By Teresa Calvillo

Flamboyant Hedonism That Is Pure Magic and Hell

(Spoilers below)

There is a fire that breaks out while Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is on her first day on set. Much of Babylon could be described by that scene alone. Chaos, magic, an insatiable rhythm that makes you believe anything is possible. In this anti-fairytale, we follow Manny Torres (Diego Calva) as he finds his way through the film industry after he is employed by movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). Our three main characters' storylines are braided together through the late 20s to the early 30s as each one travels up the industry ladder before falling off it hard.

Babylon could be defined by the three main parties that embody the recurrent themes of the film: ambition, cynicism and fear. Chazelle has been making this film since the beginning of his career with shades of Whiplash (obsession), La La Land (dreams) and First Man (sorrow) guiding him like a lighthouse. Unlike in his romanticized and idyllic La La Land, Chazelle is now capturing the good and evil of the industry without shying away from its most distasteful aspects. And it’s in that concrete and tangible painting of the dark side of Tinseltown where the film shines brightest. There are too many details to digest, with various shots resembling a Renaissance-like painting. I was too enthralled by it to dare to wonder how any of it was pulled off.

Babylon controls its own breathing through its pace, just as if it were adjusting a dose. Beyond Tom Cross’s extraordinary, drum-like editing, the thread that unifies Babylon is Justin Hurwitz’s score. Swaying between primal beats and romantic melodies, it becomes the essence of the film. With so much to focus on visually at any given time, the music becomes our closest ally. But despite how tight the screen feels at times, Babylon understands that at the pure core of filmmaking, there is imperfection. The screenplay might seem to lack focus at first glance, but underneath it, we find a shimmering anthology of set pieces, just like its kaleidoscopic ending. 

It might seem like a suicidal attempt to tell this kind of story this way, but there simply is not a nicer way of sharing it without compromising its integrity. The ambivalence is the point; the film is not made in spite of it, but because of it. Chazelle builds a bridge between one industry from two different centuries. Mirror to mirror, he notes it’s not so different after all. He’s not only observing the past, he’s also looking directly at the future. It turns away from 1920s clichés and embraces a forward-looking attitude. The ending resonates with Jack Conrad’s words: we should not stand in the way of progress.

The runtime can make its viewers ask themselves if it’s big only for the sake of being big, but Chazelle proves that he’s looking at something deeper. Beyond the sweat and the party balloons lies the anxiety of mortality. So much of Babylon is about endings and assimilation, its characters meeting the inescapable fate of a Greek tragedy. Jack Conrad and Nellie LaRoy were never meant to be anything else than the brightest stars in town for an incomparable moment of time, shedding their light onto an industry that ultimately fails them. It’s Manny who realizes the big shift approaching Hollywood with the release of The Jazz Singer. It’s no coincidence that he’s also the one who is able to escape Hollywood by the end. He’s one more spectator, just like Elinor St. John describes in her mesmerizing conversation with Jack Conrad— it’s the cockroaches and the spectators who last, for they are merely witnesses of the spectacle. Similarly, we are the witnesses of the spectacle that is Babylon. 

Chazelle emphasizes that the art we make are constant echoes that will survive the test of time: a magnetic force that goes beyond death. Babylon is the ultimate parade of the great victory of cinema… the type of film that will probably never get made again. It’s a gritty hymn, one that thrives in its maximalism and showcases Chazelle’s tailor-made direction. It is one hymn that we will be singing until the end of time.