My eldest teenage daughter really did not like the end of La La Land. We went as a family last night to catch the new musical from Damien Chazelle starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and the ending left her not a little disappointed. Spoilers to follow.
The first thing I should say about the movie is that it is a wonderful throwback to the Hollywood musicals of yesteryear, from its cheeky “Presented in Cinemascope” opening to its classic “The End” and all the colorful whimsy along the way. The songs are clever and poignant, the dance scenes range from fun to enthralling, and the whole thing just oozes romance and charm. It’s a beautiful film in more ways than one. I loved it.
But that ending. I was somewhat prepared for it, because about one-third of the way into the film, I recognized that La La Land owes a lot to a 1964 French musical, a personal favorite of mine, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which has since become a classic. Not only does La La Land borrow much of its aesthetic from Umbrellas—the color pallette seems directly lifted—but the storyline was pretty similar too.
In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Guy and Genevieve fall in love as poor, dreamy youths, but end up separated by the Algerian war, when Guy is conscripted into service. The distance puts a strain on their relationship, and eventually Genevieve, though pregnant with Guy’s child, marries a rich jeweler. (I’m selling the plot short here, just for space’s sake.) The movie is lush and romantic yet bittersweet, right down its heart-wrenching end when Guy, working at the American-style petrol station he has built from the ground up winds up serving a now-well-to-do, married Genevieve when she pulls up in her fancy car, their daughter in the backseat. They share a moment of “what might have been.” Genevieve asks if he wants to meet their daughter. He declines. Perhaps it’s too painful? The film closes with Guy going home to his own wife, giving her a gentle kiss, and playing with his son in the snow.
Anyone who’s seen La La Land will notice the similarity when, after five years of separation pursuing her dreams, Mia winds up (by happenstance?) with her husband at her old love Seb’s jazz club. Director Chazelle deftly depicts a fantasy sequence in which we see a quick alternative history of Mia and Seb’s would-be life together before returning us to reality, Mia and Seb sharing a knowing glance and a smile before she follows her husband out the door and the movie ends. That was when my 15-year-old daughter said, not quietly, in a crowded theater, “No.”
It was not the desired payoff to Mia and Seb’s romantic journey. She wanted—and let’s be honest, we want—our happily ever after. But how do we know Mia and Seb aren’t happy? Can’t you appreciate the old longings of youthful romance while being perfectly content with the mature joys of lives well-lived?
I came home and read my friend Steve Bezner’s take on the film. He felt the film copped out by pitting romance against reality:
The song ends. Seb is emotionally spent. Mia exits. But, at the end, they exchange one last look and friendly nod. They mutually agree: We made the right decision. We chose our dreams instead of love.
And this is why I hated La La Land.
In logic class a teacher would call this forced decision between dreams and love a false dichotomy. That is, we are led to believe that there is only one possible path. Either Mia and Sebastian choose one another, or they choose the passionate thing in their lives.Writer-director Damien Chazelle may believe the choice to be so clear. To be sure, when we choose love, we choose the pace and the terms of our dreams. And when we pursue our dreams, we find that love may not be as convenient as we would wish. But Chazelle makes a grave error: He leads us to believe that we must choose, that we cannot be so bold as to choose both . . . In the end, Chazelle most likely told his story through La La Land. I wish, however, he would have told a better story. If Mia’s character is truly singing the truth, then there is not only one choice: love or dreams.
And that, I suppose, is why I ended up hating La La Land. The visionary Chazelle moved me to transcendence believing in the fools who dream, yet, ultimately, he was not able to dream of something larger. Wouldn’t the largest, grandest dream of all be capable of something more noble? In my mind, if Mia and Sebastian would have chosen to embrace the love so clearly portrayed in the film, they could have each pursued their dreams — just differently. Perhaps they would not be able to do so with the same obsessive abandon, and perhaps there would be sacrifices along the way. But they would have learned something much better than the satisfaction of attaining goals — the true nature of love has little to do with getting exactly what you want.
In the end, La La Land couldn’t dream big enough, because it did not understand that the true nature of love is not simply the pursuit of what I want. Love is, instead, about mutual sacrifice.
Steve is exactly right about love. And he’s right that this musical doesn’t quite get the nature of true love—that is to say, love with the sacrifice of Christ embedded in it, motivating it, fueling it to endure all things, bear all things, hope all things, et cetera. Yet I read the film differently, and I think there are some signs of real love even in that ending.
I read it differently because Seb encouraged Mia to go to that audition and take that movie in Paris, knowing it could jeopardize their relationship in the same way his going on the road with that terrible John Legend band did. But he loved her enough to sacrifice being with her so she could chase her dream she had worked so hard for. He didn’t want to selfishly keep her. He loved her happiness more than his own.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’m also factoring in that Seb was willing to sacrifice his own dream to take that steady gig with the ridiculous John Legend band because he thought that’s what Mia wanted. It was a sacrifice, and he never complained about it, really, until they had that argument at the reunion dinner. He was very much a jerk in that moment and said some thoughtless, hurtful things, but with a bit of charity we can see that he felt hurt she didn’t recognize he had given up his dream to be able to provide for hers.
So when he ends up telling her to go to Paris, it’s still him willing to give up what he wants for her. He may be thinking wrongly about this, but he isn’t thinking selfishly. And at first I’m sure they thought “it’s just three months,” “we’ll get back together,” or whatever, but everyone knows that kind of distance can affect a dating couple.
In the end, I felt very similarly to my daughter. It’s how I felt at the end of The Wonder Years when I found out Kevin didn’t end up with Winnie. I felt betrayed. It’s a movie! We want the lovers to end up together. But I think all of us who’ve put some time in to adult life remember young love and the dreams and passions of youth and have learned to be content and not to get frustrated about “what could’ve been” but to find joy wherever the Lord has led us and think it was sweet in its season.
I’m also thinking that Mia’s husband—who we know really nothing about but end up hating basically because he’s not Ryan Gosling!—must be a really awesome guy, actually, if he landed a gal like Mia. And she can always be grateful that Seb loved her enough not to try to control her. From all indications, she ended up with a pretty great life, it seems. And Seb did too.
In the end, La La Land pays extraordinary tribute to one of God’s greatest gifts—romance. And, of course, another: youth. But what La La Land and Umbrellas of Cherbourg share is a besetting realism—if you can call it that. Perhaps cynicism is a better word. But I like realism, because they both capture the delirium and ecstasy of romance—even the fact that both are musicals, tuned to the melodies of the love-besotted heart, points to this—while at the same time putting this experience in the context of real life, where feelings of romance and the pursuit of youthful imaginations come and go, wax and wane. I think, in fact, that this realism makes La La Land more beautiful, not less.
The only thing that makes it less realistic, besides them constantly breaking into song, is the notion they hadn’t looked up their old flame on Facebook like so many age-weary adults are prone to do today. Maybe it’s because they’ve grown up? Become happy with their respective lives and loves?
The title is an interesting one. “La La Land” is a well-known moniker for Los Angeles, where the film is set and which accurately captures the fantasy world of Hollywood. It’s also a reference to the music in the movie (la la la). But it’s also a phrase referring to craziness, right?, to make believe. We say things like, “That guy lives in la la land.” We use it to refer to people who aren’t in their right minds or whose abilities don’t match their imaginations. I wonder if this is something else Damien Chazelle is telling us: romance is beautiful and wonderful and grand and exciting, but anyone who thinks it is the end-all, be-all is—you guessed it—living in la la land.
He has made everything beautiful in its time . . .
— Ecclesiastes 3:11