In Lost in Translation, sad-eyed Charlotte spends much of the film curled up on the windowsill high above Tokyo in a sleek Japanese hotel, gazing balefully over the city, acknowledging her loneliness. Played with winsome melancholy by Scarlett Johansson, Charlotte doesn’t verbalize her isolation, but director Sofia Coppola’s gently circumnavigating camera makes it evident. Charlotte plods the halls like baleful Eloise. She quietly considers her loneliness while curled up in hotel sheets, or judging the patrons at the hotel bar, or diving into the beautifully designed hotel pool.
An unlikely literary analog can be found in a passage from D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. When the protagonist is left by her sister in a hotel room, Gudrun
immediately felt her own existence had become stark and elemental. She went and crouched alone in her bedroom, looking out of the window at the big, flashing stars. In front was the faint shadow of the mountain-knot. That was the pivot. She felt strange and inevitable, as if she were centered upon the pivot of all existence, there was no further reality.
Gudrun, like Charlotte, is hoisted in isolation, in a sort of heavenly limbo.
Lost in Translation, which celebrated its tenth birthday this summer, is the consummate contemporary example of a young woman who finds herself in beautiful accommodations, in a fascinating foreign city, unable to do much but sulk and consider ordering room service. The hotel is, of course, an ideal place for cerebral brooding; hotels are, by their nature, in between. It is where you sleep, but it is not your home. You are a guest without a host, surrounded by scores of strangers hanging up their clothes in the room next door, as close as family.
Is it a certain kind of woman who broods in hotels, who peers out over the vista and ponders her existence? In our world, at any rate, they are usually waiting for a lover or husband or boyfriend. Generally, this period of anticipation gives way to deeper questions about the relationship. Charlotte’s photographer husband, for instance, is briefly seen gallivanting about, taking photographs of hip Japanese musicians, leaving her alone to navigate Tokyo. Another such is Janet Leigh’s short-lived escapee in Hitchcock’s Psycho. (She waits uneasily in a roadside motel for her boyfriend; as we know, things end poorly for her.) Sex and the City’s final episodes (and two subsequent movies) devote much of the plot to jilted women in beautiful hotels in beautiful cities, putting their men on imaginary trial. The cities outside the lodgings are an afterthought.
In the case of E. M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch, her emotional compass is lost in a foreign world. While she is constantly protected by a chaperone, Lucy’s sense of isolation persists. One beautiful note in A Room with a View speaks to the enforced passivity of such characters: “But it is sometimes as difficult to lose one’s temper as it is difficult at other times to keep it.”
Most of these hotel women have trouble identifying the source of their melancholia. Typically these characters do not have the force of purpose felt by, say, the dozens of displaced Parisians involuntarily cooped up in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. Nor is there usually a massive crisis of the psyche taken to the extreme, as in in D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, in which the lodging becomes the manifestation of the terror and passion of the subconscious. Most of these women experience the hotel as a place of low-grade uneasiness and disquiet rather than something more dramatic. Hotels are places of the unfamiliar; it is an unwelcoming stage set for a dramatic family scene, and nature is nowhere in sight. It is, in short, a place protected from its surroundings. The drama that results is insular, claustrophobic, small in scale.
The opportunity to be alone with one’s emotions is, it should be said, highly prized by the women who despair in beautiful rooms. In Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo—the embodiment of tragic elegance—cries to her assistants, “I have never been so tired in my life!” Then, “I want to be alone!” the ballerina wildly sobs and flings herself beautifully about her room. Hotel suites are not the place for confiding. Johansson’s Charlotte attempts to describe her dissatisfaction in a long-distance phone call to a friend, but only manages to say, “John is using these hair products and I don’t know who I married,” quickly giving up on articulating her frustrations. She then flops on the floor—less dramatically than Garbo, but just as feelingly.
Then, of course, comes an interruption in the form of a fellow guest, also lonely, also seeking. In the hotel there is an awareness of the simultaneous proximity and emotional distance afforded by these spaces. As Garbo’s disgraced diva unties her shoes, John Barrymore’s baron appears, handsome and dissatisfied as well, immediately falling in love with Garbo’s neurasthenic ballerina. In A Room with a View, the young Lucy feels a great sadness knowing that her beloved, from whom she has recently been estranged, must walk past her room in the hotel to get to his own. Charlotte’s tension with Bill Murray’s older actor is predicated on these exact interactions—the sense that they are alone together.
And then there is the constellation of Joan Didion’s female characters, real and imagined, camped out in overly air-conditioned hotels, wrapped in blankets, uncomplaining, adrift, disassociated, staring at hotel swimming pools. In a nonfiction essay, Didion describes a memory of being at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel: trying to avoid interaction with her husband, staring at nothing. Didion announces to the reader, “You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.” For much of Play It As It Lays, the despondent Maria Wyeth waits for visitors. She
washed her face although she had showered an hour before, straightened the immaculate room as if to erase any sign of herself. When there was nothing left to straighten she walked across the parking lot to the ice machine …
Maria looks at the world from her window, seeing it as an alien place. “She sat in the motel in the late afternoon light looking at the dry wash until its striations and shifting grains seemed to her a model of the earth and moon.” This room with windows becomes a metaphor; characters trap themselves inside, chilled by the air conditioning, staring at the hotel swimming pool and hoping it becomes some sort of life force.
In In the Islands Didion writes, “Of course hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particularly societies they service.” This analysis seems to speak more to Didion’s mindset, the mindset of the woman who is moping in a hotel, than to the hotel’s place in our larger cultural history. As the moping woman is perched on the wide sill of a picture window, staring desperately at the landscape, dramatically alone with her amorphous wondering, many see a blank slate, a welcome escape, unfamiliar luxury.
Do these moping women find their purpose when their reservation ends? Do they pack their bags and depart the hotel with a knowing smirk? Are they moving forward with resolve and a rolling suitcase trailing behind? Do they leave their place of transition at the end of the story? Not usually.
Maggie Lange is a writer and editor in New York.