From its first orgiastic rave on, Babylon is nothing short of exactly the film its director wanted to make. This is a DAMIEN CHAZELLE picture. A film that could only be made by a virtuoso at the height of his powers. Only a man with half a dozen Oscars on his mantle could get away with Babylon, a grossly self-indulgent anti-crowd pleaser. Sprawling, often brilliant, fabulously acted, exploitative and around an forty minutes overlong. It hasn’t a hope with the Academy and shan’t make a penny at the box office. Not that either is the true benchmark of success. Indeed, for the sheer impertinence of his efforts alone, Chazelle warrants commendation. Babylon is not for the faint of heart.
The first fifteen minutes alone play as a bell weather for tolerance. Like ripping a beer from the cold hands of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chazelle pummels his camera with all from spanking and buggery to a penis pogo stick and urination fetish. It’s the Jazz Age turned up to eleven and dragged to the very outer limits of plausibility. Into the fray stumble our three heroes, with more than a touch of David O’Russell’s Amsterdam about them. A peculiar coincidence, hammered home by the two film’s similarly minded casting of Margot Robbie. Here, the future Barbie girl dazzles as Nellie LaRoy, a wannabe actress already convinced of her own star quality. She added the ‘La’ to Roy. Hers is a drug-addled, show-stopping performance and Chazelle knows it. The whole shoot glows around her. Nellie’s ability to cry on cue is devoted the same gravitas as explosions on a monumentally shot battlefield.
Overlooking said battlefield is Brad Pitt’s silent movie icon Jack Conrad. He’s the ebb to Nellie’s flow, an amalgamation of so many to fade as the talkies turned up cinema’s volume. It’s a typically assured performance from Pitt. Wry too from a star as often behind the camera as before it these days. Diego Calva corners off the triangle splendidly as Manuel Torres, an immigrant film assistant willing to shovel shit simply to rub shoulders in the business. ‘I always wanted to be part of something bigger,’ he tells Nellie, ‘something that lasts.’ He refers, of course, to the movies themselves. This is Babylon: a frenzied but rather cynical love letter to cinema.
Chazelle’s script barely constitutes as narrative, his camera drifting in and out of a rushing river of progress. He’s there in 1926, when a literal Wild West lays bare the lawless early days of filmmaking. And again in 1932, where everything feels rather more corporate, processed and mechanical. Bold, ultimately wanting, parallels to Singing in the Rain beckon in the film’s second half. Here as there, stars are made by chance so much as talent. Reinvention is everything. This, amid a waft of cineliterate reminiscences that sit only marginally on the right side of smug. Pitt clearly recalls John Gilbert and Li Jun Li’s cabaret femme feral Lady Fay Zhu is undoubtedly Anna May Wong.
They’re the easy ones. Babylon is a film that demands to be read and feels self-conscious in its ambition to outlive its own credits. While some scenes feel organically iconic, others are palpably desperate. A sequence in which Robbie battles and is ultimately savaged by a rattle snake is one for the ages. A Tobey Maguire helmed sidestep into subterranean debauchery is a miss. As for the pre-titles elephant, it’s stunning in execution but cheap as a gag, used only to distract from the removal of an incapacitated it girl from a party. Get it?
Such is the honest truth of the business, however. It’s scrappy, ridiculous, alluring, lucrative and costly. A maker and breaker of dreams. Chazelle has had his day in the sun and touched the stars. Now come shades of the nightmare. Babylon is too much for its own good and not quite enough for ours.