I was curious about Babylon. So many reviews utterly panned it. Said it was confused, shouty, simplistic and, most damningly, not as good as the films it referenced.
Twenty minutes in, I was hooked and in that mindstate which is a bit like the stares. If I’d been at the cinema, I would have been shovelling popcorn into my mouth whilst my gaze was glued to the screen.
Yes, as critics have said, you could accuse it of being a re-telling of Singin’ In The Rain but it’s actually more like Nickelodeon. With added full-frontal nudity and elephant pooh. Like every film made about cinema, there are bits of it that are self-indulgent and perhaps over-egg the pudding on how important cinema is culturally but that’s to be expected. At this level, you’re not making films unless you have a deep love of film itself, as Chazelle obviously does.
I disagree with critics who say there is no story, only bluster. There are three intertwining main characters with their own arcs but they’re carried by many sub-stories and smaller characters who all add up to create a sense of the contingent madness of early Hollywood. Where lesser films would have a narrator explain the expensive bits, Chazelle throws all the orgies and murders, malpractice and misdemeanours on screen. This is show, not tell and I appreciate that.
The three central actors, Robbie, Calva and Pitt give absolutely magnificent performances. Diego Calva has the very slightly easier job here as Pitt and Robbie have to act acting which I think is like asking someone to fake a fake laugh. That’s not taking away from Calva, he’s wonderful in his portrayal of how much love can both build and destroy you. Calva joins the dots so that when his character ends up in the most bizarre scenarios, the motor of his love explains it and we nod along sagely as if it makes sense. Who hasn’t ended up in a dungeon at 4am watching a massive man eat a live rat? Yup, yup, we’ve all been there.
A very envious, very fat-kid part of me will always go UNFAIR when I see Brad Pitt on screen. He’s so handsome that I want him to be a shit actor but the reality is that he was great when he was a kid and every year he gets better. Yeah, it’s annoying, isn’t it? Some of the lines he has to say must have meant things to him in his actual life and Chazelle clearly relishes the meta-narrative this creates and the extra layers of pathos that brings. There were at least three times in this film that Pitt brought me to actual tears. One of those, the melonfarmer wasn’t even saying anything, it was just a static shot of his face and the thoughts we could see going through his mind. How does that even work? I hate him.
Margot Robbie has to cover a frankly ridiculous amount of ground from sobbing, childlike pain to full coke maniac fuck-the-world-ness. This is a character not so much raw as flensed by life and she is achingly well aware that she doesn’t even have skin to protect her from the cruel eyes of the world. Her portrayal of someone simultaneously broken and brave is perfect, she doesn’t falter on either the big notes or the small, quiet spaces. I don’t know how she coped with filming this, I hope she had a month off in a sensory deprivation tank afterwards.
I’m apparently alone in thinking the film was okay in length. I didn’t find myself becoming bored or thinking that a scene was filler. Could it be shorter? Certainly but then I feel you would lose some of the world-building. All that stuff is crammed in there to flesh out the perspective Chazelle is creating. And it works. This film, with its actually disturbing Roaring Twenties and its frantic careening from one sensory assault to the next is the film Luhrman’s Great Gatsby wanted to be. That film seems positively polite now, compared to Babylon.
I do have criticisms. I wish we could have seen more of the Sidney Palmer and Lady Fay Zhu characters. But that would have shifted it to more of an ensemble feel than a main story plus subs, that would have been an entirely different film. Nevertheless, it says something that Chazelle, with actors Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li, created stories that could each be their own feature film. This richness is why I love Babylon.
If there was one thing I would change about Babylon it’s that I would replace the period-accurate music with contemporary pop covers. That may sound like madness but I think one of the main reasons people hate on Babylon is that it’s overhyped, oversaturated, overheated. It’s a trip.
This is on purpose. It’s not a documentary.
Without spoilers, if he was going for trad realism, would Chazelle really have included the homage collage at the end? No. Chazelle is telling us a story about stories, he’s telling us a story about cinema and about a time, one hundred years ago, that was different to now but also exactly the same.
So, if he’d used modern songs, that might have been enough to signal to people, ‘Hey, this is not trying to be some historically accurate re-telling, this isn’t a PBS special. It’s a wild film about the wild days of film.’
I loved Babylon. I laughed, I cried, I ate things absentmindedly because I was so gripped by the images flickering in front of me. It made me think things I’d never thought of before and it also helped me forget my own life for a few hours.
What else do you want cinema to do?