Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon”: A Review
After two critically acclaimed films winning mainstream attention, Damian Chazelle is back with a depiction of the 1920s film industry in Babylon (2022). It’s three hours, intentionally obscene, and already being panned by critics. Many are noting its self-awareness as a Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie, inviting its cast and audience to go along for the ride. It’s an inside joke being shared with a new generation of critics that is increasingly aware of the industry’s shortcomings, scandals and artistic decline. But Chazelle does not fully condemn the chaotic atmosphere. He finds a romantic side to it that coincides with its decadent counterpart. Babylon shows the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Babylon is also about showing people the beginning of American cinema. If viewers are expecting a golden age of innocence to predate contemporary decline, the movie will disappoint: Chazelle shows that moral corruption was present from the beginning. Before the birth of the sound film, entertainers were already indulging in a blatant disregard for social norms behind the scenes.
In this, there’s another perspective that can resonate with dissidents trying to find something salvageable in the halcyon past of American cultural greatness. As the roaring twenties accelerate on screen, viewers see the development of the hedonism that came to define the 20th century and the role of the media in normalizing a new American culture. The implication is that entertainment can’t reach a point of cultural saturation without subverting moral standards.
From the first twenty minutes of Babylon, the decadence of the era is housed in an elaborate mansion belonging to a studio executive. This is also where the lives of the main characters intersect. Manuel “Manny” Torre (Diego Calva) is the newcomer with stars in his eyes, but enough self-control to gaze at the chaos rather than join it. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) has too much of the former, and none of the latter. She’s not alarmed by the changing times, but sees it as an opportunity to advance her career. Meanwhile, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a relic of a simpler culture, struggling to keep up with the fast-changing industry, both personally and professionally.
Chazelle gave the critics what they wanted with La La Land (2016). This year, it was time for more honesty and telling the story unfiltered. After holding back and winning an Academy Award, Babylon provides the same intimate look as Maylin Monroe’s biopic Blonde (2022). Hollywood loses its fairy tale portrayal and opens up the genre to criticism while exposing its darkness.
Manny is the closest thing to a moral center in the film. An Edward James Olmos-type who also serves as a stand-in for the new demographic today sweeping the nation, his position as a spectator leaves him with little temptation and enough discipline to survive the chaos. Nellie is the polar opposite. Her appetite can’t be satisfied and her empathy is non-existent.
When she’s recruited to replace an overdosed actress, she feels euphoric. The consequences are inevitable, but she’s not interested in seeing them. The repetitive requirements for the job are cartoonishly frustrating. The process is grueling, and there’s a lack of sincerity in the on-and-off staged performance. But these are the sacrifices that she makes to realize her dream. Her reward? An excess of attention and money that leads to her demise. But these are the fun times for her, and the warnings from Manny are ignored.
Nellie wows the crowd. The men salivate as her provocative dancing dominates the screen. Taking all the abuse and crying on-demand without asking – what a dazzling actress, and with so much charisma! But real life keeps seeping through the cracks. Her mother needs psychological help, and traumatic memories of home are used to squeeze emotion into her performance. This is already pathetic and she hasn’t even started.
Whether it’s the performers themselves or the audience who pays for the pleasure, they’re all participating in the spectacle. Carl Schmitt described a similar situation emerging in Weimar Germany. Despite the innovation of the state, there are existential threats that eventually jeopardize the historically conservative nation. Chazelle shows these conditions happening in the 20s: a free-for-all which devours its own.
Perhaps the most memorable moment is the underground scene beneath the Hollywood Hills. James McKay (Tobey Maguire) represents the darkest corner of the city. He’s creepy, childlike, and eager to share the secret hobbies hidden beneath the surface. Manny finds himself being led below the street, and what awaits is a nightmare. Men gather to watch rats being eaten by a bodybuilder while avoiding the alligator that dwells within the cave. Manny is disgusted and storms out, chased by the dregs of society. It’s a narrow escape he will never forget.
A journalist (Jean Smart) reinforces the self-destructive environment by betraying its stars. When a career-defining review leaves Jack in limbo, there’s no kindness. It’s all just business. Hollywood perpetuates itself and all moral matters are secondary. Faced with the end of his professional life, he commits suicide and the industry goes on. These casualties are not mourned directly, instead they flash by as people wither away by killing themselves. A small blip in the paper, now let’s get back to the action.
Manny escapes the hedonistic climate, with his family intact, as all the bad times are settled. The ruling class has embarrassed itself and he remains the only one left. As he walks down the street, Chazelle indulges in filmmaking as an art form. Manny is brought to tears seeing Singin’ In The Rain and a montage overwhelms the audience. Not only are the classics included, but other milestones like The Matrix and Avatar are celebrated as accomplishments in the industry. It leaves viewers with an ominous question: Is this the best that the 20th-century culture produced? All the time and effort that created spectacular blockbusters to the forefront created a decadent culture alongside it. Was it really worth it?
Many dissidents are ready to critique the decline that became clear in California by the 90s. Crime was visible, and the population could not be more different. However, multiculturalism was not the cause of modern demoralization. Yet, few will search for the root of cultural decay, and even give it a pass so long as white people do it themselves. Chazelle’s Babylon erases that doubt and proves that debauchery in any form is suicidal.