Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Diego Calva
Running Time: 189 minutes
Babylon is lurid, aggressive, and utterly demented.
Damien Chazelle’s deep thrust into Dante’s Inferno of Hollywood stardom and obscenity, set amidst the technological metamorphosis of cinema and sound from the 1920s onwards, is a relentless barrage of visceral debauchery, sexual objectification, and human degradation. Chazelle has practically modelled the plot of Babylon on Singin’ in the Rain. As the moviemaking industry confronts the impending transition from the silent pictures to the immensely popular ‘talkies’, the careers of some of Hollywood’s nascent and established stars face ruination and obsolescence. So Babylon follows the contours of Singin’ in the Rain, except the former lacks any of the wholesome charm of the latter, and features orgies. It is a three hour lumbering beast of a movie that regularly refuses to die quietly, and it is not a picture I am inclined to ever watch again.
In recent years, it has become public knowledge that the Hollywood film industry has long harbored a toxic underbelly; wherein lies the expectation that one should degrade and subjugate themselves to make headway in the industry. This is Babylon’s treatise: to enlighten the viewer to a historical precedent of gendered and racialized discrimination and abuse within the Hollywood film industry. However, in the age of #metoo and #oscarssowhite, wherein the dominance of white, male power within the entertainment industry has come to the fore of the public consciousness amidst much scrutiny and debate, and where strides are being made to hold abusers to account, and to advocate for greater degrees of inclusivity, representation and respect within the industry, Chazelle’s treatise unfortunately feels both outdated and intensely laboured. And laboured it is in Babylon, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the pornographic sensibility of a horny teenager. Chazelle may believe that his movie belongs to the zeitgeist, except Babylon is more provocative than introspective, and it quite regularly feels like a regression, in lieu of a progression, in challenging the structures of white, male power that has long pervaded Hollywood. We should endeavour to find solutions, not reopen old wounds.
Chazelle’s contribution to the historical narrative of Hollywood culture involves the perverse degradation and depravity of its human subjects, which endures for the entirety of its three hour runtime. In the eternity that it takes to move from an elephant excreting onto a camera lens to a descent into the bowels of an L.A snuff dungeon, I wondered if the self-styled provocateur, Damien Chazelle, is punishing his audience as much as his characters. The film is an exhaustingly perennial exercise in human denigration that is summated in a pre-title prologue featuring a boisterous Hollywood mansion party filled with end-to-end debauchery that sets the underlying tone of the movie, and it never relents. Most scenes end with a grisly punchline, and it is truly exasperating. Babylon seeks to illuminate the institutionalised intolerance that white, heterosexual Hollywood has historically fostered towards race, gender, and sexuality, and whilst the film does confer rare moments of topical dialogue to its audience, Chazelle is all too keen to return to the hedonistic excesses of champagne, cocaine and sex, often depriving those fleeting moments of their power.
In what will surely become the most discussed sequence of the film, the climax of Babylon transports us through a cosmic, Space Odyssey-esque montage of cinema’s technological evolution, from cinema’s early beginnings and innovations, such as the conception and the capture of the moving image, to the more recent advances made in the filmmaking process i.e CGI and motion-capture. The montage is crudely stitched together as if Chazelle and his film editor, Tom Cross, only conceived of it a few hours before the production deadline. Ironically, the montage celebrates films that are infinitely superior to Babylon, such as Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, as well as films that are not so great such as James Cameron’s technically superb, but albeit total bloat-fest Avatar. But what does the montage actually signify? In essence, the montage illustrates how the art of cinema has ultimately endured, thrived, and evolved throughout the decades, despite the personal toll that Hollywood has demanded from its artists. Ultimately though, it is yet another trite argument on the separation of Hollywood art from the Hollywood culture that produces it, and worst still, Chazelle proves himself to be too immature to handle such themes with any tact. Furthermore, the montage creates a dissonance between the evolution of filmmaking technology and the personal losses that come from pursuing a Hollywood career. These two ideas are often irreconcilable, and lack elucidation, but if I had to guess, I’d conclude that Chazelle holds the belief that achievement and progress always requires some measure of personal sacrifice, and that, whilst cinema will live on through its technological change, its stars will inevitably fade. However, as the weight of the film’s preceding three hours of carnage bears down on its montaged climax, one can’t help but interpret Chazelle’s controlling idea as nothing short of cynical and misguided, especially given the recent developments coming out of Hollywood visual effects houses detailing the exploitative working conditions that artists are operating under for demanding and unscrupulous film studios like Marvel Studios and Disney.
Damien Chazelle’s long-time collaborator, Justin Hurwitz, infuses the film with a pulsating and jazzy score – which has been riding high on my Apple Music playlist for a few weeks now. It is the film’s single most creative element, and it certainly accentuates the film’s manic persona. To my ear, the soundtrack also features melodies that are inspired by Hurwitz’s Oscar-winning score from Chazelle’s 2012 La La Land. This is a purposeful decision made by both Hurwitz and Chazelle. La La Land is arguably a love letter to the Hollywood dream, and therefore, Hurwitz’s allusion to La La Land lends a profoundly darker note to Babylon’s nightmarish inversion of that very same dream.
With all its grotesquely lurid and over-the-top proceedings, Babylon evidently wants to polarise audiences and wants to be deemed ‘provocative’ yet one cannot help but feel that such an intent is merely an attempt to excuse the film’s appalling lack of both substance and of any adept directing on Chazelle’s part. Babylon is crude and humourless, and frankly, I was given more enjoyment out of wondering what the boomer couple in front of me thought of the ‘golden-shower scene’. The film’s inter-textual relationship with Singin’ in the Rain is also misjudged, and I doubt that Stanley Donen or Gene Kelly would have appreciated their feel-good film being used as the inspiration for this story. With Babylon, Chazelle self-styles himself as a provocateur and an auteur, which might just be the film’s flattest joke of all given that he’s made one of the worst films of 2023 thus far.
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