Damien Chazelle wants to dance his dance again, but this time, the Hollywood bacchanalia won’t save him from his cinema sins.
A visual feast. That’s certainly one way to describe writer-director Damien Chazelle’s latest epic feature Babylon. It’s jam-packed with things to see and hear and feel, and the sensory overload is catnip for an audience. In fact, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the film’s opening hour, which is unhinged and spirited in a way that feels fearless. With Margot Robbie and Diego Calva leading the way, the audience is bound to fall for Chazelle’s raucous picture of early Hollywood life—at least for a while. The film is chaos personified, but that adds to its charm. That said, Babylon fails to be as effective as it sets out to be because it unravels in its third act, as it reveals itself to be stuffed full of unrealized thoughts and concepts about film. Where it wants to be this nearly existential meditation on the power of cinema, it ends up becoming a film with little to say on why cinema has the power to make us feel so strongly—especially with the opportunity to frame that inquiry within the silent era of film, when there was one less element for audiences to immerse themselves in. One way to describe the film would be a visual feast, yes, but another way to describe it would be a hearty mess.
Babylon is a bacchanalian maze of a film that follows hopeful Nellie LaRoy’s (Robbie) rise to stardom in the late silent film era through to the breakthrough era of the talkies, aka the first films with sound. Her chronicled ascension is presented alongside that of Manny Torres (Calva), a lowly film assistant who, through a chance encounter with a silent film star (Brad Pitt), starts to move his way up the studio ranks himself as he and LaRoy ebb and flow through each other’s lives over the course of many years.
The film’s electric core lies within the magnetism of Robbie and Calva’s leading performances. Their work, especially when it comes to their scenes together, basically leaps off the screen in a way that you can’t help but get invested in them. Robbie stuns as LaRoy, with a fierce determination she’s come to be known for and an attitude that is undoubtedly her signature at this point in her career. She blends easily into this role, and it feels tailor made for her. Calva is equally as vibrant, matching Robbie as her equal in performance throughout the film. He seals the deal in the film’s final shot, a really inspired and emotional end to a passionate character arc. Plus, the film boasts a great ensemble cast. Jean Smart, who plays a high-ranking Hollywood reporter, has one of the best monologues of the year, while bit parts by Tobey Maguire, P.J. Byrne, Spike Jonze, Carson Higgins, and Samara Weaving steal the show in their respective scenes.
Babylon is undeniably beautiful to look at, with gorgeous set and costume design, despite not being period accurate in a lot of instances. It’s not as much of a cinema sin as one would think. It doesn’t take you out of the film when the essence of most things surrounding that off costume are totally on aesthetically and with accuracy. But it’s noticeable and feels like a choice, which it was on Chazelle’s part. The film’s music and score are utterly magical, particularly the catchy big brass numbers with Jovan Adepo at the helm — though he didn’t actually play for his role as a rising jazz trumpet star (a testament to his electric performance). Chazelle’s epic is well shot by his frequent collaborator Linus Sandgren. The cinematographer highlights the crazy with a level focus, allowing the audience to catch strategic glimpses of the most depraved of acts but also to linger with purpose on the moments where emotional life behind a character’s eyes is center stage. Giving both of these types of scenes the same eye aided in the idea that Hollywood life is a whirlwind that takes over all of what you have, and that was conveyed well in Sandgren’s work.
All of these elements, good as they may be, might be enough to keep you invested in the three-hours traffic of Chazelle’s overindulgent stage, but in reality, the film is too bloated with a massive three-hour runtime — entirely too long, and it nearly unravels entirely in the last hour — and it’s simply not funny enough to sustain everything it wants to give us visually, as well as keep our attention, and also make a grand point about the art of cinema. It just doesn’t have enough meat to keep us invested despite being steeped in excess to the point where there is just so much for us to grab onto. There’s an irony there, considering the film does have a focus, but it’s padded with too many other elements and subplots to be effective in locking the audience in.
The ending is divisive and it’s hard to feel entirely positive about it, but there’s no denying the last frame is excellent. It’s cathartic and gives Calva the star-making moment he deserves by the end of the film. But the lead-up to that moment, however, is something to be seen to be believed, so out of left-field. It strangely plays like Academy-bait and that elicits an immediate sense of surprise in the audience. It’s totally unexpected, but doesn’t actually serve the greater thesis of the power of cinema. The conclusion, and by extension the picture as a whole, would’ve been a lot stronger had Chazelle committed to the era of film he chose to set his story in. It’s a jarring misstep to shake your audience from their immersion in the movie’s final moments, especially ones purporting themselves to be as cathartic as those of Babylon. It’s a puzzling choice that makes for a bizarre end cap after a haphazard yet spirited odyssey that seems at times to never end.
The film both admires and despises the heart of cinema, and that makes sense, because nothing is quite black and white. But because it never fully chooses a side, it becomes an overflowing container for every thought Chazelle has about his profession and the industry he plays inside of. Setting this film in the silent and early talk era gives a lot of room to talk frankly about the transitional period from both a business and artistic standpoint, and it even makes way for commentary on important cultural events like the establishment of the Hays Code.
Instead, Babylon opts to smash many different half baked ideas about cinema into its runtime and fails to inquire past the idea that there’s just some kind of magic in the act of watching and making films. Sure there is, that’s why you’re seeing the film and why I’m writing about it. But the movie hardly acknowledges the humanity behind it all, save for a few scenes. The film ends up losing its central thesis as it spills over and dances atop every intelligent argument it could’ve made. In his quest to do his version of Baz Luhrmann, Chazelle concocts a distended look at the early days of an important medium, one that gives fun glitz and glamour but not much more behind the facade.
Related Topics: Damien Chazelle
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment and culture writer, critic, and radio host living in Brooklyn. In addition to writing news and criticism for /Film, she is the head of social media at Dread Central, Dread Presents, and Epic Pictures Group, and contributes criticism at Paste Magazine. You can find her bylines at The Guardian, Fangoria, Vulture, Roger Ebert, EUPHORIA., Dread Central, and Shudder’s The Bite, and her horror and genre radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays at 5pm ET on independent internet station KPISSFM.