Male ambition and its relationship to pain and isolation in the films of Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle is the wunderkind of Hollywood; he is the youngest person in history to win the Academy Award for Best Director and all three of his feature films have been critically acclaimed. All three contain a male lead who has seemingly unattainable dreams and who is willing to sacrifice everything in his life to achieve them. The effects of the man’s actions are usually tracked through his deteriorating relationship with his female love interest as, finally, he pushes aside every aspect of his life, including the woman he loves, in order to realise his dreams.  However, as his filmography has developed, so has Chazelle’s portrayal of the relationship between the man and woman.

In Whiplash the young Andrew starts the film as a sweet, young boy who feels like an outsider in life and is honoured when he is chosen to play in the elite band led by Fletcher (JK Simmons). Throughout the film we become privy to the torture and pain that Andrew puts himself through to gain the acceptance of his tormentor. In the final, stunning moments of the film the audience are left with a question of “was it worth it?” Chazelle uses the film to explore ideas of the male ambition and its closely linked relationships with pain and isolation. Andrew reverts back to the loner and outsider he once was when he becomes fixated with being the best drummer, losing his girlfriend in the process. This is no ordinary feel-good story of working hard and achieving your dreams. The film questions the extent to which a person can push themselves in order to achieve a dream and how healthy this aspiration may be. His girlfriend is merely used as a device to show his deteriorating mental and physical state without having any agency of her own.

In his next feature, La La Land, Chazelle matches his male lead with an equal and ambitious female lead. Ryan Gosling’s character Sebastian dreams of returning to the golden age of jazz by opening his own club, but is momentarily distracted from his pre-planned pathway to his dreams with the introduction of Emma Stone’s Mia into his life. Mia has grand dreams of becoming an actress but is struggling to realise them. As their relationship develops, he begins to focus on being a partner to her, both personally and financially, which incidentally causes their relationship to break. The film’s infamous alternate ending sequence shows Sebastian achieving his dream whilst having Mia by his side but it is not possible for the two to coexist in reality. Both Sebastian and Mia needed the relationship as a catalyst to achieve their dreams but, unfortunately, that is all their relationship ever is. It can no longer be sustained once they have reached the heights they worked for. They both mutually decide that to end the relationship with the hope that it may be rekindled in the future. Mia has agency and independence, as opposed to Andrew’s girlfriend Nicole and is also a more complex and developed character.

In his latest feature, First Man, Chazelle’s story of male ambition was bound into the story of the real-life figure Neil Armstrong, whose great ambition to walk on the moon was seen as foolhardy and impossible by many around the world. The beautiful film, with a haunting soundtrack, showcases the trials and tribulations that had to be experienced by the astronaut as he trained and worked to achieve his goal. Chazelle does not shy away from the darker side of one of mankind’s most memorable and historic moments, showing us that achieving your dream includes heartbreak, loss and irreparable damage. By focusing on Neil Armstrong, Chazelle adds another layer of pain by exploring the story of the death of Armstrong’s young daughter and its effects on him. In contrast to his previous films, the male ambition is fuelled and sustained by a strong female. Claire Foy portrays Janet Armstrong as a strong, defiant wife who stands by her husband and does not let him push her or her children aside in his attempts to reach the moon. They remain side by side throughout, even in his darkest and most isolated moments, acting as pillars of strength for each other. Chazelle, through a real-life story, shows a love that can endure the isolation and pain that can be caused by male ambition.

Whilst Chazelle’s films largely focus on male ambition and how it can often cause the male lead to become isolated and experience traumatic events, his latest offering suggests that this is not always true. As Chazelle’s filmmaking matures, so does the ideas he presents through his films. The women in the film go from passive objects of attraction in Whiplash to having agency in La La Land to being the emotional core and strength in First Man. Male ambition is shown to be flawed as Chazelle shines a light through its cracks to show the damage it can cause when allowed to flourish in the name of achieving your dreams. Through the three women, we can see the effects ambition can have on those around you and, through each film, he develops the women to show the role of relationships at different stages in a man’s life. He shows the true grit and resilience it takes to achieve one’s dreams and, when you consider the heights that the acclaimed director has reached at such a young age, you wonder if he is retelling his own painful journey to success through his films.


by Aleena Augustine

Aleena is a Classics graduate who splits her time between High Wycombe (just outside of London) and wherever the latest film or TV show she is bingeing is set. She enjoys watching rom-coms (they are not just a guilty pleasure), coming of age films (from John Hughes to Greta Gerwig), animated films (cries at every single one), comedies featuring a strong female ensemble (thank you, Bridesmaids) and psychological thrillers (BONUS if they’re directed by David Fincher). Her favourite films are Before Sunrise, Inside Out, Zodiac and When Harry Met Sally. You can also find her on her blog, That’s What She Said and as a contributor for the music blog, Music Bloggery.

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