It is still a Wednesday and only two days away from the weekend which shall see a clash at the Box Office between two of my favourite directors – Anurag Kashyap and Hansal Mehta. But before that I did get a chance to watch and review the new English film Babylon which is also scheduled to release in theatres across India. I would be lying if I say that I wasn’t waiting to watch this film. Firstly, the film is directed by Damien Chazelle, the man behind films like Whiplash and First Man. But what really got me curious is the divisive criticism that the film was garnering from celebrated critics across the globe. While some were praising it, the others were literally disgusted by it, all of which was quietly fueling my curiosity around the film. As always I knew nothing about the film and now that I have finished watching Babylon, here are my two cents on it.
Story & Screenplay
Set in the 1920s, Babylon follows the story behind the rise and fall of a few Hollywood artists as the film industry is under transformation from silent films to sound films. The story here is engaging but the treatment here is that of a comedy which is unique to the genre. If you are anticipating a dark drama, a la Blonde, then you will be in for a rude shock. A part of me did think that this was that one aspect that may have not gone too well with the critics, so my advice would be to go in with a clean slate. One of the criticisms about the film was around the length of the screenplay and I do agree to it. Standing at well over 3 hours, the length of the film doesn’t go in the film’s favour. More than its content, which by the way coukd have been easily trimmed, it has more to do with the psyche of the user. In times of Youtube shorts, no one would really be willing to invest 3 hours of their lives to a film, unless if you are a critic or a cinephile like me!
The drama sets the tone early on for a roaring comedy with that opening sequence itself. So you are introduced to one of the protagonists who is tasked with delivering an elephant at a studio which does result in a bizarre set of events that feature feces(of the elephant), vomit, s*x and drugs galore! It was the most disgusting-ly beautiful scene in terms of its setup. There was so much going on in that opening sequence that all my inhibitions about the length of the film were instantly forgotten. Tactfully, you are introduced to the main players of the drama before a few strings in that event tie them together.
As they say, the histrionics of filmmaking can be a separate subject in school(don’t ask me who said it, I did…there you go). So the very next scene does give us a glimpse into a day’s work at the studio and was that seen bonkers or what? With multiple shoots being executed simultaneously with only a feet’s distance between each of them, it was utter chaos which in turn resulted in humour. I did find myself thoroughly enjoying the drama which was light and humourous on the surface but did have a dark undertone as an undercurrent. By the latter I mean that you can guess the direction where this drama is headed with a couple of tragedies along the way. After all, the theme of the film was the bygone era of transporting from silent to sound films, right? Tonnes of adjustment and insecurity would well have been the order of the day to survive and flourish for all artists.
The drama is also a sharp commentary on the capitalistic nature of the film industry that almost coaxes an individual to lose his/her identity. There are perceptions of the big bosses of the studio who always mark their favourites. The moment you tend to rebel, you are soon out of favour. This was showcased almost as a satire in the film that eventually led to the downfall of one of the characters of the film. In a separate incident, a character from an African origin was asked to paint his face black to adjust the lighting in the scene. The film also highlights the insecurity associated with the fading stardom of a starlet, something from which only a handful are spared. All of this while the tone of the drama remains playful and almost zany, given some of the incidents across the film.
One criticism that I did have for the film was that the writing did get a tad too indulgent at times. When you have established a point, you need not carry on in adding a little bit of everything to a scene. This was one aspect which could have been controlled, particularly in the third act which did feel a little disjointed from the main plot. The entire gangster sequence was fun individually but come to think of it from the larger perspective, it didn’t quite stay true to the source material. But this is just a minor observation in an otherwise fabulous screenplay that almost plays on the nostalgia towards the end by in a way paying tribute to various eras through the lens of the protagonist. So overall, the screenplay is crazy, zany and absolute bonkers but well worth your time.
Dialogues, Music & Direction
The dialogues are witty and sharp with a tinge of humour thrown in that makes for a hilarious yet tragic watch. Some lines are also profound and tactfully integrated in the drama. The BGM does range from being completely zany to being much softer and soothing in its profound moments that does gel well with the drama. The cinematography is fantastic, almost poetically capturing some fleeting frames of gore, vomit and s*x amidst the fading fandom of the silent film industry. The frames are beautifully positioned and make for a profound watch. The editing despite the length of the film is sharp. This may not be amongst the best works of Damien Chazelle but you have to applaud the effort here. This is because even on a not so good day, the direction is brilliant which speaks volumes about the skill of the director. The humour is zany with the drama being engaging throughout and for that the director deserves credit.
The performances by a stellar cast is phenomenal. Jovan Adepo as Sidney and Jean Smart as Elinor have their moments to shine. Tobey Maguire as James is hilarious in an extended cameo. Brad Pitt as Jack is probably the only moderately sane character and he pulls off his character with aplomb. Margot Robbie as Nellie looks gorgeous and delivers a performance which can only be termed as madness personified(in a good way). Diego Calva as Manny is quietly charming and enterprising and does an excellent job here. All other characters are wonderful to watch as well.
Babylon is crazy, zany, funny, profound and everything all at once making it a banger of a film. This film comes with my highest recommendation.