About midway through Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, an equal parts maddening and mesmerizing love/hate letter to the movies if there ever was one, we observe a character who had otherwise been jubilant beginning to get overcome by despondence. Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy had, at least up until this particular moment, seemed to be happy with achieving the dream that she had been chasing. We had been introduced to her before her success in a chaotic extended opening party sequence that then blended into her first day on set where she blew everyone away. Following that, she manages to scheme and hustle her way to the big time. She even tries her hand at making the leap from silent cinema to the talkies in one of the film’s most broadly comedic scenes. It all feels, most significantly, as if we were witnessing the basic rags-to-riches story of Chazelle’s 2016 film La La Land on coked up overdrive. However, instead of a bittersweet yet fairytale-esque happy ending, all of the characters were hurtling towards the moment where they would all come crashing back down to Earth.
The entire film is encapsulated in the aforementioned scene when Nellie, surrounded by her “friends” caught up in drunken reverie, attempts to fight a rattlesnake. She had first tried to goad her self-centered and intoxicated father (Eric Roberts) into doing it, only for him to pass out. When no one else would, she moved directly towards the serpent despite her one true friend Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres (Diego Calva) trying to stop her. Predictably, the snake bites her and everything descends into chaos. She soon collapses and begins convulsing on the ground, nearly dying until the cool-headed actress Anna May Wong…I mean…Lady Fay (Li Jun Li) saves her.
The scene is a fitting one in ways that Chazelle himself doesn’t always have a handle on as Babylon itself feels like it is frequently gasping for air as it gets swept up in its own excesses. Like Nellie, it has its sights set on a snake of its own that it doesn’t necessarily have the command to keep hold of without getting bit. This extends all the way to the very end where it should have either all cut to black minutes earlier than it actually does or been a little more restrained in its closing montage. Still, there is something persistently thrilling about seeing the film try to wrestle with its frequently tempestuous and anachronistic flourishes.
Babylon Is Cynical While La La Land Is Hopeful
At the core of this is a thematic throughline that feels like a cannibalizing of La La Land that it then proceeds to literally puke back up all over the floor. It is a simmering cynicism that teeters on the edge of righteous rage about what underlies all of this. The more we observe the characters losing themselves to the Hollywood system, the more it is clear that no one is solely looking upon the world of entertainment with the rose-colored glasses they had done so through initially. Yet even as they struggle and scrap, enduring casually cruel indignities that threaten to eat them up, many of them remain completely enamored with this world. It is this fraught push and pull that proves to be the most prevailingly interesting part of the film.
While La La Land showed characters who had to sacrifice to make it, there was still a sense that it would all end with everyone being okay. This is not the case with Babylon where, the longer we accompany the characters and the trajectory they are on, the more we see it is bound for disaster. No matter how much you give of yourself to the art, you can and will be cast aside at any moment. No matter how much of a big break you may get, nothing lasts forever.
It is a fascinating expansion and almost a rebuttal that Chazelle is offering to his own work, complicating all of what he had previously seemed interested in. In style, there is a similarity to how he captures the expansive scenes. There remains a clear love for not just the movies with all of their glorious spectacle, but the music that informs all of them. The rapid-fire editing still feels alive in how it whips around to all the moments of people giving themselves to their craft, no matter how much it takes from them. It is these complications that tear through the foundations that informed his prior works.
While there is admiration for cinema and plenty of visual reference points to it all, threaded throughout everything we are seeing is an enduring emphasis that all the beauty of the silver screen hides a cruel world that has no qualms about destroying the lives of all who enter. Even as Chazelle maintains an affinity for the work of filmmaking itself, it feels as though he is holding it at a greater distance than he has before. While this can leave some crucial aspects feeling hollow where the characters are subsumed by its prevailing sentiments, perhaps this is just the cost of doing business in Hollywood as individuality is ground up and destroyed in the bloodthirsty machine.
Sidney Palmer Is the Perfect Example of Babylon’s Version of Hollywood
In particular, the journey of musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is the one that is the most emotionally resonant yet oddly fleeting. Every joyous moment we get of him crushing his performances is juxtaposed against all we would not only not typically see, but even try to overlook. In the opening scene, Manuel uses an elephant to cover up the fact that they are carrying out a young actress who had nearly died and would be replaced by Nellie. Look at the elephant, the spectacle, and ignore everything else. Through it all, Sidney and his band just kept playing. He would later achieve success similar to all the other characters with a house and a nice car. Yet, for all his talents, he would get completely dehumanized by the very people that he came up with.
If La La Land was Chazelle telling a love story about fighting for your passion, Babylon is the melancholic response that comes when the passion has become smothered by the salaciousness that surrounds you. For Sidney especially, no matter how much he tries to preserve his soul, the industry is hellbent on ripping it away from him. No matter what, the only thing you can do is hold onto your art. In La La Land, this was enough to get by. Now in Babylon, it may not be. Yet, no matter what, the band just keeps playing.
Babylon comes to theaters on December 23.