OTwo Reviews: Babylon

Image Credit: Public Domain

Ríbh Earls presents Damien Chazelle’s newest project as a love letter to Hollywood and to cinema and lauds Robbie, Calva and Pitt’s performance as a tantalizing trio.

January 2023 saw the release of the much-anticipated film Babylon, directed by Damien Chazelle, known for his previous work on Whiplash and La La Land. Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt lead the cast, alongside newcomer Diego Calva. Throughout the film we are treated with small appearances by some other notable faces such as Olivia Wilde, Toby Maguire, Samara Weaving, and Jeff Garlin. Exceeding a 3-hour runtime, the short appearances of such established actors is a welcome attention grabber. 

The premise of Babylon is based around the lavish decadence of old Hollywood, contrasted with the harsh realities of making it in that world. Chazelle captures the brutality and recklessness of 1920s filmmaking, which unlike the movies, fails to include the typical happy ending we have all grown to expect. Drink, drugs, sex, abuse, and addiction are displayed in a heartbreakingly raw and sometimes disturbing way, giving the audience a real ‘behind the scenes’ look at the industry. Of course the imagery is sensationalised, however, there is an innate sense of truth behind every scene. 

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LeRoy, a young woman of lower social class hungry for stardom. Her acting career kick starts during the silent film era and her talent is recognised immediately, despite everyone’s doubts about her. She is quickly typecast as the ‘sex symbol’ of her time, which rapidly elevates her fame. 

Simultaneously, Diego Calvas' character, Manny Torres, is also climbing the ranks within the industry working alongside acclaimed movie star Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt. These three characters are at the heart of the story, and we follow them through the height of their fame until their inevitable downfalls. The performances from these actors as the three complex characters suffering through the trials and tribulations of Golden Age Hollywood are the bread and butter of the movie. Where the pacing of the story sometimes lulled, the performances continued to shine.

The introduction of the “talkies” shifts the dynamic of Hollywood massively, and actors and crew alike have to adapt to the trend if they want to stay relevant. Chazelle highlights the difficulties brought about by the introduction of sound to films. A standout scene surrounding this is when Nelly is shooting her first talkie, and everything keeps going wrong. Chazelle manages to portray the stress, tension, and anxiety throughout this scene while also making it one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Heavily inspired by the story of Singing in the Rain, many scenes echo those of the 1952 classic, which Chazelle makes obvious by inserting clips of the movie directly into Babylon.

Ultimately, Babylon is an homage to filmmaking. Chazelle celebrates the evolution of the film industry and the original Hollywood filmmakers, starlets, and golden-boys who brought the industry to life. The temporality of success, and frenzy of specific people and movies, is touched upon, and the main message Babylon seems to want to convey is that the spotlight is a dynamic, living thing. It never stays in one place forever. People may fade into the background but their legacy, however small, lives on.