Damien Chazelle | 3hr 9min
In the very first scene of Babylon, we find studio hand Manny trying to handle an elephant and transport it to a raucous party in the Hollywood hills. Later in the dusty night-time deserts of Los Angeles, ‘it girl’ Nellie squares up to a rattlesnake, ready to fight it in front of her fellow partygoers. Somewhere else in a sex dungeon that is hidden beneath the city, a chained alligator snaps at visitors, and a muscle-bound circus freak eats live rats.
That these people are constantly lowering themselves to the level of animals speaks multitudes about the bestial nature of their own humanity. As far as Damien Chazelle’s decadent vision of early Hollywood is concerned, there is little separating one from the other. Babylon swings as hard in its debauched maximalism as the pleasure-seeking characters populating its 1920s movie sets, and in doing so eagerly teases apart the connection between their pioneering genius and their self-gratifying depravity.
Chazelle is no stranger to exploring the insurmountable ambition of artists, nor is he one to shirk that quality in his own work. Babylon writhes with excitement at cinema’s potential during the years of its own formation, inviting us into Nellie and Manny’s first days on set via long takes energetically tracking through the scorching Californian desert. There, silent dramas unfold on pop-up wooden stages, hundreds of extras in Medieval armour clash for giant epics, and full orchestras play off to the side for dramatic effect. Frivolous squabbles and lethal catastrophes are equally part of the job, although the petty threats of Nellie’s jealous co-star clearly hold greater weight than the accidental impalement of an actor during a chaotic battle scene.
This isn’t the only collateral death to take place in Babylon either. It is often only after the dust has cleared that bodies are discovered, whether in the heat of a frantic shoot or in the drug-fuelled parties where cast and crew blow off steam. They are little more than unfortunate sacrifices to the vast industry being built, likened in the film’s own title to the mighty ancient city of Babylon which rose to indulgent heights and subsequently fell from God’s grace. In a slightly more obscure reference, it is also a nod to the famously gigantic Babylon set from the monumental silent epic Intolerance, itself typifying the spectacle of early Hollywood filmmaking. Either way, Chazelle’s symbolic intentions are clear. This modern empire of innovation contains both the best and worst of humanity, not as warring factions, but rather as qualities paradoxically contained in each individual, simultaneously carving out new artistic paths and feeding their own hedonistic, gluttonous egos.
Much like his characters, Chazelle doesn’t hold back from bombarding us with displays of absolute excess either. In ornate, golden halls where exotic dancers and drunken partygoers run wild, he fills his shots with expressionistic clutter, adopting the cinematic language of Josef von Sternberg’s 1930s romantic dramas. In this manner, there is also a hint of silent comedy conventions at play which dedicate the entire frame to visual gags, interrupting conversations with someone suddenly falling through a window in the background, or having a car appearing out of nowhere to crash into a statue.
Unlike so many of these silent comedies though, Chazelle’s camera couldn’t be more liberated from the constraints of static tripods. It announces its vigour early on in a shot that spends several minutes flying in acrobatic movements through a party, swooping above the heads of guests and right into the band’s blaring trumpets. Whip pans and tracking shots blend perfectly with Babylon’s rhythmic montages, and later as we cut between multiple urgent missions on movie sets, Chazelle’s parallel editing delivers a propulsive sequence which itself draws on this era’s formal innovations. Whether unleashing ecstasy or hysteria though, his kinetic direction keeps Justin Hurwitz’s up-tempo jazz score bouncing along by its side, pounding out bright, brassy motifs that look ahead to the rock ‘n’ roll music of future decades.
Virtually everything here exudes the cinematic vigour you would expect from the director of Whiplash and La La Land, and yet Babylon is far more aggressive than either in both form and content. It skewers the pretensions of its artists with derisive cynicism, sharply identifying their uninhibited amorality and the necessity of such behaviour to let their professional ambitions flourish. The hubristic downfall of early Hollywood is especially delineated with clearer lines and richer nuances though when our focus is narrowed down to the central figures in Chazelle’s tale, which he attaches to archetypes of his historical setting.
Although relative newcomer Diego Calva is technically in the lead as aspiring producer and Mexican immigrant Manny, he is not given as much material to chew on as Margot Robbie or Brad Pitt, essentially serving as the link between their parallel character arcs. Still, he carries the strain of the part well, nervously sweating as he races to pick up a rented camera before sundown, and visibly on edge as he descends several circles of hell into the “asshole of Los Angeles” to pay off a debt with fake money.
For Robbie, her turn as actress Nellie LaRoy may be her single greatest performance yet, luminously drawing attention in crowds and simultaneously mouthing off in a noisy New Jersey accent. She is the definition of a self-made movie star, rising to fame through sheer charisma, talent, and a little bit of luck, while refusing to consider the long-term ramifications of her reckless lifestyle. Like Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, she represents the glory of a historical epoch, though Nellie evidently carries far greater emotional baggage. With more conservative attitudes developing in the 1930s and the restrictive Production Code looming on the horizon, her attempts to reform her party girl image fall flat – she is willing to put on an act for the camera, but never to compromise her own identity.
Nellie is a clear surrogate for silent movie star Clara Bow, but she is just one of several historical substitutes populating Babylon’s expansive ensemble. Cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu asserts a magnetic presence, representing the real-life Anna May Wong as the first Chinese-American actress to gain international fame. Elsewhere, African-American bandleader Sidney Palmer parallels jazz drummer Curtis Mosby, finding himself contending with the industry’s systematic racism. There is a mythological quality to the legacy that each build during their times in the spotlight, standing in for an alternate vision of Hollywood not too distant from reality, though it is Pitt’s debonair film star Jack Conrad who wrestles with fame’s fleeting nature most directly.
Much like Douglas Fairbanks, Jack’s career takes a sizeable hit in the transition to sound films. He spies on audiences sniggering at his line deliveries, and an enlightening conversation with gossip columnist Elinor St. John forces a recognition of his own mortality within the ever-turning wheel of the film industry. A long take floating through his hotel brings his arc to a poignant end, but much like Nellie’s own ambiguous walk into darkness, there is an enduring indelibility attached to the image of his graceful exit.
At some point or another in Babylon, each major character finds peace in obscurity, finally allowing them an escape from the anarchy and copious bodily fluids of Hollywood’s incessant frenzy. Some of the drama here is not operating at the same level as many of the earlier scenes, slightly compromising the momentum Chazelle has built up, though the unadulterated experimentalism that he points his ending towards makes for a feverishly gratifying conclusion.
In its very last scene, Babylon steps beyond the confines of its own narrative, embracing the entirety of film history as an ongoing project of avant-garde invention, and involving each artist as an essential stepping stone along the way. They mix in playful, spontaneous patterns, much like the colourful dyes intercut throughout the manic montage, becoming part of something larger than any one of them. In this moment, Chazelle finally distils Babylon’s formal ambition into its most pure, self-aware state, all at once recognising the tragically human flaws of those who laid its foundations, and yet equally remaining steadfast in his intoxicated, eloquent expressions of love for the artform itself.
Babylon is currently playing in theatres.
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