Movie review: The hope and despair of Babylon

By Stephen Aspeling29 February 2024

Movie review: The hope and despair of Babylon

Every generation thinks they’re the most depraved. What most don’t realise is that if you look back in history, you’ll find a time when things were worse… much worse. The Biblical story of Lot’s wife often comes to mind when people think of depravity and excess, in which she turned into a pillar of salt after looking back on the destruction of evil cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. Much like the demise of these wicked places, Babylon was warned of a similar fate if it didn’t change its sinful ways. The ancient city and jewel of Mesopotamia is now the title of Damien Chazelle’s latest film, Babylon, which the writer-director describes as a “hate letter to Hollywood” and “a love letter to cinema”. 

While most would like to blame the moon or the influence of dubious movies for their behaviour, Hollywood is a paradoxical place of dreams and nightmares. It’s been this way for well over a century… long before the Hollywood sign read Hollywoodland. Perhaps this is why Chazelle has separated the famed place from the artistic pursuit. Cinema is a craft of illusion, which, much like a magician, creates reality out of unreality. Charles Dickens’ words aptly capture the life and times of Hollywood in the 1920s: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”. 

Babylon on Showmax

A beautifully photographed three-hour epic that’s been nominated for three Oscars, including Production Design, Original Score and Costume Design, Babylon ably demonstrates that what ultimately ends up in the frame is of paramount importance. Gliding cinematography, labyrinthine production design and dense crowd scenes capture the grandeur and grit of 1920s Hollywood. While the industry began on the back of silent movies, it wasn’t long before the “talkies” arrived to change everything. This technological breakthrough and handover has been the subject of many stories covering the hilarity and frivolity of the era leading up to the Wall Street crash of 1929. Babylon covers these strange times by charting the rise and fall of several would-be silent movie stars who find it difficult to adjust to the expectations of talkies amid the excesses of the age.  

What’s curious about the dark comedy and historical drama is that in tearing Hollywood a new one, Babylon actually falls prey to the same paradoxical nature of the very beast in its crosshairs. Chazelle’s tale speaks to the depravity and excess but gets its hands soiled in the process, demonstrating the double standards and tipping so far forward it bows to them. This results in a wild film that blends the best and worst of Hollywood. What’s established very early on is that you must expect the unexpected, that bad taste is a matter of perspective and that surprises are delivered with the same reckless bravado of its ambitious star Nellie LaRoy, played by today’s equally fearless and ravenous it-girl, Margot Robbie. 

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad in Babylon
Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad

Babylon was originally set to star Emma Stone, taking on a closer biographical take on real-life inspiration Clara Bow, who’s credited as one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols. A wild child, her quirks remain in Chazelle’s reworking with the talented Robbie, who was eager to tackle the high-profile role and work with the talented director behind La La Land, First Man and Whiplash. Chazelle has assembled a sharp cast, harnessing the self-reflective power of Brad Pitt after a stellar turn in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In the twilight of his own acting career and on the cusp on a new wave of technological change in AI filmmaking, Pitt’s performance as Jack Conrad has raw power and resonance. 

The big name stars headline an accomplished cast including but not limited to Diego Calva, Jovan Alepo, Olivia Wilde and Jean Smart. Serving as co-leads, the story is seen through the eyes of Manny Torres after all the main characters attend an exclusive, rip-roaring and hedonistic party. Calva’s steady-handed performance is the canvas for Babylon to play out on, allowing the madness to fester as Manny’s experiences shape his American Dream against the relentless demands of the burgeoning film industry. Each drawing enough thematic depth to carry their own spin-off drama, Alepo’s restrained supporting performance adds subliminal power to the hollow success and hypocrisy of Sidney Palmer’s journey as a musician.  

Babylon on Showmax
Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon

Babylon is a mesmerising and visceral feast for the senses that keeps you guessing. Charging from one epic scene to the next, the story veers from disgust to pure awe as Chazelle challenges and entertains in equal measure. From relaying the technical difficulties of adapting to “talkies” to trying to keep up the illusion of stardom in high society under the influence, Babylon creates a slew of prickly and memorable cinematic moments. While it grapples with adult themes and excesses, there’s a high-minded beauty to the depiction of inherent ugliness. A freak show in one sense, Babylon operates with finesse even when it stoops low enough to scoop up the muck and magic of the times.