Babylon is a 2022 epic comedy drama film. Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt and Diego Calvo, it focuses on a variety of characters as Hollywood transitions from silent pictures to sound.


Originally, ‘Babylon’ was the capital city of the Babylonian Empire, wealthy and bustling when at its height between the 19th and 15th centuries BC. Over time, through its repeated appearances in the bible, it became a word denoting a pleasurable place occupied by those in power. Most recently, around the 1940s, the word was used among Rastafarians to refer to the police and other oppressive aspects of society.


In Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, he is referencing early 1920s Hollywood, before movies could talk. Many of his characters refer to this period of cinema as one of pleasure. Chazelle shoots scenes of this period with unrestrained, awe-struck vigour, almost fetishizing it. The period that follows however, the period of talkies, is shown to be restrained, elitist and artless. This is nothing short of revisionist history. Chazelle acts as if there was no discrimination before the arrival of sound in film, villainising the advance of technology and erasing the struggles of minorities before 1929. Not only that, he overlooks the ongoing development of foreign cinema with the German Expressionist movement and works like Battleship Potemkin, acting as if great cinema could only ever exist in America.


However, with the character of Manny, he does seem to explore other visions of 'Babylon', and, by extension, Hollywood. Manny, played wonderfully by Diego Calvo, is the only likeable and interesting character who we are given the chance to know. We watch him work ridiculously hard for half the recognition of his peers, out of both true love and a love of the cinema. As he and the film develop, however, he is harder to root for, but all the more intriguing for it. He becomes so consumed with ‘white capitalistic greed’ that he is willing to sacrifice his own morals and his friends’ identities before he disturbs the wishes of those who are above him, at one point guilt tripping his friend into doing blackface instead of simply changing the lighting. All under the influence of Hollywood and its immense power.


Babylon is at its most meaningful when it portrays Hollywood as the oppressive, destructive interpretation of ‘Babylon’. Another example of this is the character of Lady Fay Zhu, portrayed spellbindingly by Li Jun Li, a Chinese-American lesbian who is forced to leave her studio in the face of rumours surrounding her personal life. She is arguably the most memorable character of the film, or she has the potential to be, were she given more than ten minutes of screentime. Her lack of development or focus makes her seem like a token minority character, which is disappointing but not that surprising from Chazelle.


I tend to have low expectations for Damien Chazelle. His past two films, La La Land and Whiplash, felt very self important and indulgent. He is obsessed with celebrating the cruel and inhumane things people will do for fame, often allowing women to suffer as collateral damage. Babylon doesn't really break this mould, it only has characters like Nellie Laroy contribute to the problem as they suffer. In addition, I believe Chazelle has a very narrow and elitist idea of what art should be and how it should be made, which I guess should account for the lack of variation within his filmography.


The one, and possibly the only, original idea within Babylon comes from an interpretation by Douglas Laman. He argues that it is an exploration of ‘the inevitability of death’ and that while the art made by these characters is ‘eternal’ they mistakenly believe that they can now escape their mortality. I like this interpretation because it gives more weight to the montage from the end of the film (which, as it stands, is awkward and unnecessary) and it speaks to the power of art even if in a sinister and cynical way, showing how, like ‘Babylon’, Hollywood is essentially a place of misery despite the good within it.


There is no denying that the pleasure of Hollywood lies within the movies made there. Chazelle has his characters proclaim this many times, to the point where I wondered if he himself was the one struggling to believe it. Particularly since the filmmaking process that we are shown which closest resembles the one used today, is portrayed as painful, excruciating and even murderous. It is hardly endearing to any cinephiles watching and not likely to inspire any love of cinema in any viewers. I feel the same way about many modern films purely focussed on the ‘magic of the movies’. If the film itself is not that good or even coherent (which Babylon is often not), how is a viewer supposed to fall in love with film?


Babylon tries to contrast the hellish, oppressive industry that Hollywood is, with the beautiful, freeing process of filmmaking, similarly to Fredrico Fellini’s 8 ½. It fails in both regards. Rather than depicting the cruel, complicated cycle created by this situation, Chazelle pretends that Hollywood was once more like the Biblical, pleasurable interpretation of ‘Babylon’, before it fell in 1929, as the city once did. In doing so, he massively oversimplifies issues such as homophobia, racism and classism, pretending that they only arrived with the downfall of this supposed paradise. Somewhere along the way, he loses focus of the films that supposedly made it all worth it.