It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That famous notion directly relates to one of the most celebrated films in contemporary cinema. Drawing inspiration from Jacque Demy’s 1964 classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Damien Chazelle essentially remade his favorite film into an Oscar-winning masterpiece. La La Land is a spectacular achievement in filmmaking because it is a Hollywood musical that honors the legacy of that genre while also critiquing the entertainment industry.
Chazelle’s homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg can be seen at the beginning of La La Land, where he uses the opening scene to artfully depict the title and setting of the musical. La La Land opens with a bright and sunny day on a crowded Los Angeles highway with the characters breaking out in a musical number entitled “Another Day of Sun.” It’s the perfect introduction that embodies the film’s title of La La Land, which is a double entendre for the idiom “la la land” and the city of Los Angeles (L.A.).
The singing and dancing on the freeway is a vivacious performance that is so grandiose and unrealistic that it feels like a fantasy, where everyone is completely out of touch with reality. This fantasy is only reiterated as the characters sing lyrics like “Climb these hills I’m reaching for the heights, and chasing all of the lights that shine,” which serves as a reminder of the untold number of people who flock to Los Angeles in order to pursue their dreams of stardom, fame, and fortune, even if they rarely come to fruition.
By comparison, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has a melancholic tone with its opening that involves people walking around the city on a rainy day in the 1950s. However, the imagery and prominent display of umbrellas throughout the introduction embodies the musical’s title and setting in Cherbourg, France, which is similar to the approach Chazelle used with La La Land. The title and introduction also allude to the main female character Geneviève who works at an umbrella boutique with her mother.
While the tone of the two opening scenes are in stark contrast, they both use a similar technique of introducing the musicals by clearly defining the locations and stories that they intend to depict. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is grounded in the bleak reality of 1950s France, after World War II and during the Algerian War, while La La Land is set in a fictional Los Angeles from an unidentified time period that is perhaps done to show the timeless appeal of Hollywood dreams (and heartbreak).
Besides those subtle references in the titles and openings, both films are fundamentally tragic love stories that delve into the illusion versus reality of love. In The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the two main characters, Geneviève and Guy, struggle to maintain contact with each other after Guy receives a draft notice to participate in the Algerian War. Even though the two have pledged their love to each other, the reality of their situation becomes much more complicated when Geneviève discovers that she is pregnant with Guy’s child while he is away at war.
As Geneviève evaluates her situation, and the fact that she does not know when, or if, Guy will return to her, as well as her own future and life as an unmarried mother in the 1950s, she must make tough choices. Unlike the fairytale endings of Hollywood, Geneviève decides to marry a wealthy jeweler from Paris who is interested in her despite having a child with another man. Instead of the illusion of true love prevailing, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows the harsh reality of life as Geneviève ultimately decides to secure her—and her child’s future—rather than wait for true love. Such a tragic element to this simple, yet beautiful love story reveals how the only constant in life is change.
Similarly, Mia and Sebastian also had to deal with their own struggles as they pursued their aspirations in Los Angeles, a city that is known for both promoting and destroying dreams. Mia and Sebastian have an intense argument in La La Land in which they encounter difficulties maintaining their relationship because Sebastian wants to open his own jazz club while Mia hopes to become a famous actress. Within this pivotal scene, the argument that they have suggests that even when people are involved together, their own choices shape both themselves and the relationships they share with people around them. Mia even shouts, “I do like jazz now because of you!” That meant that Sebastian directly impacted her life through their relationship, which reveals how bonds that people form together really do shape their own personal character.
Part of the tragedy of the love story in La La Land is the fact that Sebastian made sacrifices about being part of the band out of Mia’s suggestion. The misunderstanding about how to pursue their dreams, and how the pursuit of those dreams would impact their relationship, suggests a sense of naïveté because their love was very youthful. That sense of naïveté is a lot like the love between Geneviève and Guy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg because both couples are young, idealistic, and foolish to a certain extent. The two romantic pairs each had a type of “lovey-dovey” relationship that was passionate but not fully developed, and as time tested that commitment to one another, which is a reality of life, both relationships crumbled and shared a tragic demise.
Both films share similar antithetical Hollywood endings because neither Geneviève and Guy nor Mia and Sebastian end up together at their respective finales. Chazelle’s famous “Epilogue” scene, however, not only reinforces the notion of “separated lovers” like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but it takes that idea even further by depicting the illusion versus reality of love.
Within the epilogue, the sequence is basically a ten-minute dream ballet, and it looks like the most idealized film sequences ever. Within the epilogue, there are flashbacks to earlier events in the film, but this time the events are re-imagined into a more “perfect” rendition of how everything turned out for them. Instead of the bleak realities of those earlier occurrences, the epilogue is basically a depiction of what their lives would be like if it had all gone as they dreamed it would. Unfortunately, that is not their reality—nor the reality for most people—and the scene alludes to the idea of a perfect life is unobtainable, making the sequence one of the most celebrated (but also heart-breaking) endings in a motion picture.
Along with that powerful ending, La La Land provides social commentary on Hollywood while simultaneously honoring the musicals of its past, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The film critiques the entertainment industry when Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) says to Mia in the jazz club “Hollywood worships everything, but values nothing.” That is a subtle, yet also shocking, comment on Hollywood because Gosling’s character essentially says that the cinematic world is very fake, artificial, and superficial. That comment also relates to the epilogue because it depicts a perfect Hollywood ending even though the reality is very different. The result is a love story that has a lot more depth compared to a traditional Hollywood romance.
Jacque Demy’s film also points out the fakeness of Hollywood in a very subtle way. A key moment in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is when Geneviève’s mother told her to stop crying, and that “people only die for love in cinema.” That important comment is much like the commentary that La La Land provides about the reality of Hollywood. Cinematic films might look beautiful and portray life the way we want it to be, but it is all essentially nothing more than artificial glamour and fantasy. In fact, there is an important moment in La La Land in which the camera focuses on a palm tree, and then backs away to inform the viewers that it is just a painted backdrop. Both of these films might involve romantic love stories, but the grittiness of reality prevails against the idealized hopes and dreams of “happily ever afters.”
La La Land is one of the most celebrated motion pictures of all time. The recipient of fourteen Academy Award nominations, seven Golden Globe wins, and six Oscars, it has been hailed as a modern-day masterpiece. It is about the dreams that people pursue while also serving as a cautionary tale about the costs associated with pursuing those dreams. Inspired by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, these films are both acclaimed musicals due to their powerful commentary and depiction of lost love and thwarted dreams.
Previously Published on Mindfray