This review contains spoilers for “Babylon” and details that may be sensitive for some readers. “Babylon” goes wide in the U.S. on Dec. 23.
At the start of “Babylon,” amid a 1920s Hollywood mansion party drowned in jazz, drugs, and genitalia, the only elephant in the room is… an actual elephant in the room, painstakingly corralled from the rural plains of California to be a unique party trick. As it turns out, the elephant is ultimately used as a distraction for guests when the staff needs to carry out the body of an actress who died during the party. “Babylon” is clearly not afraid to thrust the audience into the boisterous reality it imagines, and once it brings on the noise, it refuses to quiet down.
The film, the latest from Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle '07, follows the careers of several individuals working in the cutthroat film industry of the 1920s. Chazelle, who graduated from Harvard College and whose previous credits include the critically-acclaimed films “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” turns in another gem, this time greater in scope but reminiscent of his earlier works in how carefully it chronicles the rise and fall of its central characters. For a film that runs over three hours long, it is also masterfully paced, as its vivacious nature ensures that it is never in jeopardy of losing steam. Also touting superb editing, creative utilization of music, and a fascinating story that offers a rare indictment of film culture itself, “Babylon” ironically positions itself to be the film of the year.
Early in “Babylon,” movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) asserts to film assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva) that movie sets are “the most magical place in the world.” The film goes on to show how untrue this statement is, as its deft editing elucidates the nauseatingly high-octane nature of filmmaking in the 1920s. Between the shouts and curses of countless directors, unregulated battle scenes that result in actual violence, and even a low-level actor who is impaled and killed amidst the chaos, it is both comical and horrifying when a sharp cut denoting “Lunch” reminds us that this bombastic setting is supposed to be a regular workplace. This idea grows distinctly ironic at the very end of one particular day, when various directors finally capture their desired shots and thus joyfully conceal the prior commotion behind the scenes. In seconds, Jack Conrad goes from stumbling drunk to knight-in-shining-armor, entering his shoot just in time to partake in a climactic kiss scene; elsewhere, as a raging fire destroys a set directly opposite her own, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) remains focused on shedding the perfect tear for her director. These moments are expertly intercut and both only come together at the last possible second in the day, creating impeccable scenes for the silver screen. Apparently, this is all that matters; the directors and stars are startlingly ignorant of what it takes to get there.
The deafening culture central to “Babylon” is enhanced by the film’s utilization of music. Keeping with the craze of the mansion party in the beginning, much of the film is underscored by a driving jazz beat, or at least some form of sustained noise preserving an energy that feels ever-destined to cave in on itself. In an early scene in which Nellie and Manny talk about their hopes of working in film, there is background jazz that feels off-putting; amid what might otherwise be a serious discussion about earnest aspirations, any genuine sentiment is crowded out by this noise that seems to represent the torrent pace of their surrounding environment.
The nature of such musical contributions grows even smarter as the film progresses, especially in a later scene where Nellie and Jack begin to realize their careers are on their last legs. They find themselves at a sophisticated party that greatly contrasts the raucous outings they typically attend, and the music is commensurately characterized by lighter, more airy woodwinds; it remains as persistent as before, but now leaves enough breathing room to imply that these characters do not belong here, and can no longer hide behind the blaring veil of Hollywood. Music, overall, brilliantly serves as a subtle but constant indication that the characters’ hyperfixation on stardom seldom allows them to stop and think, and that once they begin to realize what is happening, they have fallen out of touch with society.
The aforementioned technical strengths ultimately serve to support a harrowing stance that Hollywood culture is poisoned by superficiality. In a scene during which Jack suspects that his talents have fallen out of favor with the public, film critic Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) instead proposes: “Your time has run out. There is no ‘why;’ stop questioning it.”
This conversation, if a bit on the nose, offers a poignant indication that, rather than evaluating films or their stars for what they actually are, Hollywood is possessed by a cycle of moving onto the next big thing whenever it sees fit. Ironically, early in the film, Nellie proudly states: “You don’t become a star; you either are one or you ain’t. I am.” Unfortunately for Nellie, the film does a great job of rendering this sentiment false, as it rather appears that actors do become and un-become stars in the blink of an eye, or, more precisely, that society never cared to recognize whether they were stars at all. Nonetheless, to provide solace to Jack, Elinor encourages him that a film fan in the distant future will never know when or why the people stopped loving the iconic Jack Conrad, because, “you breathed your last [breath] before he breathed his first.”
Chazelle’s implications about the toxic culture of filmmaking are most salient in a flash-forward sequence to the 1950s near the film’s conclusion, during which Manny decides to visit a movie theater himself. As he watches, he realizes that films in this era are largely based on, and derive satire from, the real-life behaviors seen on the movie sets he was part of in the 1920s. As the camera slowly pans from Manny’s distraught expression to various members of the audience who appear thoroughly entertained, Chazelle’s earlier indication about the blissful ignorance of future film audiences rings devastatingly true; though Manny may be a tortured relic of an unforgiving time in the industry, this audience will never know the reality behind the thing they enjoy.
Piling on this indictment of filmmaking, what follows is a thunderous montage of clips from some of the most famous films ever made, which plays as an implication that the grand topography of films throughout history has been tainted by the poor practices seen at work in “Babylon.” While the staggering extent of this sequence makes it feel like it might be seeking to condemn too much for its own good, its full-throttle sensory overload nonetheless creates an astounding contrast with Manny’s silent anguish.
In “Babylon,” careers burn bright and they die, unceremoniously. As such, after his moment in the spotlight has expired, Jack Conrad desperately tries to recall the good: “It was the most magical place in the world, wasn’t it?” But Jack’s query may unfortunately be stabbing at a revisionist history, or perhaps no history at all. By the time the credits roll, Damien Chazelle has magnificently filled our screen with an epic that alters the way we perceive the screen itself.
—Staff writer Kieran J. Farrell can be reached at email@example.com.