Even in the Bible, its mystical name has a complex meaning. For thousands of years, it has been associated with splendor and dominion. Just as it stands for the Moloch ruled by decadence, sin, corruption, and violence. A good template for Damien Chazelle to take us with Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt to modern-day Babylon.
BABYLON NOW AND THEN
While the name in the Bible stood on the one hand for the largest capital in mighty Mesopotamia, where even Alexander the Great ruled, and on the other hand symbolically stands for the Roman Empire, Damien Chazelle relocated his Babylon to Hollywood during the roaring twenties.
In this time full of technical achievements and extravagant ecstasy, not a few believed to be able to fly, without wings. Of course, the young cinema also belonged to the technical achievements.
The silent film inspired the masses and created the first superstars in film history. They were worshiped like gods and often thought they were some.
It was a wild, depravity, decadent time. But as is the case with decadence, it is inextricably linked with decay and decline. And so, the talkies soon replaced their predecessor.
Very few silent film stars were able to cope with the associated challenges and a completely new way of playing. And that’s what Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is all about.
THE PEOPLE OF BABYLON
MARGOT ROBBIE A.K.A. NELLIE LAROY
Nellie is a beautiful, highly talented, but also totally messy woman. She lives in very simple, even poor conditions. But she has big dreams. Therefore, according to the motto: cheeky gets ahead, she sneaks into the parties of the big film bosses. Many dreams have come true there, just as many have ended. Because what rules here is not only the power and the money of the film giants but also drugs, alcohol, and sex.
Nellie is lucky and can escape the tristesse thanks to her talent. At least for a while. She even managed to switch to talkies. However, drugs, fake friends, and the constant need to validate and prove herself are breaking her down more and more.
From Elizabeth to Harley Quinn, Margot Robbie has shown in many roles that she can embody broken and very special people. But we’ve never seen her as wild and sexy as in Babylon. She plays so energetically that it could be too much for one or the other viewer. But that’s up to the viewer! Because Margot Robbie embodies the glamor and decay of the 1920s in her role as Nellie LaRoy to perfection.
BRAD PITT A.K.A. JACK CONRAD
Jack is one of the most successful silent film stars of this time. The audience loves him. And he doesn’t even have to do much for it. Because the actual work is done by the team around him. They ensure the best light, the right mood, and settings.
Whiskey and drugs become his companions. Unlike Nellie, Jack doesn’t make the leap into modernity either. His talkies flop. And the media that once loved him is dumping him later.
Brad Pitt, spoiled by success, is treading new ground here. Hardly any of his films flopped. But on the contrary. Nevertheless, in Babylon, he put himself very well in the stumbling Jack Conrad. He maintains the appearance that is so important in this business. And he shows the inner turmoil behind it.
DIEGO CALVA A.K.A. MANNY TORRES
Like Nellie, Manny dreams of playing a role in the film business. It doesn’t matter which. His commitment bears fruit when he meets movie star Jack and becomes his assistant.
Manny wants to make a career, but he would rather be with the beautiful Nellie. He cannot resist her, even if it leads to disaster.
For Diego Calva, Babylon is the first big, ok, very, very big, international production. What a career boost to play alongside Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. You can feel Diego’s enthusiasm in every scene. He takes the audience on his own journey.
JEAN SMART A.K.A. ELINOR ST. JOHN
Elinor represents the media business as it has not changed until today. One moment the media representatives are your best friend cheering you on with their articles in the magazines. The next moment they stab you in the back with a dagger. The main thing is that the reader numbers are right.
JOVAN ADEPO A.K.A. SIDNEY PALMER
Actually, the term silent film isn’t correct. Because every film was accompanied by music. And clearly, there has to be a lot of that in a Damien Chazelle film, especially jazz. And so the commissioned musician Sidney Palmer develops into a celebrated trumpeter in the course of the story.
Therefore, because of his talent, he can also gain a foothold in talkies. However, at that time this was a challenge for a black artist. Because for every dollar he has to sell a part of his soul.
Aside from his terrific performance in Babylon, we have seen British actor Jovan Adepo in the horror spectacle Overlord (2018) alongside the wonderful Mathilde Ollivier. He has also starred in Fences with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as well as other productions.
LI JUN LI A.K.A. LADY FAY ZHU
A mystical artist who appears again and again very controversial for the time is the singer Lady Fay Zhu.
With her outfits, her behavior, and her performance, she is strongly reminiscent of the unforgettable Marlene Dietrich. With her courage, Dietrich opened the gates for the modern woman of today.
In addition, Babylon features supporting roles from movie stars and top models such as the gorgeous Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Kaia Gerber, and Taylor Marie Hill, just to name a few.
In the case of Babylon, opinions differ sharply. The reviews are mixed and even tend in the negative direction. On the one hand, this is understandable, on the other hand not! Because Babylon is simply a masterpiece. However, such a masterpiece overwhelms some, confuses others, and remains completely incomprehensible to others.
Damien Chazelle loves the cinema. And he loves music. He takes this passion to the extreme with Babylon. Just like his famous sequence shots. So, those long scenes without any single cut.
The film is like a three-hour rush for the senses. Chazelle takes us back 100 years without losing touch with the present. Already in the excessive prologue, Babylon reflects decadence and decay in a grandiose manner. In addition, this first sequence is probably the longest in film history. Because the opening credits appear after about 30 minutes, and only in the form of the title lettering.
The behavior of the protagonists may seem exaggerated to some. But it’s quite authentic. There were hardly any limits for the characters of that time. They thought they were immortal. In a sense comparable to today’s influencers.
Then, drugs and alcohol dominated everyday life. That’s understandable, too. Because to this day, it’s massive pressure to be a world star. With every film, with every album, they must surpass themselves. They must always be perfect and strong.
But who is always strong, and who is perfect? Thus, it’s understandable and by no means reprehensible that stars look for “support” in the “chemistry cabinet”. Some keep the balance, some even the distance. Others become addicted to drugs or lose themselves in their mental weakness.
Babylon sheds light on just a few of these destinies, their development, and their fall. Chazelle shows that bright stars appear half as long as others. But he also shows us that during this time, they experience things that no one else will ever experience. His stars live intensely and fail as well. But they live! They are real.
MARGOT & THE OTHERS
As does the wonderful Margot Robbie who guides us through the film. What a beautiful woman. And what exceptional talent. In keeping with the story, she plays Nellie extremely excessively. Nellie is incredibly sexy and just as wild. But she is also deep, sensitive, and very alone.
She is chaotic and cannot find her way. And so, as always, Margot Robbie outplays her film partners. It’s quite a challenge to play alongside her. She is simply wonderful and always self-deprecating, approachable, and authentic.
The rest of the cast, including Brad Pitt, is convincing, too. However, what is indescribably impressive on the one hand and exhausting on the other is the visual power of Babylon. This is positive but certainly overwhelms many viewers.
Chazelle doesn’t give us a rest for a single second. One epochal scene follows the next. Once on a film set and once in the underground, or the so-called “Asshole of Los Angeles”.
This could be a point of criticism because immersing yourself in this grandiose flood of images for three hours can be overwhelming. It might have been good for a large part of the audience to streamline the film and reduce it to 2 hours.
But then the element would have been lost, which is increasingly becoming a trend: to take time. James Cameron already showed where the journey is going with Avatar: The Way of Water. At a time when we are exposed to thousands of images – important and extremely unimportant – every day, it takes stillness to make things visually understandable. So, it takes time.
Damien Chazelle took this with Babylon and so every scene is relevant. The film needs this time to inspire us, shock us, to disturb us. The latter is not negative, but an aspect that will make Babylon timeless. Because in order to understand the film, to really immerse ourselves in it, we have to see it a second, even a third time.
And even in 10 or 20 years, the story behind Babylon, which can be briefly reduced to the old adage “pride comes before a fall”, will not have lost its explosiveness and relevance.
Chazelle loves jazz. But not everyone loves this kind of music. This could also be an aspect of why you will not like Babylon. But this music is authentic for that time and its energy enlivens the film. It’s the icing on the cake.
The film’s humor, depth, emotion and action, incredibly stunning visuals and pacing, cast, and sublime music by Justin Hurwitz make Babylon a cinematic masterpiece. Once again, Damien Chazelle presents an incomparable and enchanting homage to cinema that transports us to a frenzy of ecstasy. Therefore, we give the full score: of 10!
Text: Marco Kokkot | VALEUR MEDIA
Pictures Premiere: Eric Charbonneau, Jesse Grant & Phillip Faraone / Getty Images for Paramount Pictures, Alex J. Berliner / ABImages.
Scene Images: Paramount Pictures 2023. All Rights Reserved.