Babylon is a test of whether or not a film can be the sum of its gorgeous pieces. A great score, a talented ensemble, and expert cinematography—all are undeniable here. And yet there are narrative elements of Babylon that feel hollow from the very beginning …
Babylon clocks in at over three hours running time. I saw it a plush movie theatre and many of those in the audience took brief refreshment breaks. Snacking was definitely a high priority with the emphasis on virtuous ingredients. All washed down with strong ethical coffee to firm up one’s attention span.
However despite it being a Sunday morning, some of us took our nutrients in the form of champagne. This may have been a wise move in order to take the edge off an incredibly loud film both sound wise and visually.
Babylon was directed by Damien Chazelle who made La La Land in 2016 starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. The two films couldn’t be more different.
Whereas La La Land was an American romantic musical, Babylon is ostensibly about the transition between silent films and what was known as talkies – films with sound. And the talent either made the transition or they were finished.
There are some terrific actors in Babylon. Diego Calva appears as Manny Torres a Mexican fixer and dogsbody who rises rapidly to become a studio executive. Jovan Adepo is a fabulous African-American trumpeter who has to deal with bigotry and overt racism. And Li Jun Li appears as lesbian cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu. Stylishly elegant and louche, the singer has astonishing survival skills that are revealed in a bizarre scene involving a dessert rattlesnake.
Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, a charming leading man with a taste for serial marriages – none of which are successful. Conrad is a classy booze hound who has the capacity to get crapulous but still bounce back the morning after and appear on set. Looking like a handsome Brad Pitt with a thin black moustache.
Conrad’s trajectory is both comedic and tragic and provides relief from the excess of depravity and grotesque episodes of debasement. I felt that there were too many orgy scenes. The orgies became tedious as they didn’t drive the story forward. And frequently what was supposed to be humour was simply a grim, depressing or distressing event.
I got the distinct impression the director was quite determined to shock and impress. Chazelle also seems to owe a considerable debt to Frederico Fellini’s film, Fellini’s Satyricon.
Fellini’s movie was based on an adaptation of Gaius Petronius’s satire created during the reign of Nero. It was described by one critic as ‘An episodic barrage of sexual licentiousness, godless violence, and eye-catching grotesquerie. Much the same could be said of Babylon.
Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon also appears to have inspired the film Babylon. The book detailed the alleged transgressive behavior of famous Hollywood actors and actresses in the period 1900s-1950s. Anger was a former child actor who became an underground filmmaker. His book evolved into a cult classic but many of the supposed ‘scandals’ have since been disputed or debunked.
I was disappointed in the film Babylon. It has a wealth of acting talent and an estimated budget of approximately $110 million but it was insubstantial in execution. Some critics have raved but others described it as being akin to a disaster.
As Leah Greenblatt wrote of Director Damien Chazelle –
… And he has at his disposal things that underground figures like Anger never did: a pile of money and movie stars, plus the high-gloss veneer of prestige filmmaking. It’s still three turgid, clattering hours of nudity, depravity, and mislaid alligators, but also, you know, art.
Image: Bratt Pitt in character as Jack Conrad in Babylon (2022)