New Movies

Babylon Review: ‘A Cinematic Marvel’

Damien Chazelle’s new film Babylon, which stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, is a “messy, dazzling epic” that is often mesmerising, writes Caryn James.

Director Damien Chazelle has called Babylon: “A hate letter to Hollywood and a love letter to movies,” but his messy, dazzling epic doesn’t support that simplistic idea. Set in the early days of cinema, when talking pictures were a jaw-dropping phenomenon and Hollywood was still being created, Babylon suggests a deeper reality: the film industry’s raw, self-destructive, narcissistic impulses and its glorious, magical results have always been opposite parts of the same whole.

Chazelle’s ambitions are huge. Babylon is full of remarkable set pieces with richly drawn characters, music, dancing, drugs, sex, love and betrayal. The film’s strengths more than make up for its serious flaws, including too many endings and a wrong-headed reliance on Singin’ in the Rain as a touchstone. But if Babylon makes you groan occasionally, there are many more times – long, exhilarating stretches – that are mesmerising.  

The film’s first, extravagant set piece sets the tone, of excess and the kind of carefree decadence that is sure to implode eventually. It is 1926 and movies are being made in the California desert. A young man who adores films, Manny Torres (Diego Calva, in a supremely confident performance), makes ends meet by delivering a live elephant to a party being thrown by a studio executive. (If you’ve read that one camera angle looks up the elephant’s rear – ­let’s just say that happens and it is a bad joke not in line with the rest of the film.)

Margot Robbie, as a would-be actress who has named herself Nellie LaRoy, crashes the party. With wild hair and an attention-grabbing red dress made of strategically placed bands of fabric, she actually crashes a car on to the grounds. “Honey, you don’t become a star. You either are one or you ain’t,” she tells Manny. “I am one.” Robbie’s bold, charismatic performance makes Nellie a daring, endlessly spiralling, sympathetic figure.

Similarly, Brad Pitt’s character, Jack Conrad, is a dashing, charming screen idol with a pencil moustache, but frustrated at being trapped in costume dramas. Capturing the depths and nuances of the character perfectly, Pitt is funny in the early stretches, unsentimental and heartbreaking by the end.

The party itself is a throng of half-naked people writhing on the dancefloor, a buffet table with piles of cocaine and pills, Nellie dancing on a table, and the elephant running amok. A jazz-infused score runs beautifully through the movie, composed by Justin Hurwitz, whose plunking melody for Chazelle’s La La Land vaguely echoes here. The camera takes us into the midst of the action, capturing all the energy and glee.

That spectacle is quickly followed by another, hilarious sequence, as we follow a hungover Jack – the morning after – on the set of his latest movie, a historical epic in which he is a medieval knight. With hundreds of extras in the empty landscape, there are horses, misfiring stunt guns and a cacophony of sound on the silent-movie set. A gossip columnist, Elinor St John (Jean Smart, as wonderfully droll as ever), observes the silliness, and sighs to her assistant, “I knew Proust, you know”. By the end of the day, Jack is almost too drunk to stand, but then all he really has to do is be a handsome profile.

After this kinetic first 50 minutes (of three hours) Babylon becomes calmer, but no less enthralling. Diego finds his way as a studio executive. Nellie’s star rises, but she has a past that’s hard to escape. Her own father joins her in Hollywood and says, “Nellie dresses low because she is low”. Undaunted, she remains a wild child, and in another outrageous party sequence fights a snake when no one else will. As Jack looks on,  Pitt’s expression lets us see how clearly the character can see the downfall ahead for the reckless people around him.

If only Chazelle had remained so realistic. Instead, Elinor writes a column headlined, “Is Jack Conrad Through?” and explains to him in a grandiloquent speech that he’ll live forever in movies. Smart delivers the monologue eloquently but it still seems hollow. It’s true that many silent film stars never made the transition to talkies, but Conrad looks and sounds like Brad Pitt, not a guy without options. 

And Nellie’s plot is straight out of Singin’ in the Rain, as she tries to enunciate as an aristocrat in a talkie. The tone-deaf reference to that movie recurs awkwardly through the rest of Babylon. Chazelle shows the 1930’s Hollywood of studio power and control to be brutal and cruel. But Singin’ in the Rain’s version of the transition to talkies is cheerful, and to some of us, sappy, the opposite of the ruthlessness Babylon has just exposed.  

In one of the film’s multiple endings, which leaps ahead to 1952, a major character sits in a cinema tearfully watching Singin’ in the Rain. That enamoured-of-movies scene hasn’t been fresh since Sullivan’s Travels in 1941, not to mention Cinema Paradiso in 1988 and this year’s Empire of Light. The fact that the scene can be viewed as a homage to all those films doesn’t make it less cliched. And a montage of other movies through history is a bravura but needless coda. At its best, Chazelle’s film is a cinematic marvel, evidence enough that movies are magical, as it sweeps us into the beautiful, terrible world we recognise as Hollywood even now.

Tru News Report
Back to top button