Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calva, director Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon, explores the highs and lows of Hollywood and the magic of the movies. Read our review.
Within the first 10 minutes of Babylon we see shit, piss, cocks (both the animal and genital kind), drugs and a lot of nudity. Later on, there will also be blood and vomit added to the dizzying, overwhelming mix that is Damien Chazelle’s latest film. Babylon is as disgusting as it is magical and Chazelle’s vision constantly flips between adoring and idealising Hollywood and being deeply disillusioned by it.
It’s nearly impossible to neatly recap or summarise the plot of Babylon. There’s three characters whose stories are woven into the plot more than other characters. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is a self-proclaimed star who is quickly swept up in the glamorous, wild lifestyle of Hollywood. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but change is looming. Manny (Diego Calva) just really wants to be part of the magic of the movies.
Over the course of more than three hours, each of these characters will experience incredibly high highs and devastatingly low lows that come with fame and fortune. In Babylon, Hollywood is a machine that chews up and then spits out every one of our characters. It’s a machine and, as Jean Smart’s Elinor St. John notes, it’s bigger than them. Yet, one thing remains: none of them would ever trade it for another profession.
Babylon is intoxicating in its excess. It’s an experience in and of itself, one that doesn’t feel designed to be universally loved. Part of the experience is to hate it sometimes and then to fall in love with it all over again. Chazelle’s film is also very long. Too long, some might say, as it tests the limits of your bladder control similarly to Avatar: The Way of Water.
The films open with a raucous party; the title card doesn’t appear until roughly 30 minutes into the film, but who cares when you’re having this much fun. Babylon represents Damien Chazelle at his most primal; his previous films have been largely devoid of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but Babylon has all three in spades. Although all the characters are in constant free fall, the film never is. For all its frivolity and free spirit, Babylon is a remarkably controlled film.
And it’s that excess that largely defines Babylon; that, and the inherent cynicism at the heart of it. Chazelle can’t help but love the industry, but he’s also disappointed by it. Sure, Babylon starts in 1926 and ends in 1952 in a touching epilogue, but there’s nothing in it that feels outdated or unrealistic by today’s terms. (Although I should hope there are animal cruelty laws in place now that stop people from having an elephant at their party just for the sake of it).
Despite the sensory overload, it’s the performances that perhaps make the greatest impression. The throuple at the centre of it all are perfect. Pitt is charismatic, Robbie electric and relative newcomer Calva, in a star-making, superb turn, is deliciously sincere. While their arcs don’t provide any unique insight into the industry, they are compelling and entertaining.
Justin Hurwitz’s score is an essential part of Babylon. ‘Herman’s Hustle’ is a particularly fun track, one that accompanies characters as they manically try to survive the tribulations of moviemaking on a daily basis. The score really brings Chazelle’s vision alive and breathes life into the scenes. It rightfully won Best Original Score at this year’s Golden Globes.
The sheer absurdity of Babylon will prove divisive. In an age where we are served several love letters to cinema (Belfast, The Fabelmans and Empire of Light, to name a few), Babylon exists as a thrillingly singular experience. Chazelle takes every single idea he has and throws it against the wall, hoping some of it will stick. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Chazelle is such a master at the more technical aspects of filmmaking and smart enough to cast charismatic actors to guide us through this mystifying maze of a film.
Audacious, sensational and uncompromising, Babylon might be Chazelle’s best and worst film. We should be grateful such ballsy filmmakers still work within the confines of Hollywood. I can agree that Babylon has flaws; it almost runs out of steam and its sprawling narrative often feels aimless, but I also can’t stop thinking about it, or listening to Hurwitz’s score, in the hopes that it’ll transport me back to watching the film. Babylon might not quite be the film of the year, but it’s one hell of a ride.
Babylon is in cinemas 20 January.