bit of pool. On yet another evening, we wandered in North Beach; he wanted to show me a few spots—up the Peter Macchiarini Steps off Broadway, then to a random peephole in a wall that, when looked through, had a cool view of the Transamerica Pyramid.

Another time, he presented me with a tiny canvas: a painting of me, wispy bangs and black-rimmed glasses and all, morphed into one of his signature characters with closed eyes and enlarged hands. I had told him I used to play the violin, so he painted me playing one.

We hung out for less than a month, but I got an ample dose of his intriguing, impulsive life: parties, shows, painting, mingling. Nights out with him let the endorphins loose. Even though we were in San Francisco, his spontaneity made it seem as if we were somewhere else: somewhere unfamiliar, someplace whimsical. In those weeks, anything was possible.

And then I moved to Southeast Asia.

* * *

I have a complex relationship with Lost in Translation.

How beautiful, I think—a film about a girl, coming of age, finding her place in the world, understanding how to be with another. How wonderful, I think—a story of a woman in Tokyo, exploration at her fingertips, with all the time in the world to wander in Shibuya, to contemplate at shrines, to learn the precise art of Ikebana, to get blissfully lost. How sweet, I think—a tale of a young woman and an older man at very different points in their lives, who bond over karaoke with new Japanese friends, over vintage films and sake in a swanky high-rise hotel, over random evenings in the electric landscape of Shinjuku. Two people who connect in a foreign country, who understand each other despite the absence of context, of anything concrete.

How poetic the final scene is, I think, when Bill Murray hops out of a cab to say goodbye to Scarlett Johansson on a crowded street, to whisper in her ear that he adores the young woman he sees before him, that he wishes her only the best, that they will always have this time in Tokyo in their memory.

Precious. Whimsy. That’s what I thought about the film.

And then I entered the world of adult relationships.

How harsh, I begin to think—this poor girl stuck in a hotel room, ditched every day by her hipster photographer husband, locked in an emotional prison where staring off is the easiest way to pass time. How horrible, I begin to think—a bright woman who is lost career-wise, married too young, too cynical for her age. How sad, I begin to think—two people have found each other amid the chaos and elusiveness of an unfamiliar culture, stuck in stagnant marriages, making sense together in a place where everything else is lost in translation—and knowing “they” will dissolve as soon as one leaves.

They can run away and start a jazz band, she says. Yet how unfair that such thoughts, once uttered aloud, lose their magic.

How lustful, I begin to think—this weathered middle-aged man jumps out of a cab to lose himself in a kiss with a naive girl he met on a business trip.

I used to love the fleetingness of Charlotte and Bob’s situation—the creation of something solid, pure, and solely theirs in a lapse with no real beginning and no end. My encounters with the Frenchman and the artist were swift and sweet—woven from thin air and pure adventure.

Today, my response to these ephemeral connections grows increasingly fickle, even sour. At some point, I realize something won’t last for whatever reason—two unsynched wavelengths, an issue of geography, an ill-timed encounter—and Sophia Coppola isn’t there to soften the experience with her rose-colored lens.

These aren’t romantic, poetic connections, are they? Take away the fanciful cinematographer, and all that is left is a harsh reality.

Parts II and III:

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

11 thoughts on “Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part I

  1. Lost in Translation is one of my favorite movies. I do agree that Sofia Coppola does an amazing job at capturing the emotional and physical isolation that can result as a consequence of being part of the modern world. I love the way you analyze the movie so profoundly. The movie will be a classic in a couple of years.

    Best wishes to you in your future love endeavors, everybody deserves love, but not everyone finds it. .

  2. How cool, about a month ago I did a blog post on Lost in Translation, I was reposting a review I wrote on Livejournal back when the movie first came out and noted how interesting it was that the movie moved me in different ways from a more recent viewing than it did then. Now I come across your blog and find you talking about your own changing perspectives on the film. I agree, I think it’s a fascinating quality to have and is a complement to the director and her actors. Glad to have found your blog, love it!

    1. Happy to hear others that feel the same about Lost in Translation, and I agree: it’s a compliment to Sofia Coppola. Such an airy, fleeting world she creates in that film. Thanks for the note!

    1. Aw, thanks. I always like hearing from others who say they have an ever-changing, ambiguous relationship with Lost in Translation as well. Its fleetingness is a quality of Sofia Coppola’s films that I truly appreciate.

  3. As a Montrealer, the first part of this post took me back to my city almost immediately and to the personalities and misunderstandings that made it such a complex, fascinating place to grow up. Beautiful writing.

  4. A couple of thoughts:

    It’s definitely an inspired move to walk away from someone because one knows what they want and see that it’s not on the table. The continental Europeans are quite good at that. There’s just a sense of self the related efficiencies.

    Juxtaposed with Star Wars, where George Lucas plied the audience with friendship when they really wanted love. He wasn’t inspired enough to go all the way but at the same time he couldn’t walk away, thus we end up with a convoluted situation of which everyone is semi-satisfied and the overall feeling that perhaps it would have been better if we hadn’t done that but we did.

    Second thought is for LiT, how it seems possible to either tell a story or reflect a place. I didn’t connect with LiT at all but then again I’ve never been to Japan. I imagine it very accurately reflects the place based on your description.

    The problem then is that the piece has the most relevance to those who have experienced the place, thus the accessibility of the piece is restricted. Not wholly a bad thing, lots of people saw LiT and went to Japan.

    When I watched this lovely little indie:

    it absolutely reminds of dating in Los Angeles.

    The popular bits of Los Angeles are so transient, especially for people in their early/mid 20s, that this short reflects a place so familiar and evident. People from all different parts of the United States, converging on a dream. Lost amongst endless streets and palm trees who actually have very little to talk about. Yet, since everyone is quite image-oriented, few people can say what they feel — “I like/want/need/enjoy you”, rather the experiences kind of wind about with a sense of aimlessness.

    I probably need to go to Japan now.

    1. And a few thoughts to your couple of thoughts–

      In regard to both the Frenchman and artist, “place” was certainly a factor in the grand scheme—in the former, I was in a new place, which was more important to me than a new man, and in the latter, I met someone I liked just before a major trip abroad, but ultimately, my upcoming adventure called out to me more. Interestingly, “place” in regard to Lost in Translation becomes less important to me over time. Years ago, both the whimsy and chaos of Tokyo were a big part of the movie—we were discovering the city for the first time like Charlotte—but after a bit of maturing on my end (and more perspective on life and love), Tokyo is no longer the anchor of that film. The story no longer has a setting, has made me look inward, and I process it on a deeply personal level now.

      Ann and I watched Somewhere a few nights ago, so it’s nice to be able to have a new Sophia Coppola film to contrast with Lost in Translation. As expected, the “place” in Somewhere — Los Angeles — is the anchor of the film, but “anchor” not in the traditional sense but rather it’s the one constant of the story that, strangely, is also quite slippery and transient as you mention. I have a feeling as time passes, the relationship between Dorff’s character with his daughter will materialize and become more and more tangible, while the dreamy, sparkly layers of Los Angeles will recede. Not sure if that makes sense.

      Some of her films are kinda like wine. The first batch/watch feels immature and naive. But keep it in the barrel (or store the film in your mind for a bit), and it’ll somehow begin to make sense. We’ll chat about it in a few years and see what we’ve figured out 😉


    2. Oh, and a second thought (perhaps a digression) to add–

      In my past, place has often trumped love (or, in the above cases, a fling). A few people who’ve mentioned Somewhere in recent emails, including you, note Sophia Coppola’s maturation as a filmmaker and person. For me, the decreased significance of place in my life (how it affects my relationship(s), my writing, and my state of mind) indicates how I’ve grown. Despite my passion for traveling, place is NOT a primary factor in my happiness anymore. Figuring out where I “fit” in the world has more to do with me as a person and my connections with those dear to me. Satisfaction about where I’m at, then — geographically speaking — has followed naturally.

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