Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), today, for #24, we come to one of my most recent favorite films.
La La Land (2016)
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Aspiring actress Mia and struggling musician Sebastian meet in Los Angeles and fall in love, but find their relationship deeply tested by their pursuit of their individual dreams.
Feeling a sense of rejection from Mia (though she has never communicated this directly), Sebastian opts to take a steady job as a keyboardist in a jazz fusion band, as a way of actively pursuing his career and the financial stability that success will bring. The band is successful but all-consuming, and Sebastian ends up spending weeks away on tour. One night, Sebastian surprises Mia by coming home for one brief night, and preparing dinner for her. Mia is overjoyed to see him.
Their conversation begins pleasantly enough, with Sebastian asking Mia about the one-woman play she is writing (something he encouraged her in), and Mia saying how nervous she is. Sebastian, as he always does, challenges her not to worry about what others think and to pursue what she loves.
Then the conversation shifts to Seb’s tour, and how long it will last, and Mia comes to realize that actually this process-touring then recording then touring again–will theoretically go on for years. She’s concerned, not just for their relationship but because she knows that Sebastian doesn’t really like the music he’s playing. As she says, if he’s going to give up his dreams (to start his own jazz club) then it ought to be for something he likes doing.
But it turns out that for Sebastian, actually liking what he was doing has become less of a priority. He had felt (rightly or wrongly) that this is what Mia wanted him to do, and takes her questions as rejection. He overreacts, and retreats into defensiveness, even accusing Mia of liking him better when he wasn’t successful because it made her feel better about herself.
Just then, the food he’s cooking starts to burn, and Mia decides she’s had enough of it all, and the romantic date is over….
There are so many things I like about this movie. It’s contains lots of sequences which use both old school and modern visual devices to evoke the atmosphere of classic movie musicals and to create the movie’s romantic and emotional landscape. This scene doesn’t feature any of them. In the middle of this story which is full of deliberately stylized staging, camera and lighting techniques to talk about the pursuit of artistic dreams, the film dishes up a steaming hot pile of reality with this extended conversation in which Mia and Sebastian have to start to confront their choices and the reasons for them. It reaffirms to us that the behind all the romance, the movie really does understand something of the complexities of life and relationships.
Visually, it’s a beautiful looking scene, as you’d expect a candlelight dinner between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling to be. It cleverly uses the sound of a record they are listening to coming to abrupt stop at a key point in their conversation. And when the smoke alarm intrudes upon their fight, the camera shifts from static closeups to a less secure hand held camera which reflects the uncertainty in their relationship well.
Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are fantastic all the way through this movie and this scene is a highlight. They bring some good dialogue to life in way that is compelling and realistic, genuinely feeling like a real couple who are discovering that things are more complicated than they’d hoped for.
It’s not long after this that things go from bad to worse. Because we’ve had this moment, we can understand that when Sebastian later lets Mia down, there’s not really any hope of them just getting over it and getting back to normal.
There’s so much more I could say about La La Land, we’ll see if we revisit it before this series is over.