movie review

There’s History in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, But Where’s the Thrill?

The director is too worried about the extinction of film to make one capable of truly titillating. Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

All great directors are perverts. This is not a knock but a compliment meant to evoke the great, subterranean forces that power the medium. Film inherently taps into the rapture of looking — the voyeuristic thrill that comes with exploring worlds and peoples sometimes far from your own. It isn’t exactly escape so much as reflection, warped by the pleasure principle. In writing and directing Babylon — the three-hour-and-eight-minute tragicomedy that charts the hothouse machinations of the silent era and the fallout that happened when Hollywood moved into sound — Damien Chazelle of La La Land fame reveals himself to be anything but a pervert. He’s far too interested in the logistics of moviemaking to capture the emotional surge or exceptionable eroticism that defined not just Hollywood’s incandescent silent era but films at their most powerful.

Beginning in 1926 and ending in 1952, Babylon opens by introducing one of the narrative’s crucial leads, Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), a sweet-hearted Mexican fixer who dreams of leaving his mark on the world through film, which he considers bigger than life itself. For now, he’s transporting an elephant to a party hosted by the mogul he works for. Chazelle quickly plunges us into a world of excess and the people who inhabit it with a hedonistic soirée. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren — who has worked with Chazelle consistently, as well as lent his skills to films like No Time to Die — lets his camera swoon, skitter, and saunter through the carefully coordinated proceedings, lingering on a Fatty Arbuckle type getting pissed on by a young dame before expanding to explore the full breadth of the occasion. (The dame later goes so hard she looks damn near dead and needs to be carried out with the elephant as a distraction.) As a Black jazz outfit, led by trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), blares Justin Hurwitz’s bombastic score into existence, we are thrust into pure delectation.

Bodies in fine outfits, or entirely nude, sweat and gyrate within a warm amber glow. Nellie LaRoy (a vivacious Margot Robbie decked in poppy red, whose character echoes the likes of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford) crashes into a statue: “You don’t become a star. You either are one or you ain’t,” she remarks. Nellie is a star in the making, voracious in her approach to everything, who will prove to be at the right place at the right time (eventually nabbing an opportunity that was meant for the girl led out unconsciously via elephant). But Jack Conrad is a star at the peak of his fame and power, played with undeniable brio by Brad Pitt, fully leaning into his charisma and the complications he brings when he lights up a screen. Isn’t that a requirement for a matinee idol? He rolls up to the party, top down, arguing with his wife (Olivia Wilde). He’s stumbling over his words, speaking Italian as she’s pouring her heart out, angry and pleading to be seen and heard. When she announces they’re getting a divorce, Jack is barely fazed. He’ll go in and out of marriages throughout the film’s meaty run time. There’s always more women.

More women. More drugs. More alcohol. More pleasure. Desires can never be met, only endlessly fed. So, when Manny and Nellie connect, they’re not just snorting lines of cocaine but sitting in front of mounds of it. With a dancerly cadence, Jack orders not just one drink but enough to get a decent-size dinner party drunk. “We’re also going to need two Gin Rickeys, an Orange Blossom with brandy, three French 75s, and can you do a Corpse Reviver? Gin, lemon, Kina Lillet, with a dash of absinthe. Two of those,” Jack says. Pitt draws out the word “dash” and leans into the server, who moments earlier yearned to catch his eye by putting her tits in his face. There are other moments of quietude amid the feverish pace of the film. Chazelle delights in such contrasts — the chaotic and the still, the virulent and the divine. Which is part of the problem: He’s more interested in how he’s looking than what he’s looking at, more compelled by the possibilities of a camera’s gaze rather than what the camera is pointed at: people with bodies as well as lives that are far less neat in trajectory than the film suggests.

The closest Chazelle’s work comes to capturing a truly heated extravagance is when Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is onscreen. She exists in a liminal space in the industry — known but not wholly respected or honored for her talent. She often writes titles for the films she fails to land auditions for. She gives the money she earns to her parents. But at the party, she’s something more. She’s a star as soon as her heels click against hardwood. Her gloved hand holds a cigarette to her lips and smoke dances along the shadows of her exquisite profile. Dressed in a way that nods to the gender-bending transgressions and silken glamour of Marlene Dietrich, Lady Fay is a sight as she sings about her love for her “girlfriend’s pussy.” Li Jun Li is marvelous in the role — tricksy and yearning — but she’s underserved by Chazelle’s impulses, which tend toward broad strokes rather than delightful details that lead characters to be more than amalgamations of archetypes pulled together from considerable research into an era clearly revered. (The film suggests a relationship between Nellie and Lady Fay, but the details of how their love affair develops are never explained beyond a newspaper spread.) Babylon’s characters are at different stages of living and dying within the shores of Hollywood, but they are all bound to and by their cravings — for stardom, for power, for control. Chazelle is most intrigued by the vice that unspools from these desires and how they fuel Hollywood’s filmmaking on the most mechanical of levels, rather than the way it charges the people that populate these films.

Sure, there are characters fucking in a variety of positions, sometimes wearing a fake donkey head. (Notably, we don’t see any of the main characters having sex. That’s for extras.) The party scene, which clocks in at about 20 minutes, builds to a variety of drug-fueled moments meant to titillate, including one involving a man getting a Champagne bottle shoved up his ass. His face doesn’t speak to delight so much as the rush of anxiety that comes with being lost in a party of this sort. It is anxiety that fuels the film itself. Babylon is a stunning example of how sensuality isn’t simply born from having people in various states of undress. It must have a propulsion of its own, drawn from a curiosity about the figure as much as the mind and world around it.

Consider an early sequence in Babylon involving Spike Jonze as an intense German director, Otto. He’s screaming and pushing people around over the fact that the homeless extras from Skid Row are threatening to strike if not allowed to renegotiate their pay (a problem Manny figures out on horseback with a gun). More production upheavals announce themselves during the silent’s epic shoot, as titles on the screen note the time of day. Jack manipulates Gloria Swanson into taking a lower rate while knocking back enough alcohol to pickle a man in a single sitting. Manny fights the dying of the light to get a new camera across town for the movie’s most important shot. Meanwhile, Nellie gets her debut on another set, taking the place of the woman who overdosed. Nellie proves to have a preternatural skill for understanding the camera and demonstrating what Chazelle can’t: a palpable gratification from watching or being watched. She doesn’t just cry when asked — she can hold her tears for two beats before letting them drop, or summon a single one for maximum emotional pull. But back on Otto’s set, those mistakes abound. Jack is a stumbling drunk by the time Manny secures a camera — though once Otto calls “action,” it’s as if he’s instantly sober. Cast against the rose-golden sunset, he and his leading lady kiss as smoke plumes the air and the sounds of battle are drowned out by an orchestra. As if fated, a butterfly dances in the air before delicately landing on Jack’s shoulder. “We got it,” Otto says, at almost a whisper. The set roars with satisfaction. Babylon wants to engender awe for film, while only mildly critiquing the political and social mores upon which Hollywood was built. It’s as if Chazelle wants to push against our expectations of his industry’s history but is also deeply afraid he’ll lose the ability to make a movie like this again.

Babylon can be transfixing, before a feeling that the film is too polished, too neat, takes hold. The cinematography balances warmth and cloying darkness, communicating the delights and horrors in which characters are mired. The music carries itself with hard-won panache. The actors are game. The costuming, makeup, and hair design playfully experiment with the visual traits of the eras they traipse through to mixed but eye-catching results. The editing is elegant as it weaves together a cornucopia of needs, and is often a source of the film’s greatest humorous moments, cutting against expectation to place the audience further into the barely organized chaos of this ragged industry. Where it ultimately stumbles and falls is in its characterization — those particulars of humanity that the classic films Chazelle so loves excelled at portraying.

As the film marches deeper into the sound era, the lives of its main characters take bitter turns. Manny has moved up in the industry as a sound director and is newly identifying as a Spaniard, bowing to the racial strictures of the moviemaking system he so loves. Solidarity is traded in for a perch on the ledge of power, which comes to a head when Manny asks Sidney to use cork, dressing himself in blackface to put him in better balance with the darker-skinned musicians flanking him. (It’s a surface-level exploration of the cost of being a part of Hollywood then as a Black man.) Nellie’s brassy speech, classed New Jersey accent, and wild-child nature fall out of fashion for women, and she’s forced to adapt or let go of the stardom she was just starting to relish. Take after take of Nellie’s first foray into sound are marred by minor issues born of the sensitive, cumbersome equipment now required to make movies, culminating with an assistant director (P.J. Byrne) reaching volcanic levels of expletive-laden outbursts: “If anyone stops this scene again, I will shit on you. I will shit in your mouth!” Jack, on the other hand, is fighting against the inevitable: his own irrelevance. Chazelle is able to capture the general rhythms of this era but not quite the debauchery of the specifics that made rising and falling careerists tick. What he remembers most of all is the freedom all of these artists had, something he feels is slipping into nonexistence today.

America is a country built on forgetting its own sins, and Hollywood has inherited that forgetfulness. This is never more apparent than when Hollywood is playing itself. In a scene between Jack and Elinor St. John, a gossip columnist with haughty air, Jean Smart plays an idea of a person turned into a joke — a journalist who is as performative as the actors she chooses to chide in her column. As Jack’s professional reputation continues to slide, Elinor writes a blistering column questioning if his time in the spotlight has ended. “Your time has run out. […] It’s over. It’s been over for a while,” she says to him from behind her typewriter, with a lamenting splendor that matches the tenor of the score. Smart rises before the seated Jack and launches into an arch, self-conscious monologue that mirrors issues with Chazelle’s writing elsewhere:

“I know it hurts. No one asks to be left behind. But in a hundred years when you and I are long gone, anytime someone threads a frame of yours through a sprocket, you’ll be alive again. You see what that means? A child born in 50 years will stumble across your image flickering on a screen and feel he knows you, like a friend, even though you breathed your last before he breathed his first. You’ve been given a gift. Be grateful. You’ll spend eternity with angels and ghosts.”

But this scene worked for me, tapping into a somber quality that is wistful and nostalgic. Within the folds of this scene — Smart’s melancholic approach to the monologue and Pitt’s crystalline blue eyes brimming with sorrow — is the director’s conflict. He wants to print the legend of the silent era and what was lost when Hollywood found sound, and critique its mores at the same time. He’s torn between loving film and having to defend its existence, amounting to a movie fueled not by that scintillating thrill that powers the works he’s nodding to, but a deep fear about the extinction of his own kind. Babylon is a film too busy writing an elegy for the still-breathing body of film as a medium to capture the true beauty and complications of being alive.

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There’s History in Babylon, But Where’s the Thrill?