Babylon: The Rotten Core of Fame Put Underneath the Spotlight
Chazelle Continues His Winning Streak With His Own Unvarnished, Cocaine-Laced Depiction of Hollywood Depravity
To have lived, fucked, and partied at the dawn of Hollywood debauchery.
Some movies require the viewer to jump head-first into their world, to go all in for what they are about to see. Think of Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street or Gaspar Noe’s…well, anything. These films hit the ground running and don’t ever seem to stop, pushing further and further into the taboos of drugs, sex, and violence. But it’s hard to think of a film that does what Babylon does in the first 30 minutes alone. Defecating elephants, orgies, and a little person bouncing on a giant fake penis until it ejaculates an artificial liquid that looks all too much like the real thing; yes, Chazelle makes it clear early on that this is a party not meant for everyone. But what a party it is.
Just as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights before him, Chazelle’s Babylon works more as a series of loosely connected vignettes than a structured, plot-driven piece. Following the highs and lows of a wide range of Hollywood hopefuls looking to leave their mark in the industry, the film provides an unfiltered and abrasive viewpoint into 1920s Hollywood, just as cinema began transitioning from silent pictures to talkies. Characters weave in and out of the story at Chazelle’s will, providing ample screentime for everyone from screaming A.Ds to larger-than-life figures like Ms. LaRoy and Mr. Conrad to shine. There’s a certain vibrancy to each role, with characters fleshed out through distinct cadences and rhythms that feel natural and convincing. No matter how much screen time they have, each player controls the frame whenever they can, making Chazelle’s blunt depiction of Hollywood feel real and enthralling. Not to mention the Oscar-worthy turns of our central trio, with newcomer Diego Calva easily holding his own against celebrity titans Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. Robbie plays the role of Nellie with such conviction that it’s hard to recognize her at all, and Pitt infuses his character with the impeccable comedic timing we’ve come to know him for. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and for the ensemble of Babylon, there’s not a weak link in sight.
As the film barrels along at a break-neck pace, Chazelle builds up his story with the usual flare he and his team are known for. Shot on sleek, 35mm Kodak film, the film dazzles while recreating the delicate look of classic Hollywood movies as DP Linus Sandgren (his third collaboration with Chazelle after La La Land and First Man) flawlessly encapsulates the roaring 20s. But the world wouldn’t fully come alive with just these still images. Tom Cross (Chazelle’s loyal editor since Whiplash) cuts with such a frenetic pace that you can’t help but get swept up in this chaotic world. Both Chazelle and Cross know when to hold a shot and just when to cut, allowing the world and story to unspool at their own leisure. These awe-inspiring technical feats are only elevated by Justin Hurwitz’s impeccable score. After his shocking snub for First Man, Hurwitz comes back in full force with countless unforgettable tracks (I, for one, still can’t get the Voodoo Mama sequence out of my head!). With so many modern classics under their belt, one can only hope that this dream team of filmmakers will continue their streak with future collaborations.
With an extended run-time of 3 hours and 9 minutes, Babylon was always poised to be polarizing among audiences. And for good reason, too. As Chazelle jumps from setpiece to setpiece, the sequences begin to blend together as the characters make their way deeper and deeper into the underbelly of 1920s Hollywood. With a film that opens with an elephant defecating on a blue-collar worker, it’s hard to hold that momentum for the rest of the film, often making characters and plot points introduced late in the game feel more like an afterthought than a realized resolution. The film jumps from story to story (with one sequence in particular feeling like a straight-up horror film) so often that audiences may have trouble placing where they last left off with certain subplots and minor characters. Whereas PTA’s Boogie Nights held onto a balanced structure among its lofty ensemble, Babylon sometimes struggles with this tightrope juggling act by often biting off more than it can chew.
Babylon is a lot of things all out at once. A 189-minute party and orgy. An explosion of senses that will leave most disorientated. But, most importantly, it’s a love letter to what film was, is, and can be. Jack Conrad said best: “It’s the most magical place in the world.”