Hollywood is the place dreams are made of and a cesspool of human depravity, all at the same time, in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a pulse-pounding, toe-tapping three-hour experience that outdoes Avatar: The Way of Water in terms of pure cinematic experience and debuts in Prague cinemas this weekend.
Babylon goes over the top and gets under your skin, and is destined to provoke reactions all over the map. This is the most controversial film of 2022, but also the best, and rates alongside Zabriskie Point, Heaven’s Gate, Ragtime, and Once Upon a Time in America as the great misunderstood American epics.
Chazelle’s film stars Diego Calva as Manuel Torres, an ambitious Mexican immigrant in 1927 Los Angeles who dreams of working in the movies. During the film’s allegorical opening sequence, he helps push a truck carrying an elephant up a desert hill, getting covered in feces in the process, en route to one of the spectacular parties hosted by his boss, Hollywood producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin).
Babylon presents Wallach’s party as a 30-minute prologue featuring an orgy of drugs, sex, and backstory. Silent film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) separates from his latest wife (Olivia Wilde) before he gets in the door. His friend George (Lukas Haas) contemplates suicide out front, musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) plays trumpet with his band, and title maker Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) performs burlesque on stage.
Hundreds of partiers in various stages of fornication writhe throughout Wallach’s mansion all under the watchful gaze of gossip columnist (Jean Smart). Manuel strikes up a conversation with party-crasher Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie); living it up in the excess of L.A. nightlife, both express a desire to be a part of something bigger in Hollywood.
Their dreams will be realized, well, the following day: Manuel takes home a drunken Conrad, who invites him along to the set of his latest feature, a Roman epic with thousands of extras shot in the California desert, while Nellie is randomly chosen to replace a starlet who has OD’d at the party.
Babylon charts the rise, and fall, of Manuel and Nellie and the supporting cast of characters that surround them over the coming years. And while the film is explicitly fictional, it models its characters after real-life prototypes.
Pitt’s Jack Conrad is a thinly-veiled version of silent screen idol John Gilbert, whose career came to a crashing halt with the advent of sound; as the legend tells it (and Babylon re-tells it) audiences didn’t take to the sound of his speaking voice, which drew laughs at cinemas cross the country.
Robbie’s Nellie, meanwhile, was originally inspired by “It Girl” Clara Bow; while her journey has been altered, scenes of Nellie performing on a soundstage for the first time are ripped straight from real life. Chazelle’s wife Olivia Hamilton plays Ruth Adler, a stand-in for real-life cinema pioneer Dorothy Arzner, who ended up creating cinema’s very first boom mic when Bow was unable to hit her stage marks.
Manuel’s story, meanwhile, is inspired by that of Mexican-American cinematographer Enrique Juan Vallejo and Cuban-American director René Cardona, early cinema pioneers who rose through the ranks in Hollywood to achieve success.
But while the other characters here are largely victims of circumstance, frozen in time, Chazelle allows the Manuel character his own narrative freedom. Observing as an outsider before being drawn into the fire, Babylon belongs to Manuel, and Calva carries the movie with his subdued, carefully textured performance.
Writer-director Chazelle comes from background as a musician (as seen in his semi-autobiographical debut Whiplash), and imbues Babylon with a rhythmic, energized pace that never lets up for the course of its entire three-plus hour running time. Babylon’s tempo is so controlled it’s as if we’re watching a movie set to a metronome.
It helps that he’s working with a soundtrack from Justin Hurwitz that ranks among the best ever put to film. The composer, who also scored Chazelle’s previous three films, not only lends Babylon a memorably haunting theme but successfully interprets it into a wide array of musical genres and styles. The result is an original score that transitions from ragtime to big band, jazz, blues, even a folk ballad, and never misses a beat.
Two of the best movies of 2022 express a genuine love for the cinema. But where Steven Spielberg’s terrific The Fablemans is a nostalgic ode to the big screen’s effects on the audience, Babylon is a shameless exhibition of the people behind the camera that appropriately climaxes at what the Tobey Maguire character calls “the asshole of L.A.”
That inherent contradiction — the movie is something like a cross between Kenneth Anger’s gossip-rag classic Hollywood Babylon and the movie musical Singin’ in the Rain — is enough to divide audiences, as seen in reviews that run the gamut from all-out rave to vitriolic pan. Time will tell if Babylon is rescued from the heap of misunderstood greats, but for some, at least, this is the best film of 2022.