Damien Chazelle’s 2015 film La La Land was, as we all immediately recall, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and, ever so briefly, was even the winner. That is, until the infamous envelope gaffe was corrected, and Moonlight was correctly given the award. This came at the end of a season wherein Chazelle’s film was hotly contested. Many favored it to win the award, and many loved it (critic Scott Mantz actually claims to have seen it 11 times in theaters), although it was – and still is – muddling its way through a backlash that seems to be settling into a general dissatisfied malaise.
Meanwhile, one of Chazelle’s central inspirations for La La Land – Jacques Demy’s all-sung romantic opera The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – is currently enjoying a Criterion Blu-ray release after having been openly celebrated pretty constantly since its release in 1964. It was a hit at the time, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, launched the stardom of Catherine Deneuve, and is well-enjoyed by just about anyone who sees it. If any criticism can be leveled at Cherbourg it’s that, when compared to other films in the French New Wave (i.e. Jean-Luc Godard’s extra-cool dissections of cinematic noir), it may read as smaller or more trifling. A recent re-watch, however, reveals that the film is as textured, as subversive, and perhaps even more emotionally hefty than many of the markedly more cerebral New Wave films.
Chazelle clearly loves Cherbourg, and seems to have been attempting to make a film that can emulate the experience of watching Cherbourg for the first time, only updated for a modern, L.A.-savvy audience. Chazelle, it has been openly noticed, has even quoted colors, shots, character names, settings (look carefully, and you’ll see a shop selling parapluies, the French word for umbrella), and – perhaps most notably – the tragic romance of its ending, in his own musical opus. La La Land functions as more than a pastiche, of course, but the films are similar enough that they warrant a compare-contrast. The influences are deeper than a casual glance may reveal.
The Umbrellas if Cherbourg is a musical romance, filmed in the most vibrant, silver nitrate-embellished colors imaginable, about a sweet 17-year-old girl named Geneviève (Deneuve) who falls in love with a happy-go-lucky mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). Their romance is, as highlighted by the music, a youthful, cinematic fantasy come to life. They smile, love, and live a life that is heightened and saturated with enormous emotions that cannot be contained in the mundanity of the spoken word. Demy, rather than using the music as a background or highlighting material, appears to be wielding the artificiality of cinema to tell something grander than reality. And, in true New Wave fashion, he calls attention to the way the trappings of older Hollywood cinema – particularly its presumed-dead genres – has come to influence the way we think and feel.
When Guy is drafted to fight in Algeria, he and Geneviève swear to love one another forever. When he leaves, however, Geneviève is courted carefully by a handsome older gentleman named Roland (Marc Michel). After receiving few letters from Guy, after learning that she is pregnant, and after learning that her aunt (Anne Vernon) is in dire financial straits, Geneviève chooses to marry for practical reasons. When Guy returns from the war, he is devastated. Flash forward to the film’s end, and we see that Geneviève is now living a wealthy lifestyle, and Guy has realized his dream of marrying a bride of his own, a woman who has loved him from afar, and opening up his own gas station. Their parting is aching with unrealized potential, but we realize that the idealism of youth does eventually have to mature, and that living one’s ultimate dreams requires a sacrifice.
The film is yearningly romantic, glorious to behold, boldly artificial, and may function, at once, as a romance and as a criticism of cinema in general. As a youth, I was amused by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. As an adult, I find it to be strikingly sophisticated. I now can fully appreciate why so many of my critical peers have declared it to be one of their very favorites. Its brightness and timelessness and clever artistic self-reference is now locked onto a Blu-ray, which looks as great as any restoration yet.
The notion of sacrificing personal romances in order to achieve one’s dreams is not just the underlying notion of La La Land, but is a common theme in Chazelle’s work. In both Whiplash and La La Land, we witness young white jazz enthusiasts actively pushing away the women close to them in order to become more successful as artists. While The Umbrellas of Cherbourg seems to be making a larger comment on cinema and youth and maturity, La La Land remains more specific, exploring the hope-strewn trenches of a fantasy Los Angeles. L.A. is a town that, from both the outside and the inside, openly peddles wish fulfillment as its primary export. Come here, the town silently offers, and your dreams of being a successful actress or musician will definitely come true. As millions of young real-life people can attest, however, it doesn’t work that way.
The two young leads of La La Land, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are both aspiring artists. She an actress, he a jazz man. They fall tentatively in love, and they periodically break into song and dance. Unlike the supercolored slickness of Cherbourg, though, Land skews a little more grounded, leaving its level unreality in the realm of any recognizable Hollywood melodrama. Until the musical numbers begin. Then it becomes a wholesale fantasy. As our two young lovers progress through their romance and their attempts to make it big, they find that selling out, compromising, and rejiggering their expectations may be necessary. Most importantly, their own inability to remain tenacious in the face of life’s practicalities pushes them apart.
The end of La La Land takes place in flash-forward, where we see that Stone has married and had a child with another man, and Gosling has realized his vision of opening a jazz club without her. La La Land‘s best sequence is its ending, and it’s where it overlaps most directly with Cherbourg.
Cherbourg knew something, however, that La La Land does not: If you’re going to wield the artificiality of the classic Hollywood musical as the thematic underpinnings of your post-modern romance film, then the music and aesthetics of your film has to resemble one of those films as closely as possible. To be fair, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a 53-year-old film that was actually contemporary with some of Hollywood’s best-known musicals (The Sound of Music came out two years later), but it also knew how to stage a musical, hire people who could sing well, and captured a suddenly noticeable and utterly dazzling star in the form of Catherine Deneuve.
La La Land, apart from its impressive opening sequence, seems to give short shrift to its musical elements. The two stars sing their own songs, and they are not professional dancers. And, in a universe where music is meant to equate dreaming and love, everything begins to crumble under the not-so-virtuosic feet of Gosling and Stone. They can hold their own in a practical way, I suppose, but I maintain that many well-trained aspiring young people currently working as waiters and waitresses in Manhattan could have bested the two we saw. La La Land talks a lot old music and how artistic purity has been lost in the modern age. Ironic that La La Land itself should also be lacking the dazzling purity of the art it claims to be resurrecting.
La La Land was clearly not trying to outdo The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Chazelle is not so conceited as to try – but rather call to mind a film that has lingered in the critical consciousness for decades to further prop up his own romantic and thematic theses. Perhaps Chazelle, though, was trying too hard. Demy seemed to have a light, affable talent for musicals, and understood more profoundly how movie musicals operate. Chazelle seems so desperate to pay homage to the smaller details of a certain musical, that he lost sight of what’s more important: The pacing, cutting, dancing, and singing.
Ultimately, La La Land operates best as an affectionate, lesser footnote to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. If you love La La Land, go back to Demy’s film, and experience what Chazelle was aiming for. You’ll find that Land is an elaborate, humbled tip-of-the-hat.
Top Image: 20th Century Fox
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, Nerdist, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.