We just had a family visit to watch La La Land, which I highly recommend, not just for the delightful nostalgia, romantic comedy, cinematography, singing and dancing, but also for the various depths to its surprising ending. If you haven’t seen it, don’t let me ruin it by reading on until you’ve been!
Having watched Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) get it together, their relationship comes under pressure as they strive to attain their individual dreams: Mia as a successful actress and Seb as a jazz musician & his own club. She can’t rehearse her play so as to come on tour with him, while he chooses to attend a photoshoot rather than see the opening of her play. To pursue their careers requires commitment & sacrifice, or perhaps a degree of youthful, excusable selfishness. When she gets her big break for a film in Paris – which depended upon Seb’s support in talking her round to go to the audition- they realise that their future together is uncertain. They acknowledge that they will be apart but tell each other that they will always love each other and we believe that these two romantic, tap dancing souls are ultimately destined to be singing & dancing long into their old age together.
“Five Years Later” then pops up on the screen- and despite the distraction from the lad in front popping off for a loo break and a few irritating rustles of popcorn- I felt rather crushed to find that the path of true love had taken a different turn.
The screen shows the now accomplished actress Mia coming home to her husband, a really nice guy, who has been at home looking after their toddler until Mia returns from the studio. …but it’s not Seb! The husband is clearly a sympathetic, mature, loving chap –so we can’t really dislike him- and Mia has become a huge success, with a family too, so we can’t really fault her choices either. We then catch up on Seb who has done reasonably well for himself, although not the dynamite success of Mia, but we see him walking past a poster of Mia without even a glance. This wasn’t the ending we were hoping for!
On a detour by a Jazz club, Mia’s curiosity prompts her and her husband to go in. “Its really cool” the husband remarks only for us to see it’s called “Seb’s” – the name that Mia had suggested all those years before. Inside we see that Seb is running a successful “purist” jazz club – his dream that Mia said he should stick at. He sees Mia and starts to play “their” rather melancholic tune on the piano as she, in turn, appears overwhelmed by this chance encounter, taken back to their heady days. The music becomes a conversation by Seb to Mia of how their relationship might have developed; the romantic imagery itself drawn from the musicals and interspersed by clips of home video of domestic life, but now seemingly with a more obvious rose coloured tint that perhaps makes us question whether it would really have run so smoothly. Although Seb is now able to play his tune as a matter of choice and, further, in a club of his own, his melancholic piano playing stops with the feeling that Seb has not really found happiness and may even regret some of his choices.
Without any explanation, Mia chooses to leave the club with her husband, but for a moment she pauses at the door and we wonder how ultimately she might resolve the emotional turmoil. She turns and looks at Seb, he smiles as does she, and then she leaves.
Thank goodness at least for that exchange of smiles which suggested some mutual seal of approval to the paths that they had each taken, but still, we were all left rather choked up, reminiscent of a visit to Les Misérables, which I appreciate is to pay La La Land a compliment indeed.
As some commentators have observed, part of the power of the film is its Robert Frost tale of choices that we all make in life, and the different outcomes that might otherwise have resulted, as we reflect back:
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
(The Road not Taken, 1916, Robert Frost.)
Having been taken through in detail the development of Mia and Seb’s relationship, the 5 year period where everything changes is, instead, left largely blank. This stark contrast forces the audience to question the choices that Mia and Seb have made, and this is ultimately reinforced by seeing what might have been.
But the story also has a resonance for all those people who fall in love in their youth, perhaps at a time when they are struggling with their careers, and “the mess we make” – as Mia sings- of such relationships. Timing can be everything. It takes a certain amount of maturity to understand that couples have to compromise. Sometimes we have to put others before ourselves for a relationship to succeed. Seb’s closing piano dialogue of what might have been, can be viewed as an acknowledgement to Mia of the mistakes he made in their relationship. So for example, as we then see, he should have kissed her when they met in the restaurant rather than pushing past; he should have been her number one fan at the opening of her play and he should have gone to Paris with her rather than concentrate on his own career dreams….perhaps things might then have turned out differently for them. I imagine that there might be a few watching the film too who would have liked the ability to go back & say sorry to someone for their youthful past failings.
The film is also poignant in demonstrating the unique characteristics of each loving relationship, and that as we pass through life, it’s ok to value what’s gone before – even if it did not work out – while still choosing the present. As soon as we saw Mia’s family set up after the 5 year gap, we would, in truth, have disliked her had she simply ran off with Seb. In fact, we are left feeling that the husband is the better and wisest choice. It’s just a bit sad that it seemed such a final farewell as she left the club!
Ultimately, both Mia and Seb played critical parts in the other reaching their career dreams and, as their parting smiles confirm, they share something unique. Yet, their choices and circumstances are such that they will travel on separate paths. While not doubting Mia’s choice, there’s still something a bit sad in that outcome, perhaps captured in Mia’s earlier song that honours “the hearts that ache….”
I don’t think that some of the film reviews have captured the intricacies of this film but it has certainly been a hit at the Golden Globes. Best Film at the Oscars? Undoubtedly ….and surely most of the other awards too!