Babylon: Manic, Mammoth, Metacinema?

28/01/2023

Tom Layton reviews Damien Chazelle's extravagant epic set in the golden age of Hollywood

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Image by IMDb

By Tom Layton

Babylon is an absolute mammoth of a film, clocking in at an eye-watering three hours and nine minutes.  Across this epic time-frame, Damien Chazelle squeezes in a simply remarkable amount of storytelling, crafting arresting visual feasts and wildly fluctuating character arcs to illustrate a plethora of thematic explorations. Whilst I feel it is entirely reasonable to see this gargantuan scope as both overwhelming and over-stimulating, I don’t believe this makes Babylon a film that lacks depth or focus. Instead, I believe that Babylon is the ultimate cinematic experience, and I loved every second of it. Chazelle yearns to infuse the viewer with the magic of cinema, and for me, it worked.

Essentially, Babylon deals with change, scrutinising the lives of four protagonists embroiled in Hollywood high society over a period of six years (1926-1932), as both the industry and the country they inhabit transforms before their eyes. Societal morals and norms shift, technology shifts, the film industry shifts - the viewer is constantly aware that each character is on unstable ground. Chazelle uses the lives of the protagonists to vivaciously explore what is lost and gained as a consequence of these changes: the thrilling rise of talkies and Technicolor is set against the souring of the previously visionary and highly charismatic John Conrad’s (Brad Pitt) career; the meteoric rise of Mexican immigrant Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) is contrasted with his wild and futile effort to save the career (and life) of his friend and true love Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie); and the consequences of the downfall of the hedonistic and destructive party culture of the Roaring Twenties are uncomfortably investigated as LaRoy’s colleague turned partner, superstar cabaret singer and writer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is cast out from the movie industry as a result of her homosexuality.

The talent present in the cast is astonishing, and it is impressive that Chazelle has managed to pull together such a line-up. The ensemble cast complements the development of the protagonists rather than obscuring it, with recurring characters (for example, the hilariously self-mythologising on-set drug pusher, The Count, played by Rory Scovel) providing moments of poignancy, comedy and realisation, often acting as foils to highlight a crucial moment in a main character’s story.

Against this backdrop of vast change and the wildly fluctuating lives of each character, Chazelle scrutinises the entire process of filmmaking, and explores the tension, conflict, injustice, and despair that goes into creating films. In a scene that climaxes the first act of the film, Manny, who has just scored his dream job as Conrad’s on-set assistant, delivers (via stolen ambulance) a set of fresh cameras to the set of a medieval epic, to the delight of its crazed auteur director Otto Von Strassberger (Spike Jonze). As they prepare to shoot the most important shot of the movie, Conrad emerges from his tent absolutely hammered from drinking whiskey all afternoon. The sun continues to set, and his assistants prop him up as he drunkenly stumbles up a hill towards the set, making for an extremely amusing contrast with his previous pretensions of style and high-art. However, as soon as the camera starts rolling, Conrad transforms, delivering a subtle and moving performance that perfects Strassberger’s scene - the soundtrack swells, and, combined with whirling camera work and the awed expressions of those present, the magic of filmcraft is presented in its full glory.

The tension between the conflicting depictions of Conrad here is palpable - is he an ill-fated artist, a kind of Byronic hero? Or is he simply a drunken philanderer, squandering his talent while ignorant of his own privilege? Both sides of him are presented by Chazelle in very strong terms and acted spectacularly by Pitt, which ultimately reflects the film as a whole: its length and huge thematic scope allows it to create characters which are multifaceted and nuanced - they go through incredible change and the viewer is consistently invited to redefine their perception of them. Have they been irrevocably changed by the industry, conditioned into self-destructive cycles and habits? Or maybe, as Nelly grandly states at the films’ outset “You don’t become a star - you are one or you ain’t”. Whatever the answer to this, the vulnerabilities of each of them are so expertly conveyed that it is nearly impossible not to form an emotional attachment to Nelly, Manny, Jack, and Sidney.

Now a staple of Chazelle films, Justin Hurwitz delivers a blistering soundtrack. Decadent party scenes are accompanied by a furious jazz score, and the whole movie has a rhythmic feel to it, camerawork and soundtrack combining to create a pulsing tempo that drives every scene onward. The relationship between film and music is also explored, as the fourth main protagonist, jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer, muscles his way to prominence in a Jazz band that is booked for the countless parties throughout the film before breaking through into the film industry and slowly becoming disillusioned with the treatment of both his music and himself, as a young African American man.

Visually, the film is a bombardment of the senses. Best experienced in a cinema, the palette is vibrant, accentuating meticulously detailed and packed sets. In spite of all of the glitzy hotels and ramshackle sets, the Californian natural landscape is also presented in all of its rugged glory, dwarfing the events of the film at several key points in the plot. The film is also well-deserving of its 18 age certificate, and embraces this, scenes being full of extreme displays of sex and violence, with naked party goers making passionate love in the middle of crowds, and movie extras being impaled by rogue flagpoles. The costumes are no exception to Chazelle’s bombastic presentation of the period, ranging from spotless tailored suits to gaudy, flowing dresses. A standout costume is provided by gossip columnist Elinor St. John, who is not afraid to don spectacular peacock dresses and to party just as hard as her contemporaries, despite her older age. Her sparkling wit pervades the entire film, but her most poignant moment is when Conrad confronts her upon his realisation that his career can never recover to its previous glory, gently telling him that “There is no why… your time has run out”. What follows is an incredible monologue on the power of film, Elinor reassuring Jack that despite the end of his career, his films survive into posterity - he will be remembered through his art, and when someone dusts off and plays one of his old silent movies: “All those ghosts will dine together”. Chazelle is eager to explore this, venturing into metacinema as flashbacks take place on black and white film reel, culminating at the end of the film, when a montage in Manny’s mind’s eye transports him through the past, present, and future of film, transforming heartbroken sobs into a glorious and relieved grin as he is reminded not only of the incredible sacrifices made for the film-making process, but also the up-lifting magic of film, and its ability to preserve his memories of those he has lost.

Babylon is a film fit to burst, evocatively capturing the Golden Age of Hollywood while blasting through the lives of its protagonists at the speed of sound. Despite this, Chazelle emotively illustrates how the devastating change of pace of the film industry has a tragic effect on their lives, charting the shifts in their relationships with their friends, lovers, parents, and themselves. The brashness and speed of the film fills it with tension as the viewers’ emotional response switches between sympathy and disgust, exhilaration and horror. For a film that constantly engages in metacinema, it is perhaps best described in the words of one of its own characters, Elinor: “A maelstrom of bad taste and black magic”.

Editor's note: This film was screened at CityScreen PictureHouse with a press ticket
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