The paths not taken are best left to the storytellers

October 20, 2016

Venice Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the world and a great chance to see bold, innovative moviemaking from some of the world’s finest and most promising directors. I always enjoy my time there.

The setting is a key part too – who cannot fail to be seduced by the old Italian city’s canals and its otherworldly architecture? To wander the honey-coloured walkways and cross ancient stumbling bridges is to feel as though one is on a film set, and part of a mystical story.

Another, rather different but no less mystical, location is at the heart of La La Land, the opening film of the 73rd Biennale this year.

The film, directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), is a clever, thoughtful musical and has won huge plaudits already both for its story and the performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

It’s a bitter sweet tale – full of joy and tenderness, but also some moments of heart rending sadness. I particularly enjoyed the way the plot was supported with perfectly judged music and old-fashioned dancing. At times, it recalls the classic musical An American in Paris, taking us into another world, turning brash Los Angeles into the City of Light.

This complements one of the central messages in La La Land: what happens when we take the road less travelled, and how often have we more than one potential future? It’s provoking to reflect on how much chance plays a pivotal role in our long-term happiness.

It’s interesting to note too – as the film does – that these alternate realities are not just fanciful dreaming. When we look back at our past, it is always possible to see “what might have been”. Because it can be fun – perhaps dangerously so – to look into a world of “What Ifs”; it can even be vital to the creative process. The writer John Irving said: “I think there is often a ‘what if’ proposition that gets me thinking about all my novels.”

Other films, too, have explored this idea – Sliding Doors (which starred Gwyneth Paltrow as the protagonist leading two lives separated by a chance event) and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. The German film Run Lola Run allows its eponymous heroine three attempts to get a life event right, exploring the consequences of failure.

Still I try to remember that stories are not real life. None of us wants to be burdened with regret and the secret to contentment is surely not envy of the other road but making peace with the person we are now and the roads that we did travel. We can try to stay focused in the moment, and not allow ourselves to wallow in What Ifs? at the risk of sabotaging the exciting and hopeful possibilities of tomorrow.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation