Latched to the neck and pumping venom into every artery, Babylon is a sensory overload on every level. Due to hit selected cinemas from Dec 23, this decadent dive into the debauched origins of Hollywood from writer-director Damien Chazelle should come with a health warning.
It may come with all the hallmarks of a mainstream film, including glitzy A-list actors in Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, but Babylon is an arthouse indulgence that pulls no punches. With lascivious cinematography courtesy of Linus Sandgren, who worked with Chazelle on both La La Land and First Man, there is an opulence that literally drips off the screen, as this story of silver screen excess gradually unravels over three hours.
Shaped loosely around the arrival of Manny Torres (Diego Calva) in Tinseltown, who is introduced beneath a mound of elephant excretion, audiences are dropped into a Bel-Air dust bowl circa 1926. What follows in swift succession is the arrival of ‘it’ girl ingenue Nellie LeRoy (Robbie), who fakes her way inside a nearby mansion, before dominating proceedings through the ingestion of copious amounts of cocaine and ice sculpture intercourse.
Be warned this is not fanciful hyperbole or clickbait teasing enticement, but a blow-for-blow depiction of the first ten minutes. Displays of simulated fornication, tag teams of naked extras, and the aforementioned elephant all make an appearance – just before matinee idol Jack Conrad (Pitt) turns up talking Italian.
With a stylish stream of consciousness which implies that Damien Chazelle had complete autonomy in his choices, Babylon feels like a cinematic odyssey channeled through early masters of the form F W Murnau and D W Griffith. This film was made by someone who loves cinema in all its iterations, yet reminds audiences throughout the telling of this tale, that stardom is finite and opportunity is everything.
Whether Chazelle finds comedy in the soundstages of early cinema, plagued by overly sensitive microphones and cameramen dying in airtight boxes – Babylon always feels risky and refreshing. Alongside his matinee idols and ingenues, Chazelle also comments on institutionalized racism by following black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Asian temptress Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) as they also make their way in Hollywood.
With direct comparisons to be made with Louis Armstrong and Anna May Wong, who each made an impact over that period, Babylon is rife with cinematic Easter eggs for those who know their history. From the sad demise of cinematic man child Fatty Arbuckle, who can be glimpsed in those opening minutes, through to a brief appearance by William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper) and his film starlet wife Marion Davies (Chloe Fineman) — no grubby stone is left unturned.
As the cavalcade of creative excess continues and Nellie’s star continues to rise, Jack starts to lose his appeal as his attempts at talking pictures fail. This is where Babylon becomes more of an allegorical piece, casting off those gaudy pretensions to examine an underlying insecurity inherent in every performer. As audiences start to lose interest and adulation turns to mockery, Hollywood slowly starts revealing its sordid underbelly, as tastes change and people move on.
Studio systems that elevated these people onto pedestals to be adored suddenly cast them aside when those dollar bills stop rolling in. Suddenly, cover stars become liabilities destined to disappear without a trace and remembered only in a single banner headline. Others choose their own way out through suicide or intentional solitude, having grown tired of the spotlight which haunts them.
There will be some who write Babylon off as an overindulgent mess of a movie, while others choose to embrace that excess and herald it as a magnificent undertaking. This reviewer falls in the latter camp, as from this perspective there is a maturity that comes through as Chazelle corrals his ideas into submission. Aided and abetted by composer Justin Hurwitz and production designer Florencia Martin, audiences will feel every sinew of effort being poured into this glorious slice of cinema and revel in it without exception.
There is no denying the visual ambition, even if the story which holds everything together is cliched and thin. Both Pitt and Robbie seem to enjoy themselves immensely in their respective roles, while the former is definitely vying for Oscar recognition. Diego Calva has possibly the hardest job on screen as a moral center in this maelstrom of excess. Whether he is down in the depths of an underground grotto, or driving at breakneck speed to pick up a camera before they lose the light – Manny remains the only thing of substance worth clinging to here.
Purists of cinema will frown at the lack of narrative direction and Chazelle’s apparent structural choices, as well as his liberal depiction of Hollywood debauchery – but let them scoff. Fortune favors the brave and boundaries are there to be broken — both for those who make films and for those who dare to offer an opinion.
Babylon might be messy, but original film making doesn't come much better than this.