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Babylon’s debauched old Hollywood is about something much bigger

It’s not about the 1920s at all.

An absolutely riotous party.
Babylon is set in the debauched world of 1920s Hollywood, but that’s not all it’s about.
Paramount Pictures

The real Babylon, the one from which Damien Chazelle’s Babylon draws its name, was the capital of an ancient, mighty empire. The Bible mentions it almost as soon as humanity arrives on the scene: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” the humans decide. From the sky, God looks down, laughs, and confuses their languages so they can’t communicate with one another, making a mess of the project. The place gains the name “Babel.” And eventually, it becomes a center for human inquiry, knowledge, and pluralism, but also imperialist oppression and hedonism.

That’s why Babylon, over time, evolved into more of a metaphor than a literal place. What it was matters less than what it represents. It’s a stand-in for oppression and tyranny, for evil and even Satan. It’s the encapsulation of hubris; the biblical Book of Revelation seems to equate it with the Roman Empire and writes, evocatively, about a figure called the “whore of Babylon.” It’s also a stand-in for decadence, of a kind that combines ecstasy and desperation. You can get lost in the bowels of Babylon, and Babylon won’t care.

That’s the metaphor Chazelle picked for early Hollywood, one rooted in history even if his own version is, in many respects, invented. Set in the late 1920s, the film is a go-for-broke epic (like Avatar: The Way of Water, it runs over three hours) about the fateful moment when the movie business went from silent to sound. The story centers on three figures — aging star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), and a hired hand named Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who’s desperate to get on set.

When technology suddenly permits filmmakers to record sound and add it to their movies — with the public’s appetite for sound proven by the wild success of The Jazz Singer in 1927 — Jack’s wooden acting and Nellie’s New Jersey accent become a problem. Just like it was for others in their place.

A woman in a red dress and a man in a tux look determined, outside a big stone castle. They also look rather rumpled.
Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon.
Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Around Jack, Nellie, and Manny are a bevy of characters all aching to get their chance in the business and, most of the time, getting crunched in the jaws of an industry that’s churning its way through history at lightning speed. There is Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a gossip columnist. There’s Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a virtuosic trumpet player who discovers that talent and stardom can’t protect him from blatant racism. The seductively androgynous Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) lives a double life. Some of the characters are real, like studio executive Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), Nellie’s rival starlet Colleen Moore (Samara Weaving), and actress (and mistress of William Randolph Hearst) Marion Davies (Chloe Fineman). But most of them are amalgamations and conflations, loosely inspired by the people who made up Hollywood’s louche and shameless early days.

It’s delicious that a film built on a metaphor about babbling chaos digs into the ironies of what we hear and say. The most evocative set of scenes in the film takes place right at the pivot point between silent and sound. First, we visit a sprawling, chaotic movie set during the silent era, when you could film a Western and a biblical epic and a comedy and a love scene all at the same time because the noise wasn’t being recorded anyway. But when the sound era arrives, sets go deadly (and hilariously) quiet — a tense and brilliant contrast. The voices of actors and the words they uttered suddenly mattered a whole lot, and the result is as confusing and destructive as it could have been in Babel.

1920s Hollywood isn’t really what Babylon is about — it’s the situation, not the story. Babylon is a movie about the movies, and not in the purely celebratory way that many films have been before. The film’s 1920s setting functions like the largest outer ring of a telescope, each successive era nested in and extending from the one before it. That’s true of the blowout parties and wild drug and gambling binges and even seedier stuff; an early death is obviously based on the infamous, era-defining case of Virginia Rappe and megastar Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Two men in tuxes sit on a couch. One of them looks sly; the other looks surprised.
Brad Pitt and Diego Calva in Babylon.
Paramount Pictures

But people didn’t stop dying in Hollywood in the 1920s. Scandals didn’t quit. Aging stars weren’t pushed out for the last time before the war; young, hopeful, moderately talented kids didn’t quit flooding into Los Angeles with stars in their eyes. Like most American institutions — in politics, in religion, in family-focused suburbs and packed-together urban spaces — the institution of Hollywood has a seedy underbelly. It’s just that in Hollywood, the scandals feel juicier, like continuations of the stories we’ve seen onscreen.

Chazelle’s La La Land was kind of a love letter to the young and hopeful in LA. Here, though, he’s trying to capture the entirety of what Hollywood means — its way of immortalizing mortals, giving us icons to worship that often crumble when we look behind the curtain. The dream it casts, the glamor of the illusion it weaves. The way you can’t get the glory without the destruction.

So the movie alternates between frantic exhilaration and nearly comical levels of horror. (An elephant defecates directly onto the camera in the earliest scene, if you want to get a sense of what you’re in for.) Sex is everywhere. Drugs are everywhere, in a time when we had a much less clear idea of what they were doing to our bodies. Joy and destruction, and, at one point, an almost literal descent into hell. The feeling of an inexorable forward motion into the future, when all this will happen again, and again, and again, for a new generation to embrace. “The dream,” Joan Didion once wrote of Hollywood, “was teaching the dreamers how to live.”

Chazelle accomplishes this by continually and, seemingly, anachronistically referencing the future throughout the film. Visual and narrative references to other movies made later appear throughout (like Singing in the Rain, My Fair Lady, and, if I don’t miss my guess, Phantom Thread); by the end, the continuum is made explicit. This is a movie about how Hollywood casts a spell on all of us, while also churning through talented performers as if they’re replaceable — which, in the end, nearly all of them are. Much of that churn is predicated on technological changes, as well as the shifting tastes of the country. Most of it is just about money: who brings it in, who doesn’t, and who executives guess will maximize profits while causing as few headaches as possible.

That’s the sense in which Babylon is a profoundly humanist film, mourning the tragedies that litter Hollywood histories. But it’s also a worshipful film, one that gladly buys into the dream, the spell, the mystery of it all. That might read as simultaneously naive and cynical — but it’s a myth we know we’ve bought into, too, if we’ve sat ourselves down to watch a three-hour movie about half-remembered figures from 100 years ago. Weeks after I saw it, I cannot quite decide if Babylon is a good film. But I’m entranced, and moved, and frustrated, and transported — which is what Hollywood has built its business on accomplishing from the very beginning.

Babylon opens in theaters on December 23.