Suppose you film a suicide. A man gloomily retires to his hotel room. Close the door. After five seconds you will hear a pistol shot. You can also – as in Babylon – leave the door of that hotel room ajar, with a view of the hallway and bathroom. Rumbling in a desk drawer, off screen. The man walks into the bathroom with the gun. After five seconds the shot: blood and brain tissue spatter on a white wall.
In Babylon leaves Damien Chazelle the less is moreapproach to astronaut film FirstMan and musical La La Land. Less is a bore: here he goes full for excess, although his keynote remains melancholic. This comic epic is a steamroller of a movie, dynamic and swirling to the point of exhaustion, over the top in everything. But also daring and often brilliant.
189 minutes is on the long side, scenes and characters tend towards cartoonish, especially Margot Robbie as compulsively manic ‘flapper’ Nellie LaRoy, aka ‘Wild Child’. Brad Pitt plays the pretentious – “In Europe they have fucking Bauhaus” – and always intoxicated ‘romantic lead’ Jack Conrad. Jovan Adepo black trumpeter Sidney Palmer who has to blackface in a wry scene because he looks too white in the spotlight for his jazz band. Tobey Maguire turns a gangster boss into a creepy junkie vampire.
Also read a profile of director Damien Chazelle: Ambition on the border of self-destruction
They are amalgams of historical persons, magnified into archetypes: the whore of Babylon, the shooting star. We view the pandemonium of Hollywood through the astonished eyes of everyone Manny Torres (Diego Calva). He makes a sober career within the studio system, but is madly in love with the elusive Nellie LaRoy.
The first hour of Babylon is a madhouse of grotesque, massive ‘set pieces’. A savage orgy with group sex and elephant. A hectic shooting day in a dry valley where countless silent films are shot at the same time: spicy western, jungle adventure, Asian mystery, medieval battle. Extras become violent. A peanut woman dispenses amphetamine.
Babylon must fall: this is doom epic. Silent film gives way to sound film in 1927, hedonism to the moral straitjacket of the Hays Code in 1930. Heads roll in such a revolution. Nellie LaRoy has to shed her vulgar accent and become a decent society lady: impossible work. Jack Conrad sounds ludicrous overnight. Fornication literally goes underground, disappearing into a lurid, perverse mine shaft operated by the mafia: ‘the anus of the city’. So it is with new prudishness.
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Minus the sin, the coke and the nudity Babylon broadly the story of musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952): here again a comical scene about actors who don’t know what to do with the silent, motionless discipline of the ‘sounds stage’, where you have to stand exactly on your crotch in front of the microphone and the sound man is the new dictator. The cheerful chaos is also followed by cramping on the film set.
A beautiful, daring find is in the epilogue, where Babylon bites its own tail associatively. Manny returns to Los Angeles as a tourist in 1952 and sees in a movie theater Singin’ in the Rain: now as one of the “cockroaches” who peep from the dark to the immortal gods of light. Manny dreams up a sometimes almost abstract homage to Hollywood on the spot; like Walt Disney’s overture Fantasy stuck behind the film.
Babylon is a wondrous, fatalistic fantasy of doom. We know that Hollywood rose from its ashes. Time and time again. An extra melancholy edge: no studio will invest 80 million dollars in such an excessive, personal film as Babylon, which is heading for a financial fiasco. Lead years lie ahead. But someday the sun will rise again.
Babylon hits theaters January 19.
A version of this article also appeared in the January 11, 2023 newspaper