Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel’s review published on Letterboxd:
My first introduction to "whiteness" as a sociological concept came in a devastating takedown of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In one of the livejournal based film communities that I used to participate in (I can no longer recall if it was the mean one or the extremely mean one), someone brought up how great Jacques Demy's film was, only for another person to shoot it down on colonialist grounds. Their argument, as I can best recall, was that by centering the film around this romance interrupted by the Algerian war for independence, the film was placing love above the devastation of colonialism. Guy's forced abandonment of Geneviève is shown to be a bigger tragedy than that of racial subjugation and capitalist imperialism.
At that time, I had recently seen and deeply loved The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, so while I was very taken with the critique, I merely mentally adjusted the film as "guilty favorite" (or to use today's lingo, problematic fave) from unassailable classic. It didn't change how I felt about the central romance or the art direction, but I accepted that I was ignoring important thematic issues in order to experience these strong emotions.
When I finally got around to rewatching the film, I was shocked not only to find that I still loved it quite a bit, but that I saw almost entirely the opposite film of what had been described to me. While I wouldn't go so far as to call the film not a tragic love story, I would go so far as to say Demy is extremely aware of how people privilege personal drama over wider reaching issues. I would even argue that the choice to sing every line heightens the emotions of the audience so much that eventually the nerves become raw and numb. It captures what it's like to be a teenager more than most films, an interminable emotional roller coaster that seeks constant catharsis. That the two lovers view the war more as a cruel personal imposition rather than the result of a century plus of white supremacy is a critique on them as well as the love story and musical as film genres*.
I believe that there is plenty of textual evidence to support this reading in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but I ultimately felt fully confident in my opinion after rewatching The Young Girls of Rochefort. Though the most standard musical of the "Lola" trilogy in form and plot, Young Girls is divergent in less obvious ways. For instance, an ax murderer is literally killing sex workers as a background storyline. The characters in the film treat this as a mere trifle compared to finding true love or lost love. When the film reveals that they even knew the murderer, a brief moment of shock is expressed, before the film quickly hustles along to the next song or sad, longing sigh. I don't think there is any other way to interpret the inclusion of this storyline but that the world of romance, musicals, and movies have no time for sordid reality. It is but a trifle compared to individual passion. However, I contend that while the filmmakers may understand why the characters feel that way, it never agrees with their easygoing attitude when it comes to mass murder.
Many have rightly pointed out that Jacques Demy's shadow looms large over Damien Chazelle's second feature, La La Land, but almost all of that focus has been aesthetically. They both feature massive tightly choreographed outdoor dance scenes, a taste for pastel colored clothes, and a love of aching, bordering on treacly, melodrama. None (at least that I have read) comment on how Chazelle has been influenced by Demy's genre play. Once again I feel like I've seen a movie entirely different than the one that has been described to me. There's no ax murderer in the world of La La Land, but I believe there are plenty of indications that it is no paean to a supposedly more classic and beautiful time in film. In fact, the film centers around two people who constantly overlook the realities of the past in order to escape into a simplified fantasy of what they want the world to be, a place more comforting and survivable for them.
For instance, Sebastian is obsessed with jazz yet only in a superficial way. He has a knowledge of its history, but for him jazz is a dead thing almost. He fights against it dying, but he's trying to preserve a past that maybe never even existed in the first place and angry that people don't want to hold on to that ideal with him. He's ossified one of the liveliest and most experimental branches of music. He's obsessed with where things were and how they used to be rather than any potential future. It's meaningful in my eyes that the only significant character of color (John Legend's Keith) calls Sebastian out on his myopic vision of jazz. You say you love jazz, he argues, but you don't want it to grow or change. I'm reminded here of a discussion that Basil and I once had about black music and racism, how it is much easier to consume black art decades after its release. We're no longer in the Jim Crow era, so listening to blues singers rail against it, as a white listener, doesn't force us to consider our own complicity in white supremacy. Even listening to something as angry and applicable as NWA, for instance, feels less transgressive than listening to trap music.
Mia, as she points out, chooses to work at the coffee shop that she does because it is on a film lot, very near a set where they filmed some of Casablanca. To her, this is a romantic spot therefore because Casablanca is a romantic movie. Except that it isn't. Casablanca, while certainly meeting Aristotle's idea of tragic catharsis, is specifically about giving up on passion because of a cold reality. They sacrifice love on the belief that it might save thousands, maybe millions of lives in keeping the Nazi resistance powerful and organized. Hopefully most people could make this decision easily in real life although I doubt that Mia and Sebastian, Guy and Geneviève, would feel like it was as easy as I do.
Perhaps most damningly, the two lovers leave** their screening of Rebel without a Cause, inspired to go to its most iconic location to share a tender and romantic moment, ignoring that it is the setting for two of the three most violent scenes in the movie. Perhaps if you are completely taken in by the romance, by the idea that the film is simply an amalgam of narrative and pastiche, believing it to be the musical/dance/romance version of Kill Bill, you might argue that the moment of extraordinary beauty experienced by Mia and Sebastian at Griffith Observatory reclaims the location from its violence. I do not agree. As breathtaking as Mia and Sebastian floating off the ground is (and it may be one of the two or three singular images from the film that remains indelible on the collective unconscious of cinephiles), I see it as another moment of them missing the point, of romanticizing something as it fits their needs while ignoring its real history. For me, the image of Rebel Without a Cause projected onto Mia's face is the iconic one from this film: gorgeous, haunting, and a clear representation of the superficiality of these characters' relationship with this classic art that they revere. They are oblivious to Nicholas Ray's anger at the 50's, to the societal unrest bubbling up in every scene.
Haters might then argue that maybe Chazelle and the rest of the filmmakers missed these issues too, that I'm giving him credit that he hasn't earned. I'm assuming that he read these influences the same as I did and ignoring the possibility that he is just like these characters and has romanticized the past. But the film represents these problems aesthetically as well. In the very first scene of the movie, I was confused as to whether I would like it. Here was a well choreographed dance scene during a traffic jam creating a very revealing tension between life and film, but there was something I didn't like about the scene. It reminded me of student films that are shot around noon that do nothing to mitigate how incredibly bright the sun is. So everyone's faces are often indistinct and cloaked in darkness while the background of the shot is almost burnt out pure white. The repetition of this effect when people are outside during the day convinced me that it was intentional and that it exists specifically to make those scenes less gorgeous than its influences and to dehumanize people the same way that Mia and Sebastian's myopic passions end up doing.
I mean for god's sake, the film is called "la la land." Has anyone ever been complimented for being off in la la land?
Some have agreed with my more caustic take on the film but still have other complaints. The costuming looks like a Gap ad is probably the funniest. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling aren't the strongest dancers or singers. Some of the narrative beats come too quickly. I could make an argument that these only add to the way the film is about the problems with fantasy, but that would be a disingenuous argument for me to make. I didn't notice these things as being bad. I was taken in. My few complaints mostly centered around a couple of eye-rolling "get off my lawn" style jokes like everyone in LA drives a Prius. Save it for bad gen x comedy specials pretending that they can still connect with millennials.
But it's deeply important to me that I am taken in. That a smoke alarm going off during a fight doesn't seem like the cheesy effect that it should but that it genuinely hurts my heart. Because truly challenging films give the audience the ability to opt in, to identify with characters who are cruel, biased, and self-centered, asking you to confront your own inadequacies. Nostalgia is dangerous, powerful, and beautiful. It is deeply human to imagine things as better than they were.
A lot of people see the success of the protagonists of Whiplash and La La Land as an indication that they chose a correct ideology, but maybe internalizing bad ideology in a world run on bad ideology helps you be the type of successful that that bad ideology determines is best. Maybe something is being lost in art through the very act of how we popularly think it is created, through ideas like passion and individuality, when they can be fairly easily perverted into sociopathy. I don't want to be the type of person who reveres a stool because of its symbolic meaning and misses out on the real moment potentially occurring between me and my sibling. I don't think Damien Chazelle does either no matter how entrancing, charming, and ecstatic that symbolism might be.
* I don't want to give Jacques Demy too much credit here. He is far more concerned with class than he is race as evidenced in A Room in Town. Demy would have been unlikely to say that his films challenge whiteness or white supremacy. He may have been against the war on the grounds of it being a battle between two groups of poor people instigated by rich people hoping to stay rich or get richer but likely would have not cared about or been ignorant of the racist elements to the conflict.
** It has been enough time since I saw this that I can't remember if they leave the screening early or stay through the whole film.