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Babylon ★★★★



Directors: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Tobey Maguire, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Olivia Wilde, Katherine Waterston, Samara Weaving

Release: 20th January 2023

In Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, there’s a poignant moment which speaks volumes to cinephiles about the beauty and heartbreak of cinema. Jean Smart’s Elinor St. John, a notable tabloid critic, delivers a frank conversation to former silent-era star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) about Hollywood. Time is a silent assassin, nothing lasts forever, and in the grand scheme of Hollywood immortality, cinema “spends an eternity with angels and ghosts.” 

It’s no secret that Hollywood loves films about themselves. Whether it’s the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light (an epic misfire) or the upcoming UK release of Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans, Hollywood has built itself on the notion of ‘cinema magic’ – the stuff where dreams are made. In more recent years, we’ve seen directors turn the camera inward, fuelled by personal memories and nostalgia in a modern world that takes the cinematic medium for granted. Chazelle’s latest film emotes that same feeling of recapturing the glory days of old Hollywood, showcasing a multi-arc adventure that follows the careers of Jack Conrad, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), Manny Torres (Diego Calva), Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and Elinor St. John during Hollywood’s most tumultuous upheaval – the transition between the silent-era to the talkies.

As Chazelle’s biggest swing as a director, to paraphrase Vietnamese film critic Nguyên Lê, Babylon operates as a dirty “B-side of La La Land.” La La Land offered plenty of technicolour and bubblegum whimsy in its romanticism of Hollywood. Through the performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, they embodied the modern reinvention of that past, the hopes and aspirations of artists who chase their dreams, even if it ends in sadness. Babylon – on the other hand – breaks through that romanticised myth as an unfiltered, uncensored and unhinged encapsulation of the Hollywood dream, captured through Chazelle’s voyeuristic and debauched lens long before The Hays Code made its entrance.  

Its opening lives up to that billing – a hedonistic expression of extreme abundance and excess (elephant faecal matter included). It starts as it means to go on in a cacophony of sexual orgies, drug rooms, sweat-filled dances and endless liquor with Justin Hurwitz’s brilliantly energetic “Voodoo Mama” coursing through its veins. As production values go, Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, Florencia Martin’s production design and Mary Zophres’ costuming are exquisite.

There’s a ‘method to the madness’, and for what Babylon achieves – it’s admirable to watch Chazelle be given the keys of the city to make his long-gestated passion project, especially in this climate where modern franchises have dominated the box office. While not an original idea (taking cues from Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain), there’s no shortage of risk given the level of over-indulgence on display. However, amongst the frenetic chaos and rhythmic energy (an immersive staple of Chazelle‘s previous works), Babylon imbues poetry, and in never forgetting the tragedy that underpins it all, life was a party before the bubble burst.

Chazelle’s love of cinema shines here. Aside from his faithful homage to the likes of ‘It Girl’ Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich’s entire mood in Morocco (to name a few), Babylon is a showcase piece for technical modernisation and practices that productions now take for granted. Through Chazelle’s gaze of ‘whiplash pans’, close-ups zooms, and one-track camera movements, these achievements are laced with sublime comical humour and, in one brilliant scene, documenting all the difficulties of recording sound for film with repeated takes and frustrated egos.

For such a conventional story (if you know your film history, then there are no surprises), the three-hour and nine minute bloated epic tests your endurance. There’s a lot of movie here akin to having a three-course meal and then the restaurant endlessly topping up your plate by saying, ‘we’re not done yet’. The first half works brilliantly before taking even more, crazier swings in its narrative. But in tying those ventures together, despite having all the time in the world, one of its many stumbling blocks is how it examines its POC characters.

Some would say it is intentional. When the Hollywood machine sees white characters as its default (which still continues today), then characters such as Sidney Palmer and Lady Fay Zhu are resorted to background figures, interweaving through the story as connecting interludes between scenes. As hires for Kinoscope studios, entertainment comes through Palmer’s Jazz-infused trumpeting or the boundary-breaking confidence whenever Zhu is on screen as a Chinese-American lesbian singer and silent era title carder. Yet biases and conformity restricts their progression and stardom: in one powerful scene, Palmer experiences one of the most offensive examples of racism. But it’s also a missed opportunity in not fleshing out their journey from the get-go, barely scratching the surface on the complexities behind their struggles without feeling like a whirlwind affair.

But when Babylon works, it’s Diego Calva who steals the show. Margot Robbie is fearless, Brad Pitt enamours with star power befitting the period and whilst a short cameo, Tobey Maguire is delightfully off-kilter in a bonkers third act. But when the film is exhibited through Manny’s eyes, we witness the slow erasure of his identity as he’s sucked into the fantasy myriad of the studio system. Those transitions are subtly contrasted with the self-destructive exploits of Nellie’s gambling addiction and party girl antics and Jack’s fading superstardom – individuals who struggled to conform to new Hollywood. Calva’s exceptional performance carries the emotional weight of history and Hollywood’s subsequent future in the making.
While there are some notable shortcomings which holds it back from being Chazelle’s best, Babylon is a wild, manic ride in its tribute to cinema. Not as much as a love letter to the medium but a series of vignettes on dreams, luck, opportunities, tragedy and legacy amongst change. It won’t be for everyone, but you applaud its ambition.   

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