This past Tuesday, Zoe, Georgia, and I all went to a movie together for the first time ever. And let me tell you, it was a doozy of a film.
The only thing I had heard about this movie before seeing it was that it depicted “every bodily fluid”, which was not an over-exaggeration (I know you’re thinking it–and yes, including that one). But to be honest, that is not even the most graphic part of this movie.
The epic film follows five extremely different Hollywood dreamers through the rise and fall of their careers: Nillie LaRoy, the “Wild Child”; Manuel “Manny” Torres; hot-shot actor Jack Conrad; sultry performer and intertitle writer May Wong; and trumpeter Sidney Palmer.
The plot mainly follows the careers of Nellie and Manny, who we see go from nothing to everything, backed by the genius soundtrack from Justin Hurwitz. We watch Nellie battle her addictions to cocaine and gambling, while becoming the biggest star in Hollywood, using her crassness and lack of shame to get her where she wants to be. On the other hand, Manny uses his connections to work his way up to become an executive of MGM, and we watch as the five characters’ (who originally met at a wild, orgy-like party) lives interact and cross over and over again.
The entire film is about movies, as well as the people making them. We watch certain people (Nellie, Manny, Sidney) adapt and grow and even create new kinds of films, while others (May, Jack) fall behind and get buried in the past.
In this film, Chazelle does not want the audience to be comfortable. There is an innumerable amount of sex and nudity, that after the first few shots the viewer becomes almost immune to it. There is nothing sensual about the way these scenes are presented, yet at the same time everything about them is lust-filled–even the way the trumpets are played. There is a dirtiness to it, but a lack of shame as well. We are being shown that these Hollywood people are all so over-indulgent that they are completely immune to the acts going on around them. In fact, they are so immune that certain characters (Tobey Maguire’s James Mackay) goes so far as to seek out the insane and disgusting. I won’t get to graphic, but parts of it involve the ingestion of a rat. This film for sure is not for the weak-stomached.
The film desensitizes its viewer so much that we begin to feel nothing, or even laugh at, death and drug use. We sit in scenes for what feels like a little bit too long, beginning to feel unnerved for a reason we cannot place. Why is it that we feel an unexplainable dread when watching Nellie walk away into the darkness of the streets of LA? Why do we not feel that same thing when watching Jack go upstairs to shoot himself? How does Chazelle get us to feel exactly how he wants us to about these characters? And how is it that they are all bad people, yet we inevitably feel a deep connection with them by the end of the film?
Oh, and the end of the film. In true Damien Chazelle fashion, we are taken through a glorious montage of film through the ages, beginning with Nellie and Jack’s silent films, ending with modern films like Avatar, began and ended with a tearful Manny. As we sit there and watch movies evolve before our eyes, then slowly break down into film chemicals, then simply colors, we cannot help but understand the importance of film, as it was for the characters of the movie.
The film Babylon is not just a movie, but an epic depicting the cyclical rise and fall of Hollywood actors, the importance of film, and the almost-commonplace epidemic of over-consumption and insensitivity. And the most interesting part?
It’s based off of true events.
(I don’t think I would ever watch this movie again)