In the Hollywood jungle of “Babylon”, by Damien Chazelle

In the Hollywood jungle of

After three brilliant films exploring the world of music (whiplash), the musical (La La Land) and the conquest of space (first-manbiopic on Neil Armstrong), the young Canadian phoenix Damien Chazelle is reborn from his ashes for a trip to the Hollywood of the 1920s with babylona grandiloquent choral work with undeniable plastic qualities, mixed with a social purpose that struggles to really convince.

This review contains spoilers.

Hollywood, 1920s

Welcome to Hollywood, late 1920s! A crucial decade for an art that is becoming what it has always dreamed of being: a well-oiled machine armed with a string of stars who only aspire to plunge into the depths of a depraved life, with ambition to chain parties every night, around orgies in large numbers and rooms reserved… for drugs, with a large quantity of cocaine laid out on solid gold tables. Such is the vision of the Hollywood world of the 1920s, at least for the passionate filmmaker Damien Chazelle. For nearly 3 hours, he will try to show a universe never before seen in cinema, a gigantic industry that oscillates between big parties and morning shoots.

To succeed in capturing this state of mind, Chazelle surrounds himself with a brilliant cast: Margot Robbie is Nellie LaRoy, whose hypothetical model is that of Clara Bow, a great Hollywood actress of this period who, like LaRoy, fully assumed his vulgarity and his sex life to all the press of the late 1920s, long before the appearance of the Hays Code, which would make Hollywood a place where Catholic rigor would become the norm. Brad Pitt is Jack Conrad, who imposes himself as a Douglas Fairbanks bis, destroyed by the arrival of talkies which calls into question his whole career, he who has never needed anything but his charisma to assert himself. facing the public. Around these two main characters, a scoop journalist played by the all too rare Jean Smart, a jazz trumpeter who becomes a movie star despite racial stereotypes, played by Jovan Adepo, as well as an Asian actress who sees her career in decline vis-à-vis his sexual orientation, played by Li Jun Li. In the midst of all these protagonists, the film places a central figure in the presence of Manuel, known as Manny (played by Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who will rub shoulders with moment or another all these figures, climbing the ladder within this gigantic shambles.

Chazelle’s vision is therefore anti-cathartic, between nightmare and reverie: like a Scorsese, the filmmaker depicts a universe through large sequences seeing people yelling at each other while embracing their destiny, at the through an explosive editing that gives the film a bubbling rhythm. The artificiality of the subject is however very quickly felt in the heart of a film where the staging, bloated, takes a little too much precedence over the narration. The characters only seem to evolve through key moments, without ever really taking on the depth necessary for the spectator to be completely interested in them. The film also seems to neglect some of them, who remain only simple figures in the background, such as the character of Sidney Palmer, whose fateful destiny only resonates through an intense sequence where he finds himself forced to blacken the skin, supreme dishonor for this African-American musician who deserved a real development around his personality and his background. The substance of the statement would therefore have deserved more visibility, as the Hollywood climate of this era still remains unknown today in the eyes of a large number of people, who will see in it only a time when depravity leads to misfortune, all treated in a flashy manner.

Fates liés

What does the film industry really bring? Chazelle seems to ponder this question for a long time. Does it have to show the madness it engenders, and wouldn’t it be natural in the art world? To carry out his point, the filmmaker depicts a certain way of making films, at the heart of a decade experiencing many technical and aesthetic upheavals. Among them, the arrival of talkies, which will sound the end of a certain number of stars. This is particularly the case of Jack Conrad, who seems to lose his charisma when his voice is heard. The film perfectly translates this idea with a poignant sequence where Brad Pitt enters a cinema, to see and hear spectators laughing in his way of reciting the dialogues, as in a parody, in the manner of Gene Kelly who plays a comedy in costumes in Let’s sing in the rain. The film is also regularly quoted, sometimes too openly, as with this sequence where Nellie LaRoy tramples on the way to recite the dialogues in relation to a certain timbre and volume of voice, which will require a dozen takes from the director. ‘Sound engineer.

All these sequences, although too few in number, and for some already seen and reviewed, manage to make babylon a film which however stands on the length, showing an industry which has struggled to become what it is today. The arrival of talkies is well highlighted, making it possible to show shattered destinies, interspersed with scenes of often indigestible hysteria, such as those rather incomprehensible moments when Nellie LaRoy is violently bitten by a snake, or when Manuel and his friend drug dealer must elude a mob boss played by an eccentric Tobey Maguire. The violence and nudity are also too present, and the intoxication proposed by the staging and the editing would have been enough to keep a part of mystery around the characters, and their roles in this brutal world which will obviously have no pity for them.

Chazelle will take this idea a little too seriously during a completely indigestible epilogue leaving no part of mystery to the spectator, with a Nellie LaRoy who nevertheless benefits from a sublime exit from the field in the heart of a darkened decor, heavily explained through a diary showing his death, as well as completely dispensable last 10 minutes, where we are now in the heart of the 1950s, with Manuel returning to Hollywood on the traces of his past, slipping into a random cinema where he comes across… Let’s sing in the rain, necessarily. To embellish it all, Chazelle offers us an accelerated history of cinema, taking the opportunity to slip in images from personas of Bergman and the Avatar by James Cameron, through a sequence punctuated by the excellent music of Justin Hurwitz, the only positive point of this psychedelic brothel which has little to do with the era and the subject of the film, a simple way to to show that Chazelle loves cinema, all cinemas. This montage is furnished with sequences from the film itself, reminding the viewer of what he has just seen for almost 3 hours… Hard to believe that Chazelle is both the author of one of the most beautiful endings of the history of cinema (La La Land), and obviously one of the worst in recent years.

After three hours of exhausting film, the conclusion is bitter: babylon imposes itself as a minor film, not devoid of charm and successful isolated sequences, but lost in a shapeless mass of overflow which bets on the spectacular rather than on a portrait of damaged destinies in the heart of this Babylonian jungle.

Visual: © 2023 Par. Peaks

In the Hollywood jungle of “Babylon”, by Damien Chazelle