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Is Damien Chazelle an auteur?



Damien Chazelle is already deemed a recognisable director as his films portray a specific music theme, character prototypes and similar energy through working with a relatively unchanging crew. But is his body of work worthy of being called “auteurist”?

If a filmmaker were an auteur, their personality would be the primary value source of their oeuvre. An auteur not only puts a film together with some clarity and coherence, but they exhibit recurrent and recognisable characteristics of style serving as a signature. And this needs to have a different meaning in every film since, otherwise, the filmmaker would be making the exact same film all the time.

The paragraph above (kind of) summarises the criteria defining an “auteur” set by film critics throughout the years. These will help to examine the potential auteurism within Chazelle’s five films – Guy and Madeline on a Park BenchWhiplashLa La LandFirst Man, and his new release Babylon.

Chazelle’s stylistic signature consists of two elements—one being the “jazz element”, where people perform together as the camera quickly shifts from one person to another. In Guy and Madeline, Guy plays the trumpet, and the camera moves back and forth to show a person dancing to his tune. The same cinematographic trope is used in Whiplash when Andrew plays the drums vigorously, and Fletcher conducts, and in La La Land, when Sebastian plays the piano with Mia giving her all on the dance floor. The absence of jazz in First Man denotes the calm before the storm, as the segment with rapid camera shifts in Babylon is not between two people but between everybody at the jazz rave with elephants.

Chazelle’s second stylistic signature is the “look element” emerging—spoiler alert—in the last scene of every film, where two people look at each other and have a silent question-and-answer conversation. Guy’s look “asks” Madeline if he deserves a second chance, and Madeline says “yes”; Andrew’s look, “asks” Fletcher if he is good enough, and Fletcher says “yes”; Mia’s look, “asks” Sebastian if their decision to part ways was right, and Sebastian says “yes”; Neil Armstrong’s wife’s look, “asks” him if going to the moon was his last adventure, and he says “yes”. In Babylon, however, the “look” has changed.

Manny—or the Hollywood artist who never made it—stares at the film screen in tears, and there is no “conversation”. The screen delivers a monologue about cinema’s timeless omnifariousness, and Manny is simply a receiver. Cinema is not an entity to be asked; it is a deity with more answers than one can comprehend in a lifetime.  

Moreover, filmmakers sometimes create a metaphoric journey for their main character that can be seen throughout their body of work. And Chazelle’s films are all about the journey of the “artist”.

Guy and Madeline introduce the artist (Guy) obsessed with his art (jazz). The artist initially has no goal and cannot comprehend his difficult personality (arrogance). Whiplash gives the artist (Andrew) the ability to grasp his smugness. Therefore, the artist obsesses even more with his art, ejecting family and love from his life to be one of the greats. La La Land balances the artist (Sebastian) as he still adores jazz yet reduces his arrogance and begins to appreciate other(s’) arts. The artist decides to cease his relationship with the love of his life, so she can experience what Andrew did – abstaining from family and love to give one’s all for their art. In First Man, the artist (Neil Armstrong) completely overcomes his pride to see that art—or the discovery of something new—is not about the artist’s individual success but the development of the human race. Thus, Neil Armstrong risks his life to make “one giant leap for mankind”.

In Babylon, the artist goes back to “Chazelle time” to demonstrate what happens when one doesn’t learn to appreciate other arts. In the beginning, Manny is obsessed with filmmaking without a particular goal (like Guy), then realises he can climb the ladder and be one of the greats, disregarding his love for Nellie (like Andrew), but is unable to understand other arts (unlike Sebastian) – the scene where Manny coerces the black jazz musician to put on darker make-up depicts the destruction of others’ art for the sake of one’s success. Hence, Manny cannot be a true artist. He fails to generate anything advancing humankind as everything around him literally dies. The artist with such high potential ends up an average family man and an average cinemagoer.

Based on this breakdown, one can make the case that Damien Chazelle is an auteur despite his small number of films. He exhibits stylistic similarities moulding a palpable signature, revealing a different meaning in each film. Perhaps, Chazelle’s future films will portray other faults that can doom an artist, or they will show what follows after the “giant leap”, or they will begin the journey of a new character prototype.

Only time will tell, and Chazelle has oceans of that.

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