Cultures Film & TV Literature

I used to hate La La Land, but Sartre changed that.

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Just a few nights ago I went to bed feeling rather sad. After years of awkward, stubborn reluctance – and for no defined reason at all – I decided to cosy up for the evening and quench my romantic thirst with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The music and composure was bright, inventive, zesty, with almost a magical quality; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dazzled with their slow-burn acting performances; the cinematography was vivacious, colourful, revealing… and yet I still left feeling ablaze with a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. What could have possibly piqued such an intense displeasure within me? Was I jealous of, or even disgusted with, Ryan Gosling’s hawkish looks, proficiency at the piano, and his nifty three-piece brown suit? Probably, but there was little at all I could do about that. “Ah,” I thought to myself,“ it is because of the weather: surely one cannot enjoy anything to its fullest extent when they are stuck inside a small, boxy, greenhouse-like room in sweltering heat on one of the hottest days of the year.”. Well, yes… but no. That wasn’t the root of the problem; it lay far deeper than that. 

The best thing to do was wait. Maybe I needed to re-watch it. Maybe it just happened like that, and I shouldn’t think much of it. Perhaps it was just a transient spike in my emotional conscience. Or, even more comforting – and this is true of most Hollywood movies – it could have just been an outrightly bad film, and so the intense feeling of sorrow and disappointment was solely triggered by an internal rejection and disapproval for my enjoyment of bad cinema. I slept on it. 

To my surprise, given that I have never found ‘sleeping on it’ to be a useful meditative tool, I woke up with some semblance of an answer. What lingered was this unshakeable sense that a book I had read months prior – Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea – held the answers I was looking for. It’s true: what, if anything, could a 20thcentury philosopher and a star-studded Hollywood musical pumped with indulgences have in common? The duo seemed not only nonsensical, but almost chaotic – even anarchistic. Like you, I was on the verge of dismissal once more. 

I thought about all of the themes evoked by Sartre which could have explained my dilemma; the existential, existence, identity, freedom, etc. “Good, then,”, I thought. It was none of these issues which loomed large in my reflections. In fact, I ought to keep those to myself when they do come to pass. Instead, it was a more subtle, overlooked, current of the book which gained relevance; it was the notion of perfection. 

As it goes, Sartre writes that the main protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, encounters and ruminates over his old, distant lover, Anny, who was desperate to trim and procure “perfect moments” in order to feel a sense of significance. Antoine reflects that it is this requirement of creating “perfect moments” which sowed the seeds of emotional discord between the pair since he never showed great skill “in the game of perfect moments”. I soon realised that my problem was this: I was Anny. La La Land brutally, shamelessly, rips the notion of a perfect love story from the throats of romantics and stuffs it back into their faces as if to say, “take that, stupid delusionist”. At any given moment where the two lovers seemed as though they were going to fortify their bond – a kiss on the hills of Los Angeles, or in the Cinema, etc – the bubble of utopia bursts and the glass ceiling shatters all around us. I hated it. I wanted the perfection. I wanted the full-throated satisfaction of a complete love story. I wanted to go to bed knowing that, yes, romance was well and truly alive, and the torch remained lit. But this was never realised. 

Shortly before the end of the novel, Antoine and Anny meet in person for the first time in years. When asked about ‘perfect moments’, Anny ponders that, indeed, as a stage actor, she has been able to obtain them – but only for other people, the audience, who didn’t “live in it; it unfolded in front of them”. Instead, she is only able to create perfect moments not through experience, but through memory, by altering her recollections of the past, sentimentalising, and romanticising to create “a whole string of perfect moments”.

I guess what I’m trying to point out is this: the storyline of La La Land no longer matters. If the lovers ended up together, living happily ever after: then great. But, like the audience of one of Anny’s performances, I would be experiencing a perfect recital of a fabricated love. Alternatively, if they separate, unable to consolidate two different ambitions, failing to truly realise their love: too bad, I say. What Sartre points out through the character of Anny is that neither the means nor the end matter; perfection does not exist in its true form, it is only illusionary. 

Perhaps I overthought it. Maybe that was just how it was, and that’s that. But regardless, I now had peace. I still have that feeling of displeasure, disgust, dissatisfaction, that sour taste on my tongue… but I am okay with it. Where two strange worlds collided, both Sartre and La La Land demonstrated that the acidic bitterness of imperfection is a constant of life. I can now finally live with it; maybe I will watch La La Land again.