Babylon Review: Damien Chazelle’s licentious masterpiece has orgies, elephants, spanking and Margot Robbie

Babylon is Damien Chazelle’s rocket-propelled dive into the early days of Hollywood, embellished with orgies, elephant poop and cocaine. There are spankings. Bacchanal dance. Chairs thrown through windows. And all of that in the first 15 minutes. la la countryChazelle’s Oscar-winning, Bambi-eyed paean to artists, poets and the “fools who dream” would drop dead of fear if she ever met his eyes.

Tailored to divide audiences, this expansive drama — and a clear rejection of those who once accused Chazelle of being an overly sentimental director — blows a bullet in any notion that the film industry’s silent era was ever austere or quaint be. This was a frontier period in which the art of cinema was being built from the ground up with no rules and very little restraint. It was a place where the mentally ill and the hungry could reinvent themselves, but not without significant personal cost.

We enter this world through the eyes of two such starved individuals, actress Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and film assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva). Both are fictional amalgamations of real characters, as are almost all characters from Babylon are. Nellie combines aspects of Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Jeanne Eagles and Alma Rubens. Mexican-American Manny is representative of the many immigrants who have carved a place in the industry.

The duo intertwine not only romantically but also spiritually — twin stars on a meteoric rise. Calva wears a poet’s heart on his sleeve, and does it beautifully, while Robbie’s wild performance feels like it’s sprung from a higher plane of existence. The film may have an extensive ensemble cast, but it’s Robbie who instills the true spirit of Babylon. She wrestles snakes (literal and metaphorical) and says goodbye to polite company with the killer line, “I’m going to put some coke in my p****”.

The film’s vision of the 1920s may be pushed to the limit of believability, but it’s rarely inauthentic. This is a work of busy imagination. Justin Hurwitz’s hip-shaking, foot-stomping jazz music is straight out of the underground music scene of early Los Angeles. When a newly famous Nellie emerges in a skimpy two-piece suit with blue sequins, she seems ready to party at Studio 54 decades later, but Mary Zophres’ costume work is extrapolated directly from the daring looks Clara Bow and her Variety have already sported . Nellie’s hair and makeup by Jaime Leigh McIntosh and Heba Thorisdottir was inspired in part by mugshots from the period.

But it would be a mistake to believe that Babylon presents excess for the sake of excess. These extremities are reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of the jazz age, in which material magnificence was the gossamer curtain drawn over the corruption and negligence beneath. Chazelle’s film is really about the price of immortality – what it takes to achieve that one perfect moment, like the single tear Nellie conjures up in front of the camera in her first role.

For some, reinvention is a playground, like established star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt, whose presence is colored by recent allegations of domestic violence from ex-wife Angelina Jolie, which he denies). He dips his toe in a little white exoticism by posing as an Italian lover. But it’s a stark contrast to singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), who must carefully cultivate a kind of sensual orientalism when entering white rooms. Or black trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who – in the film’s sickest, most painful scene – is only offered a chance at screen stardom if he darkens his skin to conform to the racial prejudices of the industry. In Babylon, you have to stand out to be seen, but only so long as it doesn’t upend societal norms.

The film, which opens in 1926, frames Hollywood’s transition into the sound era as a creative disaster. Directors are limited to tight soundstages. Actors have to hit the mark to be heard by the microphones. A new conservative moral code is beginning to take hold as the industry becomes increasingly corporatized. From here, Chazelle draws a link to the most famous film depiction of the silent film era from 1952 sing in the rain, and then on into modern times – how he achieves it feels too wondrous and surprising to spoil here. The film then ends with the silent tears of one character. Do they weep at the transcendent beauty of it all? Or the pain suffered at the time of its creation? In his ultimate provocation, Chazelle leaves the answer unclear.

D: Damien Chazelle. Cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire. 18,189 minutes.

“Babylon” hits theaters on January 20th Babylon Review: Damien Chazelle’s licentious masterpiece has orgies, elephants, spanking and Margot Robbie


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