The Ghost Ship
Though each love is experienced as unique and though the subject rejects the notion of repeating it elsewhere later on, he sometimes discovers in himself a kind of diffusion of amorous desire; he then realizes he is doomed to wander until he dies, from love to love.
We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did — and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbour and one sunshine that it may have looked as if they had reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the mighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see each other again; perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us.
— Roland Barthes, Lover’s Discourse, 101 & 223
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is at risk of falling victim to its own hype. Its fourteen Oscar nominations — rivalled in number only by Titanic in 1998 — has sparked the usual brow-beating furore when the rare passable Hollywood blockbuster becomes exalted as the cinematic pièce de résistance of our era. The most common affront voiced by everyday viewers of Chazelle’s glitzy, sunshine-drenched oeuvre is the sucker punch effected by its ending. After being treated to a light-hearted depiction of an exuberant, classic Hollywood romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) the audience bears witness to the dissolution of their relationship due to the conflicting ambitions of the couple. The painful melancholia of this fairytale-gone-wrong is further anchored by a final 10-minute dream sequence that imagines Sebastian and Mia’s future had they not broken up, replete with romantic waltzes, happy children, and a picket-fenced existence. The dream sequence then fades out to show the last interaction between the two: Mia, her new husband in arm, and Sebastian exchange glances of well-meaning, albeit somewhat constrained, mutual recognition.
It is arguable, however, that the very dissolution of Mia and Sebastian’s romance furnishes the film with a gravitas and depth that its light-hearted, tap-dancing format may have otherwise precluded. Most Hollywood movies in the romantic genre follow a tripartite closed structure — first, we see an initial meet-cute and resultant flirtatious romp between the two leads (often featuring a dislikeable romantic competitor, usually male, bland, and overconfident); second, an ostensibly disastrous conflict that threatens to break apart our Romeo and Juliet; third, a final reconciliation that papers over the prior conflicts of our protagonists, thereby cementing their union and thus realising the natural telos of the film. La La Land, on the other hand, offers a radical revision of the form by refusing both to seek salvation in the narrative of happily ever after, and rejecting the temptation to temper the bittersweet nature of the romance’s unfolding by suggesting that the union was ill-fated from the start. Could a romance be both wholly beautiful and rapturously life-changing, while remaining ultimately ephemeral and susceptible — and eventually succumbing — to dissolution?
Here, Chazelle’s film finds an unlikely interlocutor in the form of twentieth-century cultural theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes landmark Lover’s Discourse, a seminal typological mediation on the nature of love, unpacks in piercingly heart-wrenching detail the melancholia of love’s labours lost. ‘A constraint in the lover’s discourse’, he writes in his definition of errant/the Ghost Ship, ‘I myself cannot (as an enamoured subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative’.
Love, Barthes suggests, forces us to relinquish control of our own narratives to the arbitrary and unpredictable directions of another. In a culture that makes fetishes of self-governance and permanence, to ‘love’ is to perform an act of self-divestment that requires a courage and vulnerability counter to our own instincts of self-preservation. It is to recognise the constraints of one’s own power, and to place instead an almost blind faith in another. Meaningful love, moreover, recognizes that this relationship is contingent, permanently in flux, malleable to the emotional currents of the season — it does not, and cannot, pre-emptively demand an absolute guarantee; ‘it leads me to say’, Barthes notes, ‘“I love you” in one port of call after another, until some other receives this phrase and gives it back to me; but no one can assume the impossible reply’.
Hollywood romances have too often positioned love as a fixed contract between two essentialised parties, whose identities lie solely in being the natural resolution to each other’s respective destinies. They offer, as Barthes writes, ‘a little cosmos (with its own time, its own logic) inhabited only by “the two of us”’. Yet genuine romances — and meaningful, enriching lives — do not take shape in this way. A ‘little cosmos’, detached from the fluxes of currents in time, conflicting personal journeys, cannot hold. La La Land reminds us that love is, after all, not an affixed immutable contract, but rather an endless negotiation between two mutually resonant selves. The very contingency that gives love meaning also infuses it with a certain fragility; no person can be wholly telescoped into the destiny of another. To love, sometimes, means to know when it is time to let go; when, as Mia and Sebastian realise, to offload your respective ships to be buoyed along the inexorable currents of time.