By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Damien Chazelle
- Starring Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BABYLON, PARTICULARLY THE 10 LAST MINUTES. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Babylon‘s extended opening sequence – which begins with literal elephant shit graphically splayed across the screen and around our lead character and ends with said elephant being used as a distraction at a party-turned-orgy to get an overdosed underaged girl out without being seen – will tell you pretty much right away whether or not Babylon will be your wave length. It rarely lets up after this point, moving from one insane scenario to the next and only really stopping for breath once our characters have completely lost their way themselves. It’s decadence and depravity of the highest form.
Curious that Damien Chazelle then, of all people, be the director who openly decides to engage with the nastier, more rotten side of Hollywood during it’s early years. La La Land this is not; that film’s optimism and genuine love and appreciation for the movie form is replaced by an almost hate filled contempt for the whole affair. If something like Empire of Light or The Fabelmans is a “love letter to the movies” then this is it’s suicide note or it’s full on hate affair. And Chazelle likely knows it too, as much of the film seems to be designed to be as anti-La La Land as possible, it’s darker, more realistic counterpart to balance out that films more dreamy, filmic edges.
But there is also a clear love of the craft here that is impossible to deny. Beyond Chazelle’s brilliance behind the camera which is once again evident – more on that later – much of the strong comedy here is derived from the hectic nature of film production itself. A braveru scene around halfway into this, one that follows an increasingly exhausted cast and crew trying to shoot a single shot, feels so true to life in a way that not a lot of these kinds of stories are. Sure, there is a lot of times when shoots go wonderfully and those make great stories, but the reality is that it can be ruined by simply a shoe going “squeak” and the audio picks it up. It’s a great nailbiter of a sequence that’s both hilarious and stressing at the same time, and ranks as one of the finest of the year.
In fact many individual sequences in this are among the finest of Chazelle’s entire career. That opening party sequence, while certainly long, is a excellent showcase of his craftsmanship and attention to detail, and the initial “entry into film” sequence where we see all of our lead players in their elements, crosscutting between the three beautifully and seamlessly and showcasing his and Tom Cross’ (the editor on all of Chazelle’s pictures) knack for building tension. In between all of that there is a lot of other stuff going on, and while it’s hard to say all of it works completely it is so much that you can’t help but stay entertained throughout the majority of it.
And once that second half kicks in and starts interrogating our characters, Babylon does eventually slow down a tiny bit – though it retains a manic energy that’s hard to pass up. Wherever you think this film is going, you are likely wrong, most likely cause Chazelle himself seems to be unsure himself at points. Once the film does hit near it’s climax, you start to wonder as well if there really was any point to the whole thing as each character’s lives start to unravel in different, equally depressing ways.
Then the final 10 minutes occurs.
Nobody ever ends a film quite like Chazelle, who has come to understand the importance of leaving out on a high note. From Whiplash‘s insane 9 minute performance of Caravan, to La La Land‘s 7 minute dream sequence of “what could have been”, and First Man‘s soaring re-creation of the moon landing and it’s final emotional catharsis, Chazelle’s true intentions are always in the explosive finales, which are like the jazz he so loves and admires. Flashy in bursts, always fast, moving from chord to chord, and ending in a loud, final crescendo.
Babylon‘s ending is certainly going to provoke discussion for different reasons, as Chazelle goes full abstraction here. As Manny watches Singin in the Rain for the first time, witnessing what is essentially the closest thing that has come to a true life re-creation of his experiences on set, the film showcases a quick montage of the history of cinema from it’s humble beginnings to now. Spliced in there are images of colours, paint, blood, sweat, tears. The colour breaks down. The film is corroded. There is just images and music. And then it’s over. It’s a bold final series of images that recontextualizes Babylon’s entire thesis into one about the nature of cinema as a whole.
Does the impact of the art and eventual work said artists worth all of the exploitation that the industry brings? Is Manny crying cause he’s moved or is he crying because he’s remembering how painful it was to work during those times only to have said time period be used as comedic bait? Or is it simply a way for Chazelle to showcase how far the medium has come? After all, “can’t stand in the way of progress” is mentioned several times here. The film doesn’t really give an answer, and once the montage is done, the movie ends on a close-up of Calva’s expression and leaves the audience wondering what the hell they just witnessed.
Babylon is certainly messy. In writing out my thoughts for it, that has become clear. It’s a beast of a film with so many moving parts and individual moments that it become difficult to parse it out on a single viewing or even a single discussion. And in those moving parts there are things that work better then others, stuff that could been focused on more, and others that should have taken a bit of a backseat. But that’s something that’s true of a lot of films like that – especially one as sprawling and ambitious as this.
And Babylon‘s ambition is so admirable that it pushes through into pure, utter dazzlement in it’s best moments, and that’s enough to make it worth it. It’s Chazelle going absolutely apeshit behind the camera, unsure if he will ever make a movie ever again, and I’m totally here for it. After all, there is no place like the movies – for better and for worse.