Babylon Synopsis: Decadence, depravity, and outrageous excess lead to the rise and fall of several ambitious dreamers in the silent film era of 1920s Hollywood.
Acclaimed filmmaker Damien Chazelle spotlights the artistic renaissance and eventual deterioration of the silent film era in Babylon. Across his first few features, Chazelle has quickly accumulated himself as one of the industry's most pointed voices.
His debut film, Whiplash, bludgeoned audiences with a razor-sharp depiction of an artist's uncompromising devotion to his work. He soon followed up with 2016's La La Land - a luminous musical throwback that melded an equal measure of warmth and melancholy into two dreamers' shared journey towards breaking it big in the industry.
Babylon finds Chazelle expanding his scope to an ensemble of talents amidst the silent film era. Vivacious actress Nelly LaRoy, aspiring movie producer Manny Torres, skilled trumpet musician Sidney Palmer, and captivating stage performer Lady Fay are all trying to leave an indelible mark in the industry. At the same time, acclaimed silent film actor Jack Conrad vies to extend his legacy as one of Hollywood's most celebrated actors. Each character discovers prosperity in the unkempt wonders and endless parties of the late Roaring Twenties, but the advent of new innovations in the entertainment industry leaves each in a challenging position.
Where La La Land felt like a celebration of artistic dreamers, Babylon reads more like a eulogy to the inevitable irrelevance they face. Chazelle and his creative team craft a grand and ambitious epic that lands several profound indictments on the unforgiving Hollywood cycle.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Chazelle outdoes himself in a spectacular technical showcase. He and Cinematographer Linus Sandgren control the camera with masterful precision, effortlessly conducting several evocative one-takes and spectacular setpieces that convey the era's unhinged exuberance. The vibrant party scenes boast a particularly raw kineticism that rarely is displayed onscreen. These boisterous moments come to life as a vivid kaleidoscope of debauchery and drug-fueled behaviors, capturing the vulgar, free-spirited sentiments of the Roaring 20s in ways few other period pieces convey.
Chazelle's depiction of the era's filmmaking process is equally expressive. The behind-the-scenes chaos captures the inferno of tensions and personalities erupting as creative teams deal with a flurry of unsanctioned behaviors. Yet, buried beneath the clutter of a volatile movie set, Babylon showcases the glimmers of rousingly cinematic moments that magically come together under dire circumstances.
These blips of adoring homages to the silent filmmaking era are ultimately ephemeral moments in a decidedly cynical film. Unlike many recent films that pay tribute to the power of filmmaking, Babylon takes to task the cruel ways Hollywood chews up and spits out its numerous talent.
Chazelle's sprawling screenplay utilizes each member of the ensemble cast to relay the different manners by which industry executives endlessly degrade people into fitting a conformed image. While the spotlight of fame and promise of being cemented in the hallowed halls of film history can temporarily satisfy each dreamer, they ultimately come face to face with an industry and audience that will eventually discard them in favor of the next big discovery.
The dour approach offers painfully honest reflections on its respective era and the current Hollywood zeitgeist driven by bombastic blockbusters. As audacious, auteur-driven dramas like Babylon, The Fabelmans, and Three Thousand Years of Longing continue to falter at the box office, the film's sentiments express a relevant reminder about modern society's depreciation of the cinematic experience.
Babylon unpacks these concepts across a 189-minute runtime. Some may cry foul about the film's extended length. For me, I found myself engrossed throughout Chazelle's patient approach. Chazelle and company create a film that genuinely marinates with its characters and ideals, formulating an expressive thesis that leaves behind a lasting mark long after the credits roll.
Not all of Chazelle's home run swings behind the camera fully connect. Some characters can feel paper-thin compared to other subjects, and the film's busy third act works too hard to spell out its fascinating ideas. Still, it's endlessly compelling to watch a filmmaker unbridled by conventional filmmaking devices. I applaud Chazelle for taking challenging risks that will undoubtedly register divisive reactions from general audiences.
Babylon also comes to life through its expressive performances. As wild child star Nelly LaRoy, Margot Robbie imbues commanding exuberance as an uprising actress suffocating under the all-consuming spotlight. Deigo Cavla represents the film's beating heart as Manny, showcasing an equal measure of wistfulness and despair as he becomes ingrained in the industry. Brad Pitt leaves a lasting impact as Jack Conrad is gradually consumed by nostalgia for his former glory days, while Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart, and Li Jun Li command the screen through their incisive performances.
It certainly won't be for everyone, but Babylon left me in awe of its ambition and challenging meditations on the entertainment industry. I would not be surprised if Chazelle's latest develops into a cult classic in the near future.
Babylon is now playing in theaters.