Damien Chazelle’s latest film has been called many things: grotesque, overlong, indulgent. But there’s a difference between an indulgent film and a film about indulgence. BABYLON, set in 1920s Hollywood, opens hard with graphic bodily functions, and though those burners never fully extinguish, it’s the hardest the film goes for some time. A deliberate message: this is what you’re in for—run now if you can’t take it. And it would seem many critics can’t.
Chazelle has been a favourite of mine since WHIPLASH, followed by the masterful LA LA LAND and the tepid FIRST MAN. This latest venture, which almost feels like a dramatic retelling of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, is another showcase of his talent. For a film about indulgence running over three hours, the chaos never ceases. And viewers accustomed to this director’s work should not be surprised at this frantic, drugged up, burning-too-brightly mess. He has always favoured frenetic camerawork and quick cuts. He has always paced in a manner that tries to keep up with composer Justin Hurwitz’s musical kineticism. The man is talented—we’ll just have to admit it—and sometimes talented directors with focus and vision get a little mobbed when that vision isn’t ticking tightly like a handmade pocket watch.
Because that is the point of BABYLON: the mess. The chaos. The upending and consistent surprises. Even if we wanted to roll our eyes at Chazelle’s directorial effort here (and, to be clear, I absolutely do not), it’s still a screenplay loaded with fascinating and funny vignettes. The first thirty minutes is unabashed partying—the pinnacle of excess—and the risk becomes a real thought in the audience’s head: when we have to leave this and get on with our story, is this going to remain so engrossing? The extended opener gives way to our main characters (Margot Robbie and Diego Calva) learning the filmmaking trade on separate on location sets. This dual sequence tops its predecessor; expertly cut, always interesting, always investing in rising tension, always trying to entertain. It might run longer that the opening party and yet I could’ve watched it for twice as long. And BABYLON carries on in this fashion. As sound revolutionizes the motion pictures business, we’re treated to another vignette of Robbie and her film crew slowly descending into madness over the complications brought on by the advent of live sound recording. Later, a party devolves into an ill-advised snake fight. Further on, Tobey Maguire makes us squirm with his bizarre speech patterns and yellow smile. It’s a film for an audience, if that makes sense. It’s a film destined to fulfill the destiny of all films: to entertain in as many ways as possible. I laughed, I gasped. I haven’t come so close to throwing up at a film since the opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Some may get angry that a film can make them queasy. Some may not consider that entertainment. And I’ll agree to a point: I don’t go searching for gross-out media to get my kicks. But doesn’t it say something that a film can make us feel so viscerally? Doesn’t that speak to Chazelle’s subtext—that film, as an art and a medium, is so uniquely powerful?
Subtext becomes the film’s biggest misstep. Without spoiling anything, the denouement takes an already elephant-sized message and balloons it to tasteless proportions. BABYLON’s ending may go down as the worst of the year. It undercuts everything that comes before it and yanks the film into YouTube tribute territory. Chazelle didn’t need to beat us over the head with his themes like he does. It’s already clear what his influences are. It’s already obvious that the film is a love letter to cinema. And the film could’ve rested on a mediocre ending—a neat bow on a tale well told—while still holding a satisfying mirror to modern Hollywood, which is undergoing another seismic reckoning, the fallout of which we’ve yet to see. Ironic that BABYLON has officially flopped. That probably sends Chazelle’s message better than any ending he could’ve devised.
Overall, though, BABYLON deserves your attention. There is too much to admire on display to discount its misgivings. From the direction and writing to the brilliant score to Robbie’s Oscar-worthy turn, it’s a whirlwind of talent.
BABYLON is now playing in theatres.