The Manic-Depressive Thrills of ‘Babylon’

In Damien Chazelle’s newest film, the altar of Hollywood crumbles under the weight of its own spectacle

BY Carlos Valladares in Film , Opinion | 23 FEB 23

I feel sorry for Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022), a film of the future like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021), Joy (2015), The Novelist’s Film (2022) and everything Kevin Jerome Everson has made. Babylon is a Trojan horse of negation in today’s crumbling Hollywood, embodying everything those other works position themselves against: an unruly synthesis of Hollywood pop and avant-garde, in which a mass-inclined digital image revels in its own inadequacy. Beauty exists, but you won’t sense it here, says Babylon. It’s a misshapen, erratic, reviled, multi-faceted, overly earnest monstrosity, painfully and nervously self-aware of the gap between an emotion as experienced in real life and its fossil as captured by the Hollywood apparatus. The film’s beguiling message arrives at its destination – empty movie theatres after a global pandemic and the fascistic rise of mediocrity – not a moment too soon. It is Peg Entwistle’s and Frances Farmer’s revenge – not on Seattle but on the wretched Hollywood that broke its own soul in the service of ‘joy’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘glamour’, and which is now rewarded (justly) with Young Goodman Chazelle’s fun-house mirror of melancholic horrors. It’s a Rorschach test for you – yes, you – who are mired in the bad vibes of today: empty cinemas, smart phones, the lack of sting in today’s image-based relationships.

Babylon is ostensibly about the rise and fall of two eager-beaver dreamers: the Mexican, starry-eyed Manny Torres (Diego Calva) and the brassy deez-dem-doze gal from New Jersey Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Manny is noticed at a party by a silent-film star with delusions of Bauhaus-Eisenstein grandeur named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who hires him to be his assistant. Nellie is noticed at the same party by a studio fixer who needs a replacement for an actress who has OD’d the night before a crucial supporting turn in a silent comedy directed by a Dorothy Arzner-type (Olivia Hamilton). Manny is pathetically in love with Nellie. Nellie shows no reciprocated feelings (classic), but falls just-as-pathetically back on him in times of wild crisis. As swiftly as Manny and Nellie rise and top the Hit Parade, they fall – and come crashing down over a decade of antic, slow-burn excess.

Damien Chazelle, Babylon, 2022, film still. Courtesy: Paramount

Babylon is powered by speed, in particular a whip-pan or quick-push-in that draws attention to the current cinema’s own digital excess. This is not the speed of Scorsese, or Paul Thomas Anderson, or the great David O. Russell. Chazelle’s whip-pans, via Linus Sandgren (Russell’s regular cinematographer), are designed to blur anything that might resemble a comfortably whole body or a natural sex act. The Chazellian blur is the proper moral response to a new world as seen and sent up in Babylon, full of mock-happy crowds misted by a joyless, insomniac daze – an inhumanely tidy world where, as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han puts it in his 2017 book Saving Beauty, smoothness reigns over beauty, which is pockmarked, messy and unstable. Chazelle’s blur rejects the smooth. Babylon looks like it’s still loading, plagued, as it is, by a sun-baked, underexposed rot that’s just as poignant a Chazellian flourish here as Margot Robbie’s anachronistic hairdos and fake cries-on-command, the endless shots staring down the barrel of a trumpet, or the nervy film-geek in-jokes: a low-class Jersey chick projectile vomiting onto, literally, Citizen Kane, aka William Randolph Hearst, himself.

How will you respond to these vulgar, stupid, cliché-flirting, dorky, disquieting, anger-inducing, manic-depressive, bloodless images? All the stuff Hollywood shows us, as the show-stopper final montage suggests, is just red and green and blue; it swallows whatever radicality is thrown its way and makes it part of its own digestive system. So, the game of ‘revitalizing the form’, as Jack Conrad so desperately wants, will always be a hopeless one. True form-busting is impossible within Hollywood constraints. There will, however, always be a mass audience, ready to accept whatever is thrown at it. But there’s nothing up on that screen, on that TV, on your iPhone – only holograms of a kiss. The film is the culmination of the defeatism of Hollywood’s preeminent deflated sad boy, something that I, who have infinite faith in the future of film and love, can rally behind. Romance in Babylon, in the image of a depressed dance at a wedding between a Mexican self-destructive striver who simps an unattainable white woman, becomes another image to be glumly fed to the altar of Hollywood success.

Damien Chazelle, Babylon, 2022, film still. Courtesy: Paramount

Babylon is hardly a love letter to the movies, as has been claimed. It’s quite vicious. But it is grooved to now: Chazelle’s glorious self-cancelling images suggest far more than the basic Hollywood-is-toxic ‘plot’ treated ad nauseum (and more ‘successfully’) by George Cukor, Robert Townsend, Nathaniel West, Robert Altman and Blake Edwards, to name just five. It’s relentlessly cynical towards the status of the image and the word in US films: ‘It’s bigger than us!’ screams the coked-out, American Dream-pilled Manny Torres. But what is ‘it’, exactly? And who is ‘us’ – all the rich white men still in control of the industry’s standards of beauty, success, wealth and power?  Babylon is another touching case-study in Chazelle’s still-misunderstood oeuvre: overwhelmed by a manic depression, a fear of failure, an even bigger suspicion of success and an Icarus-like desire for something more than can be possibly achieved in the present moment, at least within Hollywood’s terms. Babylon has the jaded feel of a late film, perhaps Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), and its similarly keyed-up, vulgarly bourgeois, loud, melodramatic flourishes. We are left with the desperate Minnellian feeling that the end is nigh, that we’re all tired and dejected, and yet that a show must – unfortunately – go on.

Main Image: Damien Chazelle, Babylon, 2022, film still. Courtesy: Paramount

Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic and PhD student in the departments of art history and film at Yale University, New Haven, USA.