As cinema goers, we seem to be infatuated with happy endings. Recently, Steve McQueen’s gruelling 12 Years a Slave was criticised for an ending that seemed to lack emotional heft. Now it’s the turn of critical darling La La Land, and its less than happy finale, to leave audiences feeling out of whack. After an entire film dedicated to Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling) blossoming relationship, the audience is taken five years into the future to see Mia with a baby, happily married – to someone else. As she and her husband happen upon Sebastian’s jazz club, Mia and Sebastian’s perfect relationship plays out in true swooping, vivid style. In reality, Mia leaves with one last look and, presumably, the pair never meet again.
La La Land’s ending is pitch-perfect, exposing the dreamy fantasy and depressing reality of these characters’ worlds in the same hand. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash drips with romance and old-world nostalgia from the get-go, with the ending helping to keep it fresh. But there’s something disconcerting about making it through two hours of a romance, investing in a relationship – only to have the rug pulled out from under you at the last minute.
If you wanted to find a culprit here, don’t blame Chazelle. The real offender is every romantic film you’ve ever seen.
Film genres are essentially a classification system that help us to choose a film to watch. Films within a certain genre usually follow an assigned set of rules. It’s why The Martian’s classification as a comedy at the 2016 Golden Globes was met with scepticism; the film is comic, but it’s not a comedy. Romance films tend to introduce us to a relationship and establish obstacles for the couple to inevitably overcome, finishing with a happy ending. There are of course, exceptions – The Notebook and Brokeback Mountain being notable examples – but these films tend to err on the side of romantic-drama. Unhappy films don’t leave audiences up in arms when they have unhappy endings, because they make narrative sense.
La La Land, however, is the closest it could get to being a romantic-comedy without actually being a romantic-comedy. And so generic conventions leave us expecting – and, thanks to the charm of Stone and Gosling, wanting – a happy ending. However, whilst La La Land’s bait and switch may seem at odds with the rest of the film’s light-handed approach, it does make thematic sense.
If La La Land has a single, overarching message, it might be that following your dream is possible – but it’s never going to be easy. And, as these characters learn, you don’t always get everything you want. There’s something telling about Mia’s final, dreamy fantasy as she sees Gosling’s Sebastian performing in his jazz club. The gorgeous sequence ends with Gosling sat in Mia’s husband’s seat, watching someone else living out his dream. In Mia’s perfect world, she gets everything she wants – but Sebastian doesn’t.
I don’t think this moment was intended as an indictment of Mia’s character; nor does it suggests that she’s selfish, or thoughtless. It simply presents the reality of ‘having it all’ – a career, a relationship, a family. Inevitably, there will be times where someone has to be home holding down the fort. It’s often a remarkably gendered reality – one that came up during Gosling’s Golden Globes acceptance speech – and without it, La La Land would have been an entirely different film. Sickly sweet, nostalgic to the point of hyperbolic romanticism, and not half as meaningful.
La La Land’s bittersweet ending is, to some extent, disheartening; it seems to undermine the inspirational sheen of everything that precedes it. But it’s also challenging and a little knotty – and if it left you thinking, it did its job. La La Land is a film that stays with you. It’s an unexpectedly lovely, heart-rending ride; so let it break a few rules along the way.