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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Babylon': Decadence and Dreams Collide in Damien Chazelle's Old Hollywood Epic

Most of, if not all of, Damien Chazelle's protagonists usually have a moment in their respective films where they essentially think to themselves "I've got what I wanted, but at what cost?" Whether they be aspiring musicians, actors, or even Neil Armstrong, Chazelle's characters usually have big dreams, but they always come with some sort of sacrifice. He continues this theme with his latest film, Babylon, which takes a multi-pronged approach to both explore the price of fame in general, and to explore how the film industry forces those in it to fit into a certain box so they can profit off them. The result is a grand, sprawling epic, that almost overwhelms the viewer, but it is also Chazelle's most ambitious and fascinating film to date.

Set against the backdrop of Old Hollywood, the film showcases the decadent lifestyles of its characters, and highlights the darker side of the both the film industry and the pursuit of fame. A chance encounter between aspiring filmmaker Manny Torres (Diego Calva) and self-proclaimed star Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) leads to a strong bond over their dreams of fame. As Manny becomes part of the studio system, and Nellie becomes more and more famous, the two reckon with the harsh realities of fame as Hollywood transitions from silent films to sound films. In addition, we also follow major movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), jazz trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), and cabaret performer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) as they also experience the cost of fame. All five of these characters are linked by a common pursuit, but in each of their journeys, we see a little bit of how the industry treats those from marginalized groups, and the greed that lies at the center of it.

One might argue that Damien Chazelle might not be the right filmmaker for a story like this. Sure, he's taken on Hollywood before with the decidedly more upbeat La La Land, and he has explored some of the film's ideas on success, fame, and creation in his other work before, but this is much larger and more indulgent than anything he has made up to this point. Chazelle is quite gifted in pulling off impressive technical elements in his work, but from a writing standpoint, he seems to struggle with emotionality and depth. Furthermore, his work has never really pushed boundaries in terms of morality, which makes his decision to make something as wild and raunchy as Babylon a bit confounding. While it isn't quite the bacchanal that films like Caligula, Boogie Nights, or The Wolf of Wall Street are, the chaos and excess that the film depicts is still quite effective. It feels like Chazelle might be a bit too clean-cut to completely pull these moments off, but he still does an admirable job, and presents them in a way that feels true to who he is as a filmmaker. If nothing else, the party sequences are electric, and have so much going on in them that makes for a thrilling, dizzying experience.

One of my biggest concerns going into this film was that I knew it was going to be more of a comedy. Humor has never been something that Chazelle has really delved into, and I wouldn't use the word "funny" to describe any of his work. But to my surprise, this film has some legitimately funny moments, and has a stronger sense of humor than some give it credit for. I feel that some people were expecting this to be more serious, or for it to be insanely graphic in its hedonism, but this is not the case at all. Instead, Chazelle balances the tone quite masterfully, blending comedy and tragedy to present a fuller, more truthful film. It may not reinvent the wheel in some of its observations, but that doesn't make them any less relevant.

The fact of the matter is that the film is less concerned with the debauchery in Old Hollywood than it is with how damaging the film industry can be. This plays perfectly into Chazelle's sensibilities, and he takes this concept and runs with it here. The grand, epic scale both highlights the excess of the era, while also acting as a monolithic portrayal of Hollywood that consumes everything around it, including the viewer. It shows the glamour of the industry, before it pulls back the curtains to reveal the darkness of it. We see this primarily in how the studios try to get their stars to maintain a certain image, or to follow orders in the name of making money. We see this primarily through the character of Nellie, who is a hard-partying and brash force of nature. As Hollywood becomes more concerned with morals and begins to enter the Hays Code era, her exploits become a sore spot with film studios. We see how they try to clean her image up to make her more refined and more palatable for audiences. This leads to a memorable scene in which Nellie attempts to blend in with high society at a party, which underlines the themes of assimilation that Chazelle is reckoning with.

We see this further in the characters of Lady Fay Zhu and Sidney Palmer. Admittedly, Lady Fay doesn't have as much to do as the rest of the main cast, but we see how she does her best to blend in and do her job but still runs into trouble. This is mainly illustrated through her sexuality, which she is forced to downplay as the film goes on. Sidney Palmer's arc is a bit more clear cut, as he begins the film as a trumpet player at the big parties that are being thrown and becomes more and more famous. He also plays his part in the Hollywood machine, but is later confronted with how the industry cares more about image than talent. I won't spoil the specifics of this moment, but it is one of the more powerful moments of the film, as it intersects so many of the film's major themes at once.

The film has a similar structure to most "rise and fall" movies, but it is the descent that really stands out. We see the characters struggling to maintain their fame, and slowly go deeper into the seedy underbelly of Old Hollywood. It all builds to a sequence that parallels the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights, where our protagonist meets with an eccentric criminal. In both cases, the scene is delightfully disorienting and is one of the more tense moments of the whole film. In this film, the scene feels like we are traveling through the circles of Hell, with Tobey Maguire's yellow-toothed James McKay as our guide. It is a bonkers performance from Maguire that sees him playing against type, but boy, does he nail it. The whole sequence is intense, and you really feel the danger that the characters find themselves in. It is the nadir of the darkness and depravity the film seeks to depict, and it is easily one of the more unforgettable aspects of the whole film.

The entire ensemble of this film is doing a great job here. Perhaps the biggest standout to me is Diego Calva, who has such a strong presence throughout, and showcases some serious range as well. His arc from dreamer to successful studio exec is the backbone of the whole film, and he brings so much humanity to the role. Margot Robbie has arguably the showiest role here, and is an absolute livewire all throughout the film. She definitely does some capital-A acting here, but the role wouldn't make sense if she didn't do this. Nellie LaRoy is a bold, assertive character, and she needs to be played by someone who is willing to go big in their performance. Robbie relishes this opportunity, and balances the larger than life aspects of her character with honesty and an infectious energy.

As the fading movie star Jack Conrad, Brad Pitt mixes both bravado and insecurity so well. He wants to hold on to his fame, but is struggling to keep up with the everchanging landscape of Hollywood. Pitt has this underlying sadness in his performance that is so effective, and his desire to find love (if that is even possible for him) is one of the more emotionally affecting aspects of the whole film. Jovan Adepo might not get as much screen time as his co-stars, but makes all of his scenes sing. He gets one of the film's most powerful moments (as stated above), and has a subtlety to some of his choices that really spoke to me. Li Jun Li similarly shines in all her scenes, and has one of the best character introductions I've seen this year. I personally would have loved to see more of her character throughout, as she has a magnetic screen presence, but she does do an excellent job with what she is given.

The massive scale the film is operating on is both incredible and staggering. Chazelle and company are doing so much with this film, which matches the excess and decadence of the era it is portraying. At times, it does feel like Chazelle is being a bit overzealous and self-aggrandizing, but most of his flourishes do serve the overall film well. In terms of its overall look, the production design is spectacular, and the costuming is solid as well. Linus Sandgren's camerawork is also quite stunning, utilizing long takes and brisk camera movements so beautifully. I would say that his work is especially great in the larger setpieces, as it truly makes you feel the weight of what we are seeing on screen. And then, there's the score from frequent Chazelle collaborator, Justin Hurwitz. The big, brassy jazz score that Hurwitz brings to the table is so intoxicating, and is easily one of my favorites of the year. The more trumpet forward songs are especially great, and the energy from the score in general radiates throughout the film.

Babylon isn't so much a love letter to cinema, but it serves as more of a scathing indictment of it. It gets to the greed and unsavory side of fame, and the sacrifices many make in order to become famous. It revels in its excess, but underneath all of the debauchery, it is rather acidic and harsh. It may not go as deep or as dark as it could have, but it still hits like a sledgehammer. There is a lot to digest here, which may cause some to be too overwhelmed or to be dismissive of it, but as someone who loves it when a film takes chances and gives you a fair amount to chew on, I ended up being quite fascinated by this film. I get why it is so polarizing, as I completely understand why someone would hate this film. But for those who enjoy Chazelle's work, and those who love a good blend of fact, fiction, and bold filmmaking, this film will likely click with you. It is an audacious work of of cinema that has the power to repulse and enchant, and I would argue that it shouldn't work even a fraction as well as it does. But somehow, Damien Chazelle pulls it off, and delivers a film that may be misunderstood by some, but will undoubtedly connect with others in a major way.

Rating: 4/5

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