“This was a magical place wasn’t it?”, asks Brad Pitt’s down-and-out movie star Jack Conrad. At this point in Damien Chazelle’s latest big swing Babylon, the movie industry is in a state of flux. Or, rather, post-flux. The age of the silent film is over, and the ‘talkies’ are all the rage. For moviegoers of the time, it was a new phenomenon: grand technicolour worlds that could grab hearts and minds with more efficiency than ever. For a silent-era star like Conrad, it was a mark of looming irrelevancy; a twenty year love-affair with the big screen coming to an unceremonious end.
There have been a few not-so-flattering words used to describe Chazelle’s anticipated follow-up to his mildly received third feature First Man, some of which you might have heard being mumbled among crowds of fellow movie-goers as you walked out of your three-hour screening of the film. Words like debauchery, kitsch, excess, or self-indulgence. All of the above are, as it turns out, fairly accurate turns of phrase to describe Babylon, a film that features both a man chewing on a live mouse and Margot Robbie throwing up a cocktail of champagne, red velvet cake and cocaine in the faces of Hollywood’s elite. Though, despite its affinity for the grotesque, Babylon has far more to offer than simple sight gags and shock-tactics.
The movie begins a far-cry away from the Hollywood that Pitt’s Conrad no longer recognises — the roaring 20s, or, ‘back when it all made sense’, meaning: movie sets by day, and Gatsby-esque fuckfests by night. On one hand, an epic kiss is backlit by a glorious sunset, on the other, an elephant is marched through a tight mansion home to distract party-goers from the dead body being carted out the entrance. The magic of moviemaking, and the destructive habits of those who make them. Pitt is the leading man and living legend who thinks his reign will never end, Margot Robbie is Nellie LeRoy, an amateur actress searching for her big break, and Diego Calva is local film-assistant and big-buck LA dreamer Manny Torres. Together, we follow the three leads as they navigate the peaks and pitfalls of Hollywood before, during, and after its most revelatory shift in style.
Behind the camera, Chazelle seems adamant to spend all the stock he’s amassed over the years on a flashy, hyper-stylized epic that has been alienating more people than it resonates with. It’s absence from the awards circuit this year, particularly the Oscars and BAFTAs, has been overshadowed by the outrage over other notable snubs — Jordan Peele’s Nope and Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave, to name a few — but Babylon might end up being the most glaring omission of the season. Though, if this is the film that could see Chazelle fall out of grace with the big studios and awards voters alike, then he’s leaving every inch on screen as a parting gift — and it’s for that reason that Babylon is his finest display of filmmaking since he first burst into the spotlight with Whiplash.
Like his characters, Chazelle revels in eccentricity, using every outrageous moment as an opportunity to tap into his most creative filmmaking sensibilities. One awe-inspiring sequence near the beginning of the film takes the audience through the day in the life of silent-era Hollywood, the camera sailing between various open–air film sets — from makeshift saloons to jungle backdrops with a live bongo orchestra — bursting to life in the Californian badlands. It’s a stunning twenty minute rollercoaster of impressionism, Chazelle expressing with every directorial choice his admiration for the lawlessness of the era, a time before the rules were written and the industry seemingly operated in relative harmony as a result. The magnificence he communicates during these early scenes echo the bliss of our three protagonists, who flit around Tinseltown as if in a dream that they’ll never wake up from. All highs, of course, are temporary, and when the comedown hits in Babylon, Chazelle uses the opportunity to present the flip side: a typical nine-to-five, this time on one of Hollywood’s ugly days.
Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are typically charismatic as Babylon’s two heavy-hitters, albeit playing amalgamations of characters we’ve seen from them before — you might catch hints of Harley Quinn, Tonya Harding, or even Lt. Aldo (“Gorlami!”) — and Diego Calva is perfect as a sane man being stretched to his limits by everyone around him. The true showstoppers, though, are Babylon’s magnetic supporting cast. Newcomer Li Jun Li is as natural a screen-presence as they come, and you’ll hold your breath every time her sultry and savvy cabaret singer and silent-film title writer Lady Fay is in frame, while resident “that guy” P.J. Byrne gives us Babylon’s funniest line-deliveries as an assistant director desperate to ‘check the gate’.
It would be a disservice to Babylon to brand it just another love letter to movies. Unlike La La Land, which falls by the feet of Hollywood in unashamed tribute, here Chazelle has crafted as much a warning of the industry as an appreciation. In Babylon, he assures the audience that Hollywood is a world that is as merciless as It is romantic — a two-headed beast that will feed you all the while seeking to replace you. After a scathing magazine profile by tabloid journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) paints Conrad as a has-been, he storms her office, outraged, where she reminds him why, even as you dine at the table, you should never presume to keep the seat warm for long. “It’s the idea that sticks.” , she tells him, ““There’ll be a hundred more Jack Conrads, and a hundred more of me. Because it’s bigger than you.”
It’s a damning reality check that points to the equally damning nature of show business, though she hints that if there’s any consolation prize, it’s that, if you’re lucky, the afterlife for a career in the movies is immortality — to be preserved on celluloid forever, and to continue to inspire and entertain for decades to come as a part of film history. This, she and Chazelle argue, is of greater importance than any individual legacy to be maintained.
Forget what you’ve heard. Babylon is Damien Chazelle’s personal masterclass, the major awards snub of the year, and maybe the best blockbuster of the last half-decade to barely make any money at all. Don’t miss seeing it on the biggest screen you can find.
Babylon is one of our favourite films of 2022 — check out which other films made the cut here!