Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is not a movie that lacks moments of potential self-critique, from the firehouse-like spray of pachyderm shit that douses the characters in its first scene—a nod as much to the elephant-sized proportions of this $80 million period piece as to its scatological attitude—to a gut-churning atrocity-exhibition climax located, per one character’s unforgettable description, in “the asshole of Los Angeles.” You don’t write a line like that in a movie that imagines silent-era Hollywood as the ninth circle of hell if you don’t want critics to single it out as your rhetorical equivalent of “Rosebud.”
There is, however, a quieter exchange midway through Babylon that gets closer to the gooey, arrhythmic heart of Chazelle’s project. Sharing a cab on a rainy day in New York, newly minted starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and studio gofer Manny Torres (Diego Calva) have a gentle, mutually affectionate heart-to-heart. She’s in town to duck the paparazzi who’ve made her into America’s new it girl, a “wild child” known for her lascivious performing style. He’s there to scope out the preview of The Jazz Singer, a new “talking” picture that threatens to completely rewrite the industry rule book. What these two foundlings turned insiders end up talking about, though, is ice cream, and what they like to put on it. Nellie’s favorite topping is all of them—as good a metaphor as any for a nauseous, high-calorie sugar rush of a movie that not only wants to have its cake and eat it too, but also to puke it up, smear it around, and cram it in the viewer’s face.
“Make ’em laugh,” Donald O’Connor urged in Singin’ in the Rain, a movie that serves as Babylon’s conceptual and spiritual template, and it’s the essentially enigmatic, deeply subjective question of comedy—of whether or not something is funny, and why—that hangs over the proceedings like an old-timey anvil. There are scenes of raging, quasi-surrealist degradation here that Adam McKay would kill to direct, and bits so dour and pretentious and sentimental that they may even justify Oscar nominations. This wildly erratic, at times shockingly unpleasant concoction arrives just under the wire as the most surprising and potentially polarizing American movie of the year—a parable of artistic license and ends-justify-the-means ambition that’s as ethically inscrutable as Tár and as awash in alienation effects as Blonde, with an even deeper love-letter-to-the-movies subtext than Empire of Light or The Fabelmans. It even somehow boasts a direct connection to Avatar that, like a half dozen other tricks it has crammed up its sleeves, has to be seen to be believed.
Make no mistake: All of this discombobulation is very much on purpose, as if Chazelle—whose biggest hits, Whiplash and La La Land, were, in their way, crowd pleasers—were trying to recast himself as a black sheep in an industry that’s already embraced him as a precocious prodigy. A case can be made that Chazelle’s first movie, the charming, black-and-white hipster romance Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), is still his best; certainly, it’s the one in which his love of musicals and preoccupation with the balancing act between creativity and personal stability rings truest, with the best ratio of invention to self-indulgence. The bigger his movies got, though, the more they felt imbued with show-offy style and a bizarre masochism about art. Whiplash was basically Full Metal Jacket for jazz majors, minus Kubrick’s satirical (and political) subtext, while First Man sacrificed the exhilaration and uplift of other astronaut biopics for a sweaty, white-knuckled anxiety that stalled at the box office.
Well-made, conspicuously expensive, and emotionally remote, First Man was the sort of movie you make when you have an Oscar in your back pocket and you’re cashing in your chips. Babylon is something else entirely—like a guy who’s already all in tossing his watch, car keys, and wedding ring into the pot. Hollywood history is littered with titles whose directors had reason to fear that they might never work in this town again, but Babylon is on the short list of movies that seem almost deliberately designed as career killers. It is, on some level, an affront to its subject matter and its audience, yet the mix of exuberance, insolence, and white-hot melancholic guilt at its core makes it just as hard to hate as to love. Gold-plated, fur-lined, and spattered with precious bodily fluids of every kind, Chazelle’s film somehow aims high while also going low. It’s a hymn to its own filthy ambivalence.
The use of the Mexican-born Manny—a cipher with no obvious historical corollary in a narrative where fictional and real-life celebrities rub shoulders (and body parts)—is fascinating and telling. One of the principal criticisms of La La Land was of its weirdly deracinated view of Los Angeles, the way that the multicultural chorus singing and dancing their way through the traffic-jam-set opener “Another Day of Sun” more or less fell away in order to keep the focus on Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s lily-white strivers. The only major character of color was John Legend’s gregarious Top 40–oriented sellout; otherwise, Black people existed in the movie to implicitly authenticate Gosling’s love of jazz, whether by serving as backing musicians or smiling politely while he twirled them around at the end of a pier. Relitigating the racial politics of a six-year-old movie is nobody’s idea of a good time, but Chazelle seems determined to evoke the problematic aspects of his Oscar-winning triumph, whether as penance, confessional, or rationalization. Manny’s steady rise from below-the-line factotum and assistant to Brad Pitt’s vainglorious matinee idol, Jack Conrad, to hard-boiled studio executive provides the film with its strongest through line, and he’s just one of several characters meant to embody (and challenge) the erasure of nonwhite figures in romanticized accounts of Hollywood’s history. Others include Jovan Adepo’s ace Black trumpet player, Sidney Palmer, and Li Jun Li’s lesbian cabaret-singer-slash-intertitle-writer, Lady Fay Zhu, both of whom get plot arcs that testify to their artistic and cultural innovations—and unrealized star potential—while gesturing toward the larger factors in their marginalization.
The politically correct thrust of these subplots is theoretically meant to balance out—or at least provide ballast to—the bacchanalian madness of Babylon as a whole, which kicks off with a 30-minute pre-credit prologue set at an isolated, free-for-all orgy in the upper reaches of the Hollywood Hills. If Singin’ in the Rain is Babylon’s spirit guide, then Boogie Nights—and the big-dick aesthetic of Paul Thomas Anderson in general—is its how-to manual. The movie isn’t five minutes old before a scantily clad party guest ODs in a back room after urinating on a corpulent man’s face, her convulsions registered in glancing fashion in the midst of an endlessly whirling, look-ma-no-hands tracking shot. In fact, the swift, relentless virtuosity of the filmmaking is probably the only thing standing between Babylon and an NC-17 rating, since the nudity and debauchery get abstracted into one gigantic, writhing, fleshy blur. (If you played the opening sequence at half speed you’d have Eyes Wide Shut.)
It’s into this unhinged milieu that Robbie makes her entrance, cheerfully smashing her car into one of the mansion’s statues. Nellie is an uninvited but ultimately very welcome guest who’s barely made it past the front door before she’s knee-deep in cocaine, a substance that has the same basic effect on her as spinach did on Popeye. In synthesizing the look and attributes of various pre-code stars, including the notoriously hard-living Clara Bow, Robbie has the showiest role in Babylon and makes the most of it, oscillating between feral, strung-out exhibitionism, crackerjack physical comedy, and endearing rag-doll fragility without breaking a sweat. Her triumph comes not so much in spite of her character’s archetypal dimensions as through them; when she reveals that her ability to cry on command—a priceless asset in the silent era, with its vocabulary of rapturous, wordless close-ups—is as simple as thinking about her miserable backwater home, it’s a laughably simplistic bit of character psychology given bravura shading. Like Emma Stone in La La Land, Robbie is basically playing ambition personified, except that she’s obliged to go to darker and more daring places along the way. By the time a wasted, half-naked Nellie is taunting a roomful of alpha-male admirers to fight a cobra on her behalf—and resolving that she’s going to have to do it herself—the only reasonable response to the performance is a kind of stunned admiration.
Nellie’s indomitable spirit and tarnished-angel innocence are irresistible to Manny, who’s otherwise pragmatic about an industry whose many illusions fail to fool him. For instance, he’s sympathetic to Pitt’s fading superstar but he also sees right through him. (Pitt’s acting here verges on laziness; Jack’s rumpled, deflated handsomeness is just right, but he lacks the self-deprecating specificity of Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.) It’s Manny who recognizes the paradigm-shifting potential of The Jazz Singer, and who labors to keep his own studio on the cutting edge, a process that’s depicted in line with Chazelle’s usual themes of art as a form of self-annihilation. Except that this time out, instead of psychological torture à la Whiplash, we actually get filmmaking as a matter of life and death—over and over again. In one bravura set piece synced to a ticking-clock conceit, Jack’s crew (which includes a Germanic director played in a perfect cameo by [redacted]) needs to get a shot before the end of Magic Hour; over the course of one afternoon, the production of a biblical epic devolves into clumsy, life-threatening slapstick, with underpaid extras corralled at the barrel of a gun and one unfortunate day player impaled by a spear. Cut to a few years later and the production of an innocuous talkie comedy set on a college campus results in another on-set casualty—the morbid, inevitable punch line to a breathlessly acted and edited set piece that takes the behind-the-scenes confusion of Lina Lamont’s squawky dialogue recording in Singin’ in the Rain and weaponizes it.
To say that the historical veracity of these scenes—and their suggestion of Old Hollywood as a sort of haphazard abattoir populated by lunatics—is up for debate is an understatement. There’s evidence here of deep research, but also of a filmmaker who isn’t all that interested in how early production actually worked—not when it’s more effective to cultivate total chaos. But even if one accepts the manic stylization of the filmmaking scenes in Babylon, it’s genuinely hard to tell how the movie feels about the period—whether the overarching attitude is one of nostalgia or horror. This ambivalence is, in and of itself, a point of interest, since most movies made at Babylon’s budget level are afraid to put any onus of interpretation on the audience. But it’s also risky. Viewers in search of tonal or ideological coherence—or who know anything about the period being depicted—are likely to be frustrated, or even outraged. In Time, Stephanie Zacharek, who has often written passionately and perceptively about the cinema of the early 20th century, unloaded on Chazelle for his callow, opportunistic treatment of the past, writing that “he treats people of this lost era like primitive creatures who just didn’t know any better. He’s not capturing the past; he’s only condescending to it.”
I actually found Babylon less condescending than La La Land, which, to borrow a withering phrase from Film Comment’s Michael Koresky, seemed to be trying to Make Movies Great Again—to escape into an idealized past without actually turning back the clock. Babylon’s return to the primal scene is about something more unsettling and complicated: the idea that mass entertainment depends on smoothing out—and often denying—the contradictions that go into its creation. On the one hand, Chazelle’s array of characters and their various frustrations verges on caricature: the hard-working immigrant bedazzled (and derailed) by a hapless blond; the ingenue hypnotized by her own charisma; the old hand staring down his own personal and professional obsolescence. At the same time, Babylon is clear-eyed about the blurry relationship between supply and demand that has always been at the center of the movie business: that the utopian fantasies on the screen exist in an impossible space between the flawed and all too human constituencies that both build and receive them.
Late in the film, in yet another moment that feels engineered to give critics something to chew over, a Hollywood gossip columnist played by Jean Smart delivers a monologue to Pitt’s character about the strange immortality conferred by motion pictures. She tells him that long after he’s dead, his image will serve to comfort, inspire, and entertain. Posterity is obviously important to Chazelle, and it may be that he’s made Babylon in kamikaze mode because he suspects it’s one way to keep it from being forgotten in the long run—that the same manic, unsettling intensity that will likely make it a flop in real time could help to sustain it as a cult item. But there’s also a deeper anxiety in play here. In a moment when the earth dies streaming and everything from Marvel to micro-budget indies is distributed and received as content, what Chazelle may be sweating is the death of cinema itself—a perspective that recontextualizes the film’s bonkers closing montage of the medium’s greatest hits not as a celebration, but a long goodbye. If that’s the case, then one way to look at Babylon is as a wake—loud and cathartic, raucous and bleary-eyed, embarrassing and heartfelt. But another would be as the cinematic equivalent of Tim Robinson wearing that hot dog suit in I Think You Should Leave, finding culprits for an art form’s untimely demise by looking everywhere except in the mirror.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.