Original title:Babylon
Director:Damien Chazelle
Running time:189 minutes
Release date:25 december 2022
Los Angeles in the 1920s. A tale of overweening ambition and madcap excess, Babylon traces the rise and fall of various characters during the creation of Hollywood, an era of limitless decadence and depravity.

Mulder's Review

Babylon is the fifth film of the writer and director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016), First man (2018)) and especially his most ambitious and risky film to date as he wants to revisit the foundations of current Hollywood cinema. By placing the action in the Los Angeles of the 1920s and displaying the lust of a bourgeois class in search of thrills, Babylon is a strong cinematic experience of a gifted director constantly looking for new playgrounds. After making a name for himself worldwide with the films Whiplash (one of his best to date) and La La Land, Damien Chazelle puts the city of Los Angeles back at the center of the story and shows us the tragic destiny of three characters who had their glory during the silent film era but who have had difficulty adapting to the evolution of the industry, even if one of them manages to get by by making major sacrifices. It is easy to understand what fascinated director Damien Chazelle in the conception of his film not only to deliver an unbridled fresco but also to present us once again a love story that will end tragically.

From the very first scene, which reminds us of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and his way of revisiting a period of the United States, we discover the Mexican immigrant Manuel "Manny" Torres (Diego Calva) who is trying to make a place for himself in the film industry and who will fall in love with the young and beautiful starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie, superb and unforgettable in her role) and will befriend a world star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). Manny will gradually climb the ladder in the film industry while Jack Conrad, the star of the studio invented for the film Kinoscope, will see his career fall apart and he will be reduced to playing in bad films. As for Nellie LaRoy, between a mother committed to a psychiatric asylum and a father who seems lost (played by Eric Roberts) and ready to do anything to attract the attention of those around him, she will fall into the vice of gambling and drugs and accumulate large debts. Damien Chazelle's screenplay, with its various subplots, is fascinating and allows the audience to not see the time pass and to immerse themselves in a story punctuated by memorable scenes. 

While the current Hollywood cinema tends to rely too often on ready-made formulas and simplistic stories, we must recognize the writer and director Damien Chazelle's willingness to find the fiber of the great Hollywood frescoes and even if he does not totally succeed because he wants to do too well and does not shy away from any excesses (the first scenes of the film almost look like a Dantean hell). He benefits for his film from an impressive cast in which Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, Diego Calva are the three main actors and they are surrounded by a cast of supporting actors just as impressive with Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Lukas Haas, Tobey Maguire, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Jean Smart, Max Minghella, Eric Roberts and many others. In the same way, director Damien Chazelle refused to leave too much room for special effects of any kind and to make his film like his distant directorial predecessors. Babylon is not only spectacular but is above all an intense cinematic experience, however imperfect it may be.

Babylon could have been shorter and more concise and some parts of the film tend to go beyond the subject of the Hollywood industry as for example when Manuel "Manny" Torres is forced to follow the mafia boss James McKay (Tobey Maguire) in a subterranean place of debauchery in which the people present look more like lunatics escaping from a psychiatric asylum than the upper class that this film highlights through the presence of influential people of the Hollywood industry. Babylon seems to be constantly trying to surprise the audience and show them the other side of the American dream. It is also interesting to see that the Kinoscope studios that this film is about are located at the site of the current Paramount studios (it would then be interesting to understand what link between these two studios the director perceives).  The fact remains that in the face of the many blockbusters that have been seen and forgotten, Babylon stands out as a major film by director Damien Chazelle. It is a testimony of his deep love for the cinema of his past and above all, as shown at one point by the numerous film extracts thrown to the audience, his way of showing his sources of inspiration. It is not a coincidence that director James Cameron is quoted through an extract from one of his cult and memorable films.

Music plays an important role in the construction of the story, as it did in Whiplash and La La Land, whether it is the presence of the secondary character Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpet player, or the numerous musical numbers. For their fifth collaboration, the director reunites with the multi award-winning composer Justin Hurwitz (two Oscars, four Golden Globe awards, including one recently received for this film...). We feel a real fusion between the image and the music of the film and especially this osmosis brings to the film a very special touch making it certainly one of the must-see films of this beginning of the year.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Produced by Olivia Hamilton, Marc Platt, Matt Plouffe
Executive producers : Michael Beugg, Tobey Maguire, Wyck Godfrey, Helen Estabrook, Adam Siegel  
Starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart , Jovan Adepo , Li Jun Li, Lukas Haas, Tobey Maguire, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Jean Smart , Max Minghella , Katherine Waterston , Flea, Rory Scovel Eric Roberts, P.J. Byrne, Damon Gupton, Phoebe Tonkin, Chloe Fineman, Jeff Garlin, Troy Metcalf, Telvin Griffin
Cinematography : Linus Sandgren
Edited by Tom Cross
Music by Justin Hurwitz
Production companies : Marc Platt Productions, Material Pictures
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date December 25, 2022 (United States), January 18 2023 (France)
Running time : 189 minutes

Seen on January 14, 2022 at the Grand Rex

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