Babylon is cinema distilled into its rawest essence, as director Damien Chazelle provides a sadistic companion piece to La La Land‘s rose-tinted beauty of filmmaking.
Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle, with its accompanying score from Justin Horowitz, who together created the masterful Oscar-almost-winning La La Land, is everything wrong and right with cinema all in the same frame.
As the film opens, where La La Land began with a Cinemascopic homage to Golden Age musicals, Babylon contrasts with a literal uphill battle, as Manny (Diego Calva) attempts to deliver an elephant for a filmmaker’s party in the early 1920s.
Added onto the fact that the elephant proceeds to excrement all over our lead, and the handheld camera is a nauseating, sickening affair delivering early on the message that the film delivers: the cinema industry may look all glitz and glam, but underneath every veneered smile, is the lingering faecal matter clutching under the nails of those that attempt to find their career in the industry.
Reminiscent of Werner Herzog‘s Fitzcarraldo, those wishing to enter the industry, must first move mountains and sacrifice so much of themselves for something, or someone that will never notice them.
For most viewers, the first twenty minutes of Babylon are uncomfortably unwatchable. Extreme hedonism, gorging and excess are the unquestionable themes Chazelle presents whilst actors, producers, directors and execs proceed to participate in a cocaine-fuelled sex party with urolagnia, overdosing, and a purging of all sanctity that makes Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness look timid in comparison.
The smooth camera sweeps around the mansion following Manny as he interacts with the supporting ensemble, yo-yo-ing back and forth from a saxophonist, with the dolly motions replicating the same stomach-turning sensations as the scenes minutes prior.
Yet, when the scene settles, and the initial high of the substance subdues, the film finds its footing.
Brad Pitt‘s arrogant Italian-loving actor, Jack Conrad, and Margot Robbie, an unsigned, self-proclaimed star, are introduced without a nod to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood as the film begins chipping away at its excessive runtime.
Whilst many will see Babylon as a historical critique of the exploitative and excessive nature of early filmmaking, it is in fact a beautiful homage to the industry’s perpetual need to move forward, innovate and stay relevant.
Comparisons have been drawn between Babylon and Singin’ in the Rain as both deal with the dissolution of silent movies, as talkies became the norm, yet for Babylon, this feels entirely reductive of exactly what Damien Chazelle offers. This isn’t a statement about being left behind, but rather a projection of the industry’s future and its chaotic past.
For instance, in a short sequence where Manny takes Jack home, Jack proceeds to stumble over his balcony, falling face-first into his swimming pool, mirroring the opening shot of the 1950 noir classic Sunset Boulevard, a film where a silent movie star comes to terms with it being the end of the line as synchronised sound enters the fray. To reference a film set thirty years ahead of Babylon‘s timeline projects a symbolic cyclical nature.
Further, where producers exploit and manipulate, Babylon features comedian Jeff Garlin as another morally corrupt producer, with the actor easily fooling audiences into being a mirroring of jailed predator Harvey Weinstein.
Plus, with score sampling from Horowitz taken from La La Land, where a chord progression was used to signify hopes for Emma Stone’s Mia, Babylon recycles it mixing it with dissonance distorting the sound to disappoint and betray our leads.
In addition, I believe that Damien Chazelle’s control and direction of Babylon are truly masterful. Every element of the film works in crafting a message of hypocritical spite and optimism.
Especially as evidenced by its casting choices of both Pitt and Robbie, who previously starred in Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and with Robbie delivering her role in her synonymous New Jersey accent as made famous by her portrayal as Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. One could see this as purely coincidental, however, if Chazelle has proven countless times across his previous three films, he is nothing if not meticulously detail-orientated.
This is perhaps then a way of making comment on how what was once a filmmaking practice of art, experimentation, and creativity, is now an industry of remakes, sequels, and directors that dictate an aura of auteurism.
Most interestingly, there are also clear derivatives from early Alfred Hitchcock in Chazelle’s direction. Hitchcock previously states that there is a difference between suspense and surprise, and during a sequence in Babylon with Tobey Maguire, Chazelle flexes his understatement of this statement.
A flex of understanding Chazelle repeats later but instead opts to showcase his knowledge of the Kuleshov effect, a term used to describe two shots that when edited together create a cohesive mood, theme or message.
For a film such as Babylon to be set on the precipice of The Great Depression, Chazelle makes it abundantly clear his ideology on the sadism that lingers in the industry, as the boa constrictor of money tightens its grip and personalities get lost to its temptation.
Babylon is a tale of excess, gorging, and exploitation, overstaying its welcome for over three hours, but Chazelle, and partner Horowitz, deliver a breathtaking film that celebrates, critiques, and ridicules the history of film and how we as an audience weave our own narrative into film and exploit it too for our own sardonic benefit.
Did you like this review?
Would you like to read more reviews, news, and opinion features sent straight to your inbox? Then, consider subscribing to our weekly newsletter.