Criticism of Babylon, the bittersweet vision of Hollywood from the director of La La Land

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Spoiler-free review of Babylon. Theatrical release on January 20.


The nostalgic review stage that many current film directors are going through is curious, recovering settings, contexts and pieces of the film industry passed through different filters. It is very tempting to approach a movie like Babylon by framing it in a category similar to exercises like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2015). However, the looks that both films throw at the past are as different as their own directors.

If Tarantino’s film was a ballad of pure love and (almost) no conditions to 60s Hollywood, Babylon would be more like Bohemian Raphsody: a piece as unusual as it is magnetic, in which joy and sadness mix, confuse and They change every second. Babylon is a new and exciting show of the bittersweet vision that Damien Chazelle keeps on dreams and dreamersbut in a context that also aspires to recreate several crucial moments in the history of cinema.

After its depraved parties, its opulent filming and its psychotic characters, and beyond the period it explores, Babylon contains an interesting reflection on change. A look at how we reinterpret the past, live in the present and face the future in a world where everything moves too fast, and where the promise of immortality, of being part of something more important than life itself, is not always enough.

The most magical place in the world

The story of Babylon begins at the end of the 1920s, in the mansion of a mogul from the film industry of the time, and where a disturbing party is being held in which all the protagonists of the film will meet.

Manny (Diego Calva) is a decisive “boy for everything” who aspires to be part of the film industry, whatever it takes. Nellie (Margot Robbie), despite her zero experience and her humble origins, is defined as a star, according to his words, “because you don’t become one: either you are, or you are not”; she also wants to succeed as an actress in the world of silent movies. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), for his part, is a charismatic veteran actor at a point in his career when his name is synonymous with money. Orbiting around these three archetypal figures, and developing parallel to them, we find the musician Sidney Palmer and the artist Lady Fay Thu.

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The evolution of the three protagonists within the field of silent cinema it will turn around when films with sound begin to be introduced, establishing a new paradigm that will force them to adapt if they do not want to lose everything. For those interested in the ins and outs of movie magic, there is plenty of material where the film’s exquisite technical invoice will allow them to recreate: megalomaniac filming, scenes where the technical difficulties of change are seen, references to real characters and tapes of the time… it is very easy to lose yourself in the exquisite setting of Babylon, to feel as amazed as its protagonists. As Jack Conrad says, the filming set is the most magical place in the world. However, while Babylon manages to showcase that magic at the end of its chaotic scenes, it also wants us to see the depravity and corruption on which it is based.

After its depraved parties, its opulent filming and its psychotic characters, Babylon contains an interesting reflection on change

The tape begins by putting distance with one of the most scatological scenes I have seen on a movie screen. He allows himself the luxury of further alienating the viewer by showing a disturbing party from the beginning. At this moment we discover how Justin Horwitz’s spectacular soundtrack is the siren’s song that makes you unable to look away from that deplorable spectacle; it becomes an essential component to enjoy the film and tune in, even minimally, with the wild and carefree spirit that it proposes.

It is curious to see how, even in his most beautiful prints, there is a permanent halo of dirt and discomfort. The superficial opulence displayed by its wealthy characters only makes it more evident how broken the industry was, in a much more effective way than the explosive (and multiple) scenes of excess. As in all of Chazelle’s filmography, there can be no light without darkness. Babylon, for its part, seems more dedicated in her attempt to show unpleasant environments and situations to seek surprise (even horror and terrifying at times) than to romanticize what we see; he trusts that the beauty of what we see on the screen will make up for the sordidness of the process. Even in his wonderful comedic moments, he displays an unexpected black humor, always maintaining the intention of showing both sides of the coin.

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Babylon is able to amaze like the best Hollywood, but in his effort to shock the audience with grotesque situations, he loses the ability to emote with his characters.

A trip that asked for more emotion

The three hours of Babylon seem structured like one of their parties: it goes from a spectacular high to a sad and painful hangover on several occasions, usually coinciding with moments of development of its protagonists. The problem is that, even in those moments, the film is more interested in the forms than in the substance. Beyond a couple of memorable dialogues, many of these moments feel wasted and excessively lengthened, without necessarily giving us a deeper insight into its main characters or a particularly powerful sequence. But the show must go on, and even in its quieter scenes Babylon remains genuinely entertaining and enjoyable.

There would be no problem in supporting this story in almost anonymous characters. In the end, the film is also about how Hollywood engulfs everything in its path in an endless creative recycling; every generation will have their Nellie and their Jack Conrad, their Margot Robbie and their Brad Pitt, as well as many anonymous dreamers and Los Angeles waiters who fell by the wayside. Nevertheless, Babylon tries in its last bars to achieve an emotional complicity with the viewer that has not been earned. Despite their excellent performances, its leads evolve as their professional careers progress, but we barely get to know them; the stupendous treatment received by the secondary ones further highlights the shortcomings in the writing of its main trio, who asked for more screen time in which they were not under the influence of drugs or adrenaline. Empathizing with such sketchy characters on a journey that begs to be thoughtlessly in the moment is very difficult, and can cause many people to get off the film early.

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The end of Babylon easily manages to move through its holistic vision of cinema, but it aspired to much more; that yes, in spite of using in his last scene one of the most unnecessary and lacking in subtlety montages that I have seen, and that surely will provoke a lot of debate.

I have greatly enjoyed Babylon’s proposal; It is that type of product that you enjoy the more the less you know about it. Not even knowing that it is signed by the director of La La Land can prepare you for its fascinating and attractive production; give us a tape very different from his previous worksstill being able to find many of its hallmarks.

Babylon is capable of astonishing like the best Hollywood, but it loses the ability to excite with its characters

The issues it raises are also interesting, although much more from a film point of view than from the conflicts of its characters. The change as the motor of the story called for a greater presence of humanity in the script, but it is still fascinating from the point of view of an industry. Not even the film’s pacing problems will prevent it from staying in our minds for a long time, both for its conclusions and for some particularly inspired scenes or its impressive music. A party that I would not have wanted to miss for anything.