Babylon is a testament to the magic of cinema. Not exactly because Damien Chazelle romanticizes the Golden Age of Hollywood by honoring its beauty, unpredictability, progress and its outstanding figures – actually, on the contrary. Chazelle’s epic works like that good old “love letter to cinema” precisely because of its stumbles. Nothing would test the strength of the seventh art more than a film like Babylon, full of excesses, excrement (yes, of all kinds), hateful characters and wobbly messages, and that still manages to be magical and undeniably stunning.
Part of this comes from the fact that, story-wise, Chazelle has no ambition to build more than a reimagining of Cantando na Chuva (a trap by definition), in which the focus is the transition from silent to talkies and the turmoil of the adjustment period for agents at all levels of Hollywood. Here, we follow a variety of stars and aspiring stars: the height of Jack Conrad’s (Brad Pitt) career, the rise of Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and the rise of Manny (Diego Calva), also permeated by the paths of the marginalized of society. industry, with glimpses into the lives of Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a Chinese cabaret singer, and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a black trumpeter who finds his way into film orchestras.
The possibilities with this array of characters are endless, but Chazelle finds it difficult to take her eyes off her main interest, cast in the same mold as the melancholy, perfectionist protagonists of her filmography, personified this time by Jack Conrad. It doesn’t matter that Diego Calva skillfully delivers the certainly more charismatic and complex figure, or that Sidney and Fay Zhu offer much more in terms of exploiting the industry. The filmmaker’s focus is Jack and Nellie – or Pitt and Margot – and the reason is simple: the stars known for their magnetism play idyllic and superficial figures, and Babilonia is not interested in deepening any of their characters. Even for that reason, it is worth saying, the portrayal of the “outsiders of Hollywood” ends up with a bitter taste, of someone who was included out of obligation after certain controversies in La La Land.
The reward is that the movement is part of a much greater desire to deliver a show, and that Babilonia, Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz, composer and frequent partner of the director, do very well. From the opening scene, which extends into an extravagant and orgiastic feast of Hollywood’s golden days, but mainly into a long sequence that explores the perrengues of a movie set, Babilonia’s production is irresistibly engaging, captured with visible passion by the alliance of Chazelle and her cinematographer, Linus Sandgren.
The idea is, basically, never to stop in one place, conveying the sense of chaos, anarchy and turmoil of a set of the time, emphasizing the danger and injustices of this scenario, but finally combining perrengue with the feeling of purpose and reward. And while Babylon tries to lend a certain sense of the absurd to it all, the film cannot avoid the classic self-congratulatory posture of these narratives. It’s a tortuous path, which frantically shakes the camera showing contempt for lives – to finally stop to breathe in the flight of a butterfly. It’s gorgeous to look at, funny, perfectly acted, and well wrapped up in Hurwitz’s harmonious disorder. Now whether this all makes sense or sits well is another story.
The fact is that Babilonia does not pay much attention to what he says, not least because his main thesis – that of the immortality of cinematographic value, that “the actor does not matter, but his work will live forever” – is all the time in conflict with the absurdities which Chazelle decides to put on canvas. The speech, spoken aloud by one of the best characters in the film, journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), still sounds cool in his day, when it was hard to visualize the lasting effect of cinematographic works. In addition to lavish self-importance, the idea itself contrasts with what Babilonia even ends up portraying: that all that was, in the end – and thankfully – absolutely accidental or transient.
Chazelle seems confused by everything he wants to say, what he wants to focus on and what message he wants to convey, especially when he sets out to vocalize his ideas. Babylon sounds like a nostalgic epic of a dangerous time, which, for not being able to sustain itself on its foundations, reaches out to the future in order to be able to explain itself. That’s why everything the director wants to say is much better portrayed in a completely cheesy montage about the magic of cinema, exposed in the final stretch of Babilonia. It’s weird and a little ridiculous, yes, but the audacity to end such an aesthetically cohesive film with a jumble of absurd imagery is admirable.
It is difficult not to appreciate, therefore, the ingenuity that Chazelle demonstrates in Babilonia, even though the 3 hours of the film express her complete technical maturity. It’s a little sweet, like a butterfly’s flight, if you decide to look over a movie that’s weird in its morality. In the end, he almost inadvertently proves his point, because few things can save a questionable film: Babylon, for its own good, has them all.