Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Written by Taylor Baker
Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is a confounding and bombastic reimagining of the decadence, horror, mystique, and myth at a major turning point in the history of film. From the zenith of silent pictures to the messy beginning of talkies. But “Babylon” isn’t about the abstract wonder of picture-making. It’s an attentive interpretation of the history of the period, refined and emboldened by the deeply personal human reasons that people are drawn both to the cinema and to the environs of cinema-making. Told in a sort of triptych technique, the film follows Manny Torres who starts the film as a fixer/assistant, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) a wannabe starlet, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) a leading man on his way out.
Chazelle uses broad and fine brush strokes alike to enliven both his characters and their mythic dimensions, there’s often more communicated about a character’s state of mind in a glance than in a whole show-stopping dance scene. The film begins with Manny hauling an elephant up a large hill in a truck for a party, it’s a herculean task undertaken for no reason other than the laughter of us (the audience) and entertainment for the house party being thrown by the head of Kinoscope Pictures. Later that evening during that very party Manny is summoned to a room by Bob Levine (Flea) where a young starlet is passed out and half dead from a drug overdose. There Manny conceives of a plan of using the elephantine party entertainment as a distraction to smuggle out the half-dead actress. This event also causes Bob to select Nellie to fill the role the actress had the following day, overnighting her into her very first role. This single event may serve as a metaphor for the whole film in terms of getting the dead bodies out of Hollywood and fresh replacements in with those coming in never seeing those going out. But it also illuminates a line that runs throughout the whole film, the closeness of comedy and horror, and how quickly that line almost disappears.
Communicating multiple ideas and interpretations is something “Babylon” continues to do throughout its runtime never quite letting you luxuriate in the decadence that is so clearly macabre and costly to its central figures’ very essence. But it keeps you (at least up until shortly after the talkies) riveted to the gaudy glamor, seedy sultriness, and painful pleasure that drew so many to early Hollywood, like a bug-zapper light. Many of the film’s characters are after all based on real stories, personas, and people.
Robbie’s character arc as Nellie is mired in complexity and outrageousness. Chazelle doesn’t try to bottle up her sins and cure her of them, nor does he paint her as an overly affectionate daughter. She, like so many in Hollywood, is just someone managing to get away with a hustle. Chasing the legend she imagines for herself, as she says at the opening of the film before she’s ever set foot on a production; “I’m a star.” The fact that she’s still a sympathetic character after all her troublemaking and rowdiness is indicative not only of how well-rounded her character is but how careful Chazelle’s screenplay is to create full-bodied characters in service of his sprawling tale on Tinseltown. She is perhaps never more tragic or talented than on the set of her first picture when her director asks her, “How do you tear up over and over?” and Nellie answers, “I just think of home.”
Jack Gilroy, the real-life silent film star that Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad is based upon is a more restrained thread of the film. Though he is overtly dionysian in his appetites and his film sets and life are the biggest and most brash, who he is and what he thinks and feels seem hidden. With undercurrents like rotating wives, a suicidal best friend, and an earnest if naive love for the form of the cinema. Jack is nothing if not the perineal reminder that one should be careful what they wish for–in this case, talkies–because they just might get it. And it might very well just be the end of them.
Diego Calva’s Manny is a young man with big ambitions. Without a specific goal but a general aim. He wants to be a part of something that matters (Hollywood), he wants to marry a beautiful girl (Nellie), and he’s willing to do just about anything that lets him achieve those goals. Chazelle’s arc for Manny from industrious elephant wrangler to head of sound for Kinoscope Pictures isn’t an unbelievable one, and at its surface is rooted in many similar stories of people rising to relative prominence in pictures out of nowhere on the whims of someone in power at a studio. But it’s Manny’s arc at the end of the film when he’s no longer focused on “fixing” for Kinoscope but for Nellie that the naivety of his initial proclamation of love for Nellie is exposed for the self-destructive behavior that we all know it is. But we were permitted to believe–for a couple of hours at least–that he could possibly overcome what in real life would be a tragedy because he’s in a film. But, we see his desires lead to the destruction of the life he’s built.
Chazelle relies on the expert craftsmen that helped him create “Whiplash,” “La La Land,” and “First Man” again. Tom Cross edits long flowing and short snappy sequences proficiently, making the first two hours of its three-hour runtime relatively snap by. Justin Hurwitz who in addition to the aforementioned films also served as composer on Chazelle’s first film, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” (and was his college roommate) composes one of the most memorable and moving scores of the year. Conveying the joviality, banality, and messiness of the film and its characters beautifully. And Linus Sandgren’s cinematography has rarely looked better and has perhaps never achieved a better shot than one of the final scenes in the film where Manny is watching “Singing in the Rain” in a theater.
We all want to be a part of something that lasts. But we rarely imagine or plan for the eventuality when we find ourselves spurned from the very thing that we dedicated ourselves to be remembered through. “Babylon,” asks and invites us to wonder, was the time spent chasing dreams worth it?