The relentless pursuit of perfection runs through the films of Damien Chazelle like lifeblood. It could be the execution of the perfect drumbeat (Whiplash), or the saucer-eyed dream of Hollywood stardom (La La Land), or the race to bring astronauts to the moon (First Man), it doesn’t matter. In Chazelle’s movies, his characters unhesitatingly put their hearts and bodies on the line because they know their dreams are worth it. (In First Man, it has to be—the alternative is death.) Babylon, set in a Hollywood when silent movies were giving way to talkies, is perhaps Chazelle’s first film to make you doubt if they are.
If La La Land gives you a surface glimpse of the tribulations of making it big in Tinseltown, then Babylon is a deep dive into the town’s inner workings—literally. Linus Sandgren’s camera swoops and floats and insinuates itself into office suites and backrooms and villas, all in the service of showing us what it takes to imprint imagination onto celluloid. In one extended sequence, Chazelle takes us to a dusty field where a sword-and-sandals epic, a melodrama set in a saloon, and a host of other movies are being shot simultaneously; in quick succession, he shows us a platoon of sweaty and roiling extras chasing after a studio scapegoat, the exact science of capturing emotional payback by getting one tear to fall, and the frantic quest to find the one working camera in town so a megalomaniacal director (an uncredited cameo from Spike Jonze) can shoot a romantic kiss before he loses the light. Thanks to Sandgren’s fluid camera, Justin Hurwitz’s caffeinated, jazz-infused score and Tom Cross’s propulsive editing, Chazelle gleefully shows us how moviemaking skates on the edge of disaster.
I say gleeful, which is not to say that Babylon is joyful. Chazelle seems to have conceived Babylon as the antithesis of two movies. By setting it during the dawn of sound, he positions it as the anti-Singin’ in the Rain, with none of that 1952 classic’s candy-colored optimism. More than that, he posits that Babylon is actually Singin’ in the Rain’s origin story, in that Stanley Donen lifted Babylon’s heartbreak and humiliation with two fingers, then dropped them into the vat of romantic comedy to bleach its incidents of grime and grit.
The other movie that Babylon seems designed to be the opposite of is Chazelle’s own La La Land. Instead of focusing on the starry-eyed quest of two (white) romantic leads, Chazelle opens up the iris of his storytelling eye wider: His multi-plotline script follows audience surrogate Manny (Diego Calva), the immigrant factotum whose smarts propel him from wrangling elephants for Hollywood bacchanalias to becoming head of sound at the movie’s fictional Kinoscope Studios; Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the wild child starlet whose dysfunctional background makes her a cinch for stardom even as its inherited self-destructive impulses doom her; and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the silent film star who cycles through marriages and eventually finds himself on the cusp of obsolescence.
On the sidelines are underwritten characters like Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), an obvious Anna May Wong stand-in with the incongruous hyphenate of androgynous Marlene Dietrich chanteuse by night-writer of silent film captions by day, and band leader Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who, through Manny’s patronage, finds himself a star dealing with the pitfalls of racial tokenism. The only character who acquits herself with any dignity in this sprawling cast is gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), only because she isn’t meant to have a backstory or court the audience’s sympathy. She is there to serve as a makeshift Greek chorus—the best sequence in the movie is the one where Smart delivers a speech to a despairing Pitt about how the Hollywood machine mercilessly chews up and spits out talent, but it is the ineffable ideas of illusion and immortality that keep its engine running.
The three main characters deliver a version of this “illusion and immortality” speech at different points in the movie—all Manny can manage to say is that he wants to “be part of something bigger” while snorting a mountain of cocaine with Nellie—but because Babylon lacks La La Land’s nostalgic yearning and breathless romanticism, something rings hollow and contradictory in the film’s noble declarations.
One reason is obvious from the title: Chazelle took inspiration from Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger’s compendium of sordid gossip that first became a sensation in France and presented itself as the definitive portrait of scandal-ridden celebrity. But Chazelle, while taking his cues from the book in portraying drug-fueled orgies and corpulent comedians indulging in water sports, misses the point of Hollywood Babylon entirely: that even Hollywood’s darkest depths and dankest dungeons are larger-than-life. Its misadventures in sex, drugs and murder may have even helped burnish its myth.
Instead, Chazelle is so intent on dragging his characters through such misanthropic sludge that they end up in varying degrees of ugliness. As Manny tries to save Nellie from herself, Calva makes him more and more belligerent. Robbie’s anachronistic ‘80s frizz and sexy chic wardrobe don’t immunize Nellie from drooling on her pillow or projectile vomiting at a party. Pitt, in a character that uncomfortably mirrors the real-life twilight of his career, embraces his wrinkles. (His character’s insecurity prevents him from nailing his big speech, though.) Meanwhile, Sandgren’s Golden Era lighting bathes them all in a jaundiced glow.
And then Chazelle unleashes a fever dream of a coda that traces the leaps and bounds Hollywood has taken from introducing sound to the conjuring of unimaginable worlds unleashed by visual effects. (It’s an epilogue montage that feels cribbed from La La Land’s ending.) The problem is, that rousing epilogue feels divorced from the bitterness and contempt of the preceding three hours—three hours that began with Chazelle placing his camera directly in the path of an elephant’s anus as it shat all over the lens.
There’s something wildly cynical about subjecting us to three hours of Hollywood disillusionment and then saying, But look! Wasn’t it all worth it? Babylon says that without the sacrifice of lives and relationships, we might never have gotten classics like Singin’ in the Rain or Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Tron. But I don’t buy that filmmaking is such a zero-sum proposition; Chazelle seems to be selling me a steaming pile of elephant poo.
Babylon opens in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, February 1
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures