Among the current decade’s crop of movie neo-musicals, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land stands apart for tapping into traditions uniquely native to film. That is to say, it’s a song-and-dance extravaganza that takes its inspiration from cinematic language rather than the stage. The links to films produced by Arthur Freed at MGM in the 40s and 50s are easily apparent, from the shrewd self-deprecating humor to the eruption of terpsichorean fantasy at the climax. But there’s another influence in play that can be easy to overlook for monoglot American audiences. Chazelle, whose father is French-American, has always been eager to cite the films of Jacques Demy, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The filmmakers of the French New Wave era were among the first to deconstruct the conventions of the musical form. In Demy’s case, the genre’s artifice was pushed to its limit — every word of dialogue in Umbrellas is sung — and then smashed into the mold of a realist narrative. Both filmmakers could regard the genre from a certain distance, whether of geography or time. As a result, each of them approached the material from a place of deep admiration coupled with nostalgia for a dying or dead art. For that reason, their shared choice of subject matter — young love and its inevitable end — is perfect.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was Demy’s first color film, and he took cues from color-coded Hollywood musicals to give his film its saturated look. At times, the environment serves as counterpoint to the emotions onscreen — such as when the young lovers Geneviève and Guy (played by Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo) share what might be their happiest night together, walking down a dark street; or when Geneviève and her mother (Anne Vernon) fret over their financial and romantic states while a parade can be glimpsed through the windows behind them. The basic narrative arc is perfectly suited to the musical melodrama, with the fervent protagonists treating their impending separation as a crisis. The difference from a traditional Hollywood approach is found in two things: a fixation on mundane, working-class problems (the bored shopgirl who gets pregnant and the frustrated mechanic conscripted into the military) and the kind of wisdom that takes the protagonists’ pain seriously without granting them the fairy-tale ending they desire.
While the opening sequence of La La Land owes more to Demy’s follow-up to Umbrellas, The Young Girls of Rochefort, the main story covers a lot of the same ground as the earlier film. Sebastian and Mia (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) are aspiring entertainers and are therefore more in the vein of classic Hollywood, but otherwise they follow the same simple progression. They meet, they fall in love (after some obligatory yet charming romantic-comedy friction), and circumstances drive them apart. Chazelle shares with Demy a keen grasp of ordinary struggles such as finding steady work and paying the rent. Mia wades through a sea of fellow redheads in white shirts after an audition and later struggles to find her particular Prius after a party — one little person trying to stand out in an industry with scant opportunities and attention spans. Sebastian chases success as a musician at the same time, causing their paths to diverge, first physically, then emotionally. Chazelle indulges the old Hollywood fantasies at this point, as well, with both characters ultimately succeeding in their personal goals. But at the same time, there’s some of that wisdom about moving on from young love. The piano tune that Sebastian had been tinkering with throughout the film finally sets off the dance fantasia of the last scene, thus transforming into a musical apology. The imaginary sequence shows what kind of relationship Sebastian and Mia might have had if he hadn’t been so selfish.
There is very little dancing in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which is another reason to pair it with The Young Girls of Rochefort as an influence on La La Land. The elegance here is in the camera and the editing — a dreamy but unobtrusive style, in contrast to Chazelle’s swirling long takes, which are impressive in small doses. Demy uses match cuts to tie leaps in time to sustained emotional states, and in one crucial scene he places his actors on a dolly so they appear to glide down a sidewalk. The feeling expressed in that scene is complex: not merely the “lighter than air” feeling of two lovebirds, but also a creeping fear of parting and what the future might bring. The characters sing their vows of faithfulness while walking into the unknown in a Cocteau-esque daze. Demy and composer Michel Legrand’s Oscar-nominated song used in this scene (in English, “I Will Wait for You”) easily outshines any of the songs penned by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for La La Land. Some of Legrand’s other prominent themes are quite strong as well. The overall structure of Legrand’s work — namely, one continuous piece of music marked by a variety of moods that often mimics normal conversation — remains challenging and sometimes frustrating in its less showstopping moments.
These films share an affinity for the freedom and beauty of jazz. In fact, it’s a hobbyhorse of Chazelle’s. Sebastian seems to have an easier time getting into the music business than Mia has with acting. He has the connections and the opportunities. Her “day job” is working in a coffee shop, while he can always pound out Christmas tunes in a restaurant or tickle a synthesizer in an 80s tribute band. His problem is that these occupations are beneath him. Even when he’s invited to join an incredibly successful jazz fusion band and go on tour, he starts to wonder (with prodding by Mia) if he’s compromised his values. Despite the much-commented-upon racial queasiness of a white character proclaiming himself an advocate for traditional jazz, there’s an interesting kernel in this plot thread. Sebastian might be wrong. His idea of “selling out” might in fact be the creation of something new and fresh as opposed to imitating the old masters. “Popular” isn’t synonymous with “inferior,” although Chazelle still flirts with that fallacy, especially in the unfortunate photo-shoot scene. La La Land encapsulates the combined reverence and revulsion that the nonfamous feel for the famous.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is much closer to the era of classic musicals than our own. Its stylistic boldness in turning a simple love story into a jazzy opera isn’t so far removed from what any good musical does with human experience. It certainly feels different from the “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” ethos of La La Land. In fact, one central element of Demy’s film is even more artificial than anything cooked up by Hollywood back in the day: the voices of every significant character are dubbed by different actors than those that appear onscreen. Today’s cult of authenticity required Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone to sing their own parts. They perform well enough, though they’re clearly stretching themselves. What Demy cherished in the musical form was an impossible perfection to go along with the earnestness. Things don’t always work out in this life, but with the right talent and craft, it can all be made beautiful.