La La Land may appear superior to such an exercise since it dwells in psychological realism: reality intrudes into the dreamworld of musicals (like the latest instalments of superhero films which bring out the hero’s psychological complexity, his traumas and inner doubts). But it is crucial to note how the otherwise realist story has to conclude with the escape into musical fantasy. So what happens at the film’s end?
The first and obvious Lacanian reading of the film would be to see the plot as yet another variation on the theme of “there is no sexual relationship”. The successful careers of the two protagonists which tear them apart are like the ice hitting the Titanic in Cameron’s movie: they are here to save the dream of love (staged in the final fantasy), i.e., to mask the immanent impossibility of their love, the fact that, if they were to remain together, they would turn into a bitter disappointed couple. Consequently, the ultimate version of the film would have been the reversal of the final situation: Mia and Sebastian are together and enjoy full professional success, but their lives are empty, so they go to a club and dream of a fantasy in which they live happily together a modest life, since they both renounced their careers, and (in a dream within a dream) they imagine making the opposite choice and romantically remember the missed opportunity of their life together…
We do find a similar reversal in amazon asin=B005F2JRUC&text=Family Man] (Brett Ratner, 2000). Jack Campbell, a single Wall Street executive, hears on Christmas Eve that his former girlfriend, Kate, called him after many years. On Christmas Day, Jack wakes up in a suburban New Jersey bedroom with Kate and two children; he hurries back to his office and condo in New York, but his closest friends do not recognize him. He is now living the life he could have had, had he stayed with his girlfriend—a modest family life, where he is a car tire salesman for Kate’s father and Kate is a not-for-profit lawyer. Just as Jack is finally realizing the true value of his new life, his epiphany jolts him back to his wealthy former life on Christmas Day. He forgoes closing a big acquisition deal to intercept Kate who also focused on her career and became a wealthy corporate lawyer. After he learns that she only called him to give back some of his old possessions since she is moving to Paris, he runs after her at the airport and describes the family they had in the alternate universe in an effort to win back her love. She agrees to have a cup of coffee at the airport, suggesting that they will have a future… So what we get is a compromise solution at its worst: somehow the two will combine the best of both worlds, remaining rich capitalists but being at the same time a loving couple with humanitarian concerns… In short, they will keep the cake and eat it, as they say, and La La Land at least avoids this cheap optimism.
So what effectively happens at the film’s end? It’s, of course, not that Mia and Sebastian simply decide to give preference to their careers ahead of their love relationship. The least one should add is that they both find success in their careers and achieve their dreams because of the relationship they had, so that their love is a kind of vanishing mediator: far from being an obstacle to their success, it “mediates” it. So does the film subvert the Hollywood formula of producing a couple insofar as both fulfil their dreams, but NOT as a couple? And is this subversion more than simply a postmodern narcissistic preference of personal fulfilment over Love? In other words, what if their love was not a true Love-Event? Plus, what if their career “dream” was not the devotion to a true artistic Cause but just a career dream? So what if none of the competing claims (career, love, etc.) really displays an unconditional commitment that follows a true Event? Their love is not true, their pursuing of career is just that — not a full artistic commitment. In short, Mia’s and Sebastian’s betrayal is deeper than choosing one alternative to the detriment of the other: their entire life is already a betrayal of an authentically-committed existence. This is also why the tension between the two claims is not a tragic existential dilemma but a very soft uncertainty and oscillation.
Such a reading is nonetheless too simple, for it ignores the enigma of the final fantasy: WHOSE fantasy is this, his or hers? Is it not HERS (she is the observer-dreamer), and the whole dream is focused on her destiny of going to Paris to shoot the film, etc.? Against some critics who claimed that the film is male-biased, i.e., that Sebastian is the active partner in the couple, one should assert that Mia is the subjective centre-point of the film: the choice is much more hers than his, which is why, at the film’s end, she is the big star and Sebastian, far from a celebrity, is just the owner of a moderately-successful jazz club (selling also fried chicken). This difference becomes clear when we listen closely to the two conversations between Mia and Sebastian when one of them has to make the choice. When Sebastian announces to her that he will join the band and spend most of the time touring, Mia does not raise the question of what this means for the two of them; instead, she asks him if this is what HE really wants, i.e., if HE likes playing with this band. Sebastian replies that people (the public) like what he is doing, so his playing with the band means a permanent job and a career, with the chance to put some money aside and open his jazz club. But she insists correctly that the true question is the one of his desire: what bothers her is not that, if he chooses his career (playing with the band), he will betray her (their love relationship), but that, if he chooses this career, he will betray himself, his true calling. In the second conversation which takes place after the audition, there is no conflict and no tension: Sebastian immediately recognizes that for Mia acting is not just a career opportunity but a true calling, something she has to do to be herself, so that abandoning it would ruin the very base of her personality. There is no choice here between their love and her calling: in a paradoxical but deeply true sense, if she were to abandon the prospect of her acting in order to stay with him in LA, she would also betray their love since their love grew out of their shared commitment to a Cause.