The director of whiplash and La La Land takes a nightmarish trip through the meanders of a decadent Hollywood industry, beginning its transformation into talkies at the end of the 1920s. Calibrated for the Oscars, babylon does not lack panache, but remains inhabited by a false rhythm depriving its characters of consistency.
The heavy failure of babylon in the United States, where the film brought in just over ten million dollars for an estimated budget of between 80 and 100 million, is quite revealing of the chimerical nature of the fourth feature film by Damien Chazellepropelled to the front of the stage with whiplash in 2014 and winner of the Best Director Oscar three years later with La La Land. Arduous task, indeed, to seduce an American public fed on blockbusters with a film exceeding three hours, mixing all the excesses (sex, alcohol, drugs and all kinds of excrement) and aspiring to be the portrait at the same time tender and disillusioned with a delirious industry whose inevitable downfall would ultimately be the driving force.
Of La La Land at babylon, Chazelle operates a retrograde movement, exchanging the bitter reality of the tale for the intoxicating darkness of the fable. A universe in formation, radiant stars, an uninterrupted creative ferment, demiurge directors and all-powerful producers; in a thunderous first act, Damien Chazelle does not hesitate to film the city of angels like a great open-air circus that is both grandiose and decadent.
One of the first shots of the film forces the viewer into the ungrateful point of view of Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young Mexican starting at the bottom of the ladder (an elephant defecates on him and, by the way, on the camera from the beginning of the film), but ready to fight. Damien Chazelle heavily displays his desire to demythologize Hollywood – and it does not matter, in a sense, that it is the 1920s, like the sometimes unscrupulous historicity of the film – and to bring it back to its materiality the more repulsive, at the antipodes of glamour, hence this openly subversive vision, but all in all not very stimulating.
LA is a party
Once on track, babylon will no longer emerge from this rambling march. In the wake of an unsubtle first scene, Chazelle unfolds his note of intention with a surreal and feverish sequence within a huge Dionysian party, in a mansion lost in the middle of the desert. The filmmaker’s once again twirling camera – reminiscent of the flights of La La Land – then, like a last-minute guest, makes her way between the bodies, for some disguised, for others naked and frolicking, soaked in alcohol and drugs of all kinds.
The “main” characters – Manny, who will become Jack Conrad’s assistant by chance (brad pitt), silent film star somewhere between Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks, and Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), reminiscent of Clara Bow, an up-and-coming actress from the slums of New Jersey – each arrive on their own in this insane banquet, magnetized by the energy that emanates from the place.
This chaotic opening of more than half an hour is a feat in itself – and well aware of it. Ditto for the sequence of the filming of films by the Kinoscope company in the middle of the Californian desert, with on one side Nellie shooting her first silent scene in a cardboard saloon, on the other a great medieval battle led by a crazy German director played by Spike Jonze (In the skin of John Malkovich, Her).
Dust flies, a strike breaks out, a camera breaks, an extra impales himself on a prop, the shooting turns into a nightmare – Nellie and Manny seize their chances – all to the disturbing rhythm of the Night on Bald Mountain of Mussorgsky. Unaware of the risks, the pioneers of this great spectacle struggle in sweat and blood.
The sound of silence
babylon will thus be punctuated by more or less successful scenes, nevertheless memorable. Coke-stuffed Margot Robbie taking on a rattlesnake with her bare hands. Margot Robbie, always, a furious force crossing the film like a meteor, playing, not without difficulty, her first talking movie scene in front of technicians at their wit’s end – assumed remake of a scene from Let’s sing in the rain (Stanley Donen, 1952), film whose babylon would be the dark side.
Or else Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), whose career is threatened by the arrival of talkies, confronted with his inevitable destiny as a star by Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a renowned journalist who looks like a clairvoyant. Margot Robbie again, in a grotesque cocktail scene barely worthy of Without filter (2022) by Ruben Ostlund. Or a gloomy sequence with Tobey Maguire (also producer of the project) in the bowels of Los Angeles, where gangsters and freaks cross paths.
However, here we touch on the main pitfall of the film: the scenes follow one another at full speed, but do not really communicate with each other, never form a body and remain disconnected from each other. Ideas are flowing, but sorely lacking in unity. We could go up babylon in every way that it wouldn’t change his understanding. Damien Chazelle, who would like to somehow reconcile the frenzy of wolf of wall street (2013) by Scorsese and the infernal rhythm of whiplash, confuses rhythm and speed and gives birth to a great whirlwind of ideas – certainly fruitful, in particular on the cataclysmic arrival of talkies – unevenly exploited and oddly arranged.
babylon doesn’t know which foot to dance on, despite his musical sense and the drum beating score (although endowed with a small touch of melancholy with the theme morriconesque by Nellie and Manny) by Justin Hurwitz, regular collaborator of Damien Chazelle. True signature of the film, this invigorating soundtrack would be almost the only real main character in the film, already carrying more vitality than the bland Manny, tossed from scene to scene with nothing to offer but a look of amazement, half-fascinated half-terrified in the face of upheaval of the industry, and whose belated romance with Nellie will painfully give a last impetus to the feature film. Of this overflow of characters, the one portrayed by Margot Robbie remains the most consistent, her flamboyant trajectory echoing in more ways than one Blonde hair by Andrew Dominik (Netflix).
Seeking to contravene his image of “good student”, Damien Chazelle saw himself for good opening the doors of the kingdom to, on paper, break it into a thousand pieces, reveal his internal brokenness and declare his flame to the accursed crushed artists by this dream factory in constant need of fuel. Only, the gesture is so visible that it quickly becomes harmless: its staging insists rather vainly on the irreverence of this so-called far west what Hollywood was like in the pre-Code era – the repercussions of the infamous Hays Code, which came into effect in 1934, are never featured in the film, Chazelle dwells almost exclusively on the consequences of the arrival of talkies – and fails to make people forget the beautiful form in which the film is wrapped.
Under his panoply of enfant terrible bringing down this Babylon of modern times like a house of cards, Chazelle will go so far as to end his feature film with a falsely non-conformist, too academic swagger, and ultimately discrediting his appearances great agitator.
babylon by Damien Chazelle, 3h08, With Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart. In theaters January 18, 2023.