There’s been a lot of debate about the ending of La La Land, the musical that almost won the Best Film at the Oscars. Obviously, if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading now, because there be spoilers ahead.
The ending has been aptly described as ‘bittersweet’. People love it, people hate it. It’s been proclaimed as the best thing about the movie, and the thing that totally ruined it. Basically, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), after two and something hours of being madly in love, decide to part ways in order to follow their dreams. In the final portion of the film, they meet five years later — they’ve found professional success, but lost each other. She’s married to the drummer from That Thing You Do and he’s alone, and there’s a gorgeous musical sequence as they think about what might have been.
On a purely visceral, emotional level, sitting there in the theater, the ending worked beautifully for me. I loved the bittersweet tone, the ‘what if…’, and the final lingering glance they exchange at the door, and got all choked up. Logically, though, I wasn’t sold. The more I thought about it later, the more I found I wasn’t convinced that they couldn’t follow their dreams and still invest in their relationship. Why couldn’t the jazz-loving Sebastian spend four months in Paris while Mia acted in her breakthrough film? He says himself that there are great jazz clubs there… so what exactly is the problem? Or why not even consider a temporary long-distance arrangement? They wouldn’t be the first couple or the last to Skype their way through a four or five month separation. Or why doesn’t she look him up after the four months are done and she returns to the U.S., if, as she says, she’ll always love him? I never got the sense that there’s any personal or professional incompatibility that necessitated separation. To me, it seemed like director Chazelle wanted this ending, this bittersweetness, and so he tacked it on. It didn’t feel like the relationship naturally found its way there.
The only sort-of explanation that’s offered is when Sebastian tells Mia that she has to give her 100 per cent to her dream of making it in the movies — no distractions or demands due to Seb and their relationship, presumably. Fair enough. But let’s see how that works out for Mia, shall we? (And this brings us to the part about the ending that really bugs me). Five years later, she’s a super-successful actress, yes, but she’s also married to Generic Husband Man, and has a Cute Toddler Daughter, who is at least two years old, maybe 2.5. Back-calculating, that means that she got pregnant just barely two years after breaking up with Seb. Let’s assume that this wasn’t a case of her getting knocked up and hastily tying the knot while showing off her six-month baby bump. That means she married GHM maybe six months before she got pregnant. They must have dated for at least six months-ish before they got married (this isn’t some quick-gun desi arranged marriage after all). So that means that she met and got into a serious relationship with GHM just barely a year (probably less) after breaking up with Seb, just about when her breakthrough film was wrapping up/getting ready to release. See the problem here? The logic doesn’t hold up.
So if Mia wasn’t so focused on career goals that she put her personal life/marriage/children a far second (clearly this isn’t the case if she is happily ensconced in domestic bliss and is preggers just two years later), then the choice was more Sebastian’s than hers. And this is more believable. Because he’s the one who’s living like a hermit at the start, and still is living that way, five years later. He’s the one who tells her they should go their separate ways. And all Mia does is agree. We never actually get to hear her point of view. She asks him, “Where are we?” and he tells her, and she agrees. That, to me, is really annoying on closer inspection. This is clearly a favoured trope of Damien Chazelle’s — the male artiste who eschews love for his art (e.g. Whiplash). Mia, really, has all the will and agency of a damp dish rag in this particular scenario.
That final sequence, where we see their life together if they’d never broken up, then, is truly her fantasy. That’s what she would have wanted, only she never fights for or even makes a case for it (see damp dish rag). Sebastian throws away their relationship and is content to ‘suffer for his art’ because, in Chazelle’s world, that’s what men do. And she fantasizes about domestic bliss with him, while sitting beside the man who was actually willing to commit to her, because… I don’t know… that’s what women do? (Not). Suddenly, it’s not all bittersweet and romantic anymore. It’s just… annoying and blergh. And also really unfair to GHM. Poor ol’ Guy Patterson of The Wonders deserved better.