For a lavish and expensive epic about 1920s Hollywood, Damien Chazelle’s new film, Babylon, introduces itself about as scatologically as possible. In its first sequence, a harried gofer named Manny Torres (played by Diego Calva) tries to transport an elephant into the Hollywood Hills for a big-shot producer’s party, a farcical task that ends with the elephant pooping on the camera lens—in a way, on the viewers themselves. We then cut to a giggling movie star getting urinated on as part of some private sexcapade while the party ensues on the floors below—a sweaty, drug-fueled orgy that Chazelle presents in a bravura unbroken take.
The scene, filled with wondrous and horrifying sights, massively overstays its welcome. And that sets the tone perfectly for Chazelle’s ensuing poison-pen letter to Hollywood’s silent era, a three-hour-plus extravaganza of debauchery, general misery, and overflowing movie magic that sets the industry aflame and invites the audience to dance around the bonfire. It’s a daring thing for a major studio to put out these days, when big budgets tend to be lavished on superheroes, and Babylon’s caustic indulgence will likely put many theatergoers off. But Chazelle is trying to make a point with all the excess: that the joy of cinema has always gone hand in hand with exploitation, abuse, and off-screen villainy.
On its face, Babylon would seem to be the flip-side narrative to La La Land, the director’s Oscar-winning musical about filmmaking, which took a much gauzier approach. In it, people sang winsome ballads saluting “the fools who dream,” and stardom was granted to those who strived hard enough for it, though it came at the cost of love. But La La Land was a film with a bittersweet edge; Chazelle seemed to be critiquing his own nostalgia while still letting it play out on-screen to delight viewers. In Babylon, his affection for the fame-seeking business he works in has only curdled further, but his passion for film as a medium hasn’t diminished in the slightest. The subsequent raging contrast between these two notions is fascinating to watch.
A huge ensemble piece, Babylon focuses on three main characters. There’s Manny, a Mexican American assistant who rises through the ranks of a fictional studio to become a film executive right as movies begin their transition to “talkies.” At the frenzied party in the film’s opening act, he meets two actors: Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a newcomer looking to break into the biz, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an established superstar who can’t get out of bed before downing a few cocktails. Babylon follows each person’s rise and fall as their arcs intertwine and come apart, but it also delves into other tales of an industry stumbling toward a veneer of respectability during one of its most volatile eras.
Hollywood in the 1920s was, Chazelle insistently tells us, absolutely anarchic. Bankrolled by shady figures, filmmakers were still inventing basic storytelling concepts on the fly, and codes for on-screen decency and morality were a few years off. At one point, Chazelle virtuosically shoots a series of gigantic film productions all taking place simultaneously in the same California hills, a conceit that was feasible when movies didn’t have to worry about capturing sound. While one director wrangles thousands of extras for a colossal medieval-combat scene (somewhat reminiscent of the famed 1916 epic Intolerance), other productions play out on intimate sets that have been knocked together. Chazelle’s camera roams from location to location, drinking in the wild glory of it all.
It might be the best sequence Chazelle has ever put together, and he’s staged quite a few dazzling set pieces in his short career. He wants the viewer to consider the sheer audacity of early moviemaking, particularly delighting in the contrast between the immense battle being orchestrated for one movie and an emotional barroom scene being produced for another, in which Nellie, a last-minute replacement, proves herself the saucy new star the studio’s been looking for. By the time the sequence ended, I was ready to proclaim Babylon a masterpiece, except that the film wasn’t even halfway done.
What follows is a dizzying series of concentric spirals for the ensemble that start feeling almost nauseating. Nellie’s initial triumphant success begins to falter because of her scandalous off-screen behavior; Jack’s image begins to fade with age, alcoholism, and changing trends; Manny’s desire to rise to the top compels him to make a set of morally compromising decisions. There are other characters with narratives rooted in film history that are equally fascinating, though they sadly get shorter shrift in Chazelle’s screenplay. Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu, a cabaret singer and an actress with a gift for painting silent-film title cards, and Jovan Adepo plays a trumpeter named Sidney Palmer who briefly enjoys fame during the early years of films with sound.
Almost all of these figures have historical analogues, with many of them blending classic bits of Hollywood lore—Nellie is obviously inspired by the flapper queen Clara Bow, Jack is the tragic silent star John Gilbert, Fay Zhu is much indebted to Anna May Wong, and so on. But Chazelle turns up the volume with each portrayal, mixing fact and fiction and giving his dialogue more contemporary snap and crackle to underline the ways the industry hasn’t changed after almost 100 years. Although I was moved and agitated by the cavalcades of failure Babylon depicts, the film almost deliberately becomes a drag, wringing out every last golden drop of nostalgia until everyone, on-screen and off, is miserable and exhausted.
But before ushering ticket buyers out the door, Chazelle presents a coda that is so absurd and daring, so simultaneously cornball and avant-garde, that I wasn’t sure whether to doff my cap or throw fruit at the screen. I shan’t describe it entirely, but it includes a montage that exists to underscore Chazelle’s core message about the world he’s working in. Yes, he seems to be saying, Hollywood is a fetid pit of exploitation that has sucked many souls dry over the decades, but it is all in service of the best entertainment money can buy. I’m not sure if I agree or if I was simply beaten into submission after more than three hours, but Babylon is the kind of grandiose folly that at least gives the viewer a big old mess to chew on.