Saturday, 21 January 2023

Film Review: Babylon

 

Damien Chazelle swings for the fences and then some, in his fourth feature film Babylon.

By now, you've already seen the headlines – Babylon is a box-office bomb, one of the biggest of the last 12 months. The combined clout and charisma of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie seemingly not enough to save this three-hour behemoth from draw a crowd. 

Which is a crying shame, because it's one of America's most exciting young filmmakers just going hell for leather, crafting a movie not just about making a movie, but humankind's entire oeuvre of movies. It's ambitious and audacious one second, depraved and disgusting the next – a truly staggering slice of cinema that moment to moment dares to offend, enthral and enchant.  

The film opens in 1926 Los Angeles, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, when Tinseltown was soaring off the back of silent pictures. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) blags his way into a debaucherous drug-fuelled party at a Hollywood executive's sprawling mansion, where he meets aspiring starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Bonding over a mountain of cocaine and a shared passion for the silver screen, the story follows Manny and Nellie as they are catapulted into the business, Nellie as an actress and Manny as a hotshot producer. 


In classic 'Hollywood story' fashion, Babylon is a soaring 'rise and fall' tale; where our young and wide-eyed dreamers, in trying to grab hold of everything they've ever wanted, fly too close to the sun and burn off their wings. 

Margot Robbie is unsurprisingly the star of the show; both figuratively, in that her character's star shines brightest, and literally, in that she's the film's MVP. Nellie is like nothing Robbie has played before; she's talented and terrific at what she does, but also really scrappy, slutty and a bit of a shit person to everyone around her. 

She's someone who looks up at the cinema screen and sees opportunity, and soon find showbiz can be a shortcut to indulgence and impulse. Robbie threads that needle perfectly, and this performance should rank up there with her best, alongside Wolf of Wall Street, I Tonya and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Chazelle has always had a penchant for crafting standout scenes or set pieces; the Someone In The Crowd sequence from La La Land or the finale from Whiplash. Babylon continues this proud tradition over and over, with five or six scenes that all-timers. The aforementioned party which forms the first 40 minutes or so is terrific, just wall-to-wall drugs, dancing, booze and bodily fluids.


Later on, after our lead duo are catapulted onto movies sets, Chazelle splices together two standout scenes; one where Nellie immediately impresses on her acting debut, outshining her costar (Samara Weaving), and another where Manny must chase after ageing star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) as he shoots a big-budget historical picture. 

At the film's midpoint, after we jump forward a year or two to the advent of 'talkies', we're treated to another brilliant set piece where Nellie and a film crew are struggling to adapt to the use of sound. Over and over again, they fail to complete a simple shot – with the funniness and frustration building with each take. There's even a sequence towards the end, featuring a surprise cameo from Tobey Maguire, that could have been pulled from a horror film. Chazelle is just mixing all sorts of ingredients together here, into a strange and sordid soup.

Chazelle is once again working with DP Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz; the latter's score is full of jazzy brass befitting of the era, as well as one or two cues from La La Land, perhaps? Maybe it was my ear playing tricks on me, but I think I twigged a couple of recognisable riffs from City of Stars in Babylon, particularly in the quieter, more pensive moments. 

Some audiences will struggle is not just the length of this film (it clocks in at three hours, nine minutes), and others will struggle with its lewd language and crude characters. That's fine, this isn't for everyone – that much is evident from the opening scene, where an elephant shits on Diego Calva's head. 

But Chazelle is likely looking to provoke a reaction; whether it's befuddlement, queasiness or laughter. Come the end, he's risen above all the stickiness to swing for something more profound; amidst all the sex and the coke, Chazelle is once again proclaiming his love for the cinematic form, in spite of its shortcomings, and in spite of the ways in which it can hurt those in its orbit. Whether or not it sticks the landing for you, probably comes down to whether or not you stayed until the final scene. 

The Verdict: 9/10


Likely to be overlooked by the Academy on top of audiences, my hope is that Babylon finds its audience in the years and decades to follow. Right now, however, it's one of the biggest and boldest original films we've seen in a long time.

Babylon is in cinemas across Australia now.

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