Since its inception, cinema has looked inward. At the very celluloid it consists of and the varying forms that shepherd it onto the silver screen, making it come to life and ultimately stand the test of time. Besides taking audiences to new, extraordinary worlds with enveloping fervour, the medium has also seen its fair share of experiences that explore what makes it so magical in the first place, gleaning fascinating insights into the filmmaking process and what its torturous hold on the mind means for the auteurs who unflinchingly dedicate their lives to it.
From Fellini’s canonical 8½ to this year’s nostalgic, indelibly warm The Fabelmans, the cinematic form has long been feverishly obsessed with itself. Yet, with so much interminable adulation directed at “The Power of Cinema,” pretension and condescension are sure to follow. Many cinematic odes miss the mark entirely, becoming nothing more than misbegotten vanity projects, so out of touch with what renders the filmgoing experience so special. Look no further than Sam Mendes’ tonally confused and eye-roll-inducing Empire of Light.
At over three hours long, it’s not hard to conceive that Damien Chazelle’s Babylon will be another excruciatingly pompous and vain attempt at milking what’s left within the bosom of this heralded subgenre. Moreover, Chazelle is no stranger to showcasing his love of the industry and the opulent nature of the cutthroat city that houses it, with La La Land’s extravagant onslaught of musical numbers jubilantly and poignantly capturing it. If anything, Babylon seems like territory Chazelle has already well traversed, and a 180-minute retread is the last thing audiences are yearning for.
Yet, Chazelle gloriously drops the polish for texture. Encasing this love letter to filmdom within the frame of a debauched epic that transfixes, repulses, and delights in equal measure, employing every element of the medium to a rapturous effect. Akin to an inviting labyrinth, we not only become bewitched by its immediate interconnected story about multiple people forever changed by the “land where dreams are made”, but also its broader, evocative, and all-encompassing treatise on the immortality of cinema.
Babylon unfolds, not as a typical three-act structure, but as a string of interlinked sequences and vignettes, all focusing on different characters (or sometimes all of them at once in a dizzying fashion) who revel in the decadence of the silent age and then navigate the feigned moralities of the sound era. This transition to the “Talkie” brings with it abundant possibilities but also a reckoning with the opulent status quo, seizing everything other than those fleeting moments committed to celluloid. Chazelle captures this cinematic truth with pure bravura, realizing it so skillfully and inventively it becomes utterly impossible to look away, even when it veers into the depths of depravity.
Although numerous films have explored the shift to sound, most notably Singin’ in the Rain (which is movingly referenced in the film’s unforgettable finale), never has the concept been engulfed by such a technical maelstrom. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography regularly taps into an electric vein, accompanied by Justin Hurwitz’s booming, infectious score, his insultingly impressive camerawork overwhelms the senses, injecting a kaleidoscopic quality to this monochromatic age. Though unmistakably messy, the opulent filth is too alluring, transforming any negative descriptors into merits of honour. Fuelled by pure bombast, the film equally excels in its use of silence, imbuing its quieter moments with the same emotive force.
The opening prologue alone is an epic in miniature, traversing a party for the ages and magnificently introducing its eclectic, memorable band of characters. Diego Calva, in his first major Hollywood feature, wholly impresses as a recent Mexican immigrant who traverses the studio hierarchy, both breaking and painfully adhering to social norms. Brad Pitt commands the screen as Jack Conrad, a silent movie star, whose lavish, wild, and drunken persona catches up to him when he fails to adapt to these epochal times.
It’s impossible to not be smitten by Pitt’s innate charisma, serving as the connective tissue between each arc, he thematically underpins the film’s look at the fractured foundation on which stardom is made. Pitt reaches surprising levels of melancholy as his character comes to terms with his legacy as an ephemeral imprint in films that will surely be lost to time.
However, it’s Margot Robbie who captures the viewer’s gaze. Her raw vulnerability transcends the screen, making the word “spellbinding” an unfit signifier. She impresses most in one of the single greatest scenes of the year, capturing, in agonizing detail, the true adversities of what it was like to first film with sound. Both gut-busting hilarious, yet frantically intense, no single scene this year traverses the emotional spectrum with such dynamism.
Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li round out the cast with skill and poignancy, manifesting as minorities who are manipulated into charming a majority that will quickly disregard them for the next exotic fad. While boisterous cameos from Tobey Maguire and Spike Jonze never fail to inject vigour and vibrancy into the degeneracy on display.
Chazelle and company bring together an extensive cast that perfectly captures the wide array of damaged, broken, and exploited people who create the very films that make us whole.
While Babylon’s mammoth runtime repeats some of the same beats, the goosebump factory of a finale more than makes up for it. Transcending the bounds of the very film stock it was captured on, it collapses onto itself, unearthing a mesmerizing, phantasmagoric tribute to the deathlessness of the cinematic form, forcing each fixated eye to be dilated beyond measure.
All-embracing, all-consuming, and yet wholly intimate, Chazelle’s masterful epic is not only an ode to where film came from but where it will further journey to continue capturing our hearts, minds, and souls. When it’s all said and done, after the worst of life has all but exhausted us, Babylon proves we still have the movies to look forward to.
– Prabhjot Bains