Babylon: A Box Office Catastrophe of Pure Joy


Damien Chazelle, the boyish auteur behind Whiplash and La La Land, is back with a bang with Babylon. Like his Oscar-nabbing musical, this is another love letter to Hollywood. It’s La La Land’s wilder, ruder sister.  

Set in the 1920s, it depicts Hollywood as an inferno of vice, temptation, and excess. And, boy, does it go for it. It kicks off with a staggering orgy sequence that crosses Gatsby with Caligula. It’s hard to believe, in an age of overly sanitised blockbusters, that a film this epic can be so gloriously X-rated. 

Its hedonism is hinted at by the title: ‘Babylon’ is both a biblical reference to the debauched city and a nod to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, a salacious exposé of early Tinseltown’s perverse secrets.

Like a dark reflection of Singin’ In The Rain, Chazelles’ opus depicts the transition from the silent era to the ‘talkies’. It’s a seismic shift, impacting the lives of three principal characters: starlet Nellie La Roy (Margot Robbie), matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), and ambitious dreamer Manny ( Diego Calva). 

Calva’s a charismatic young newcomer. Functioning partly as the audience surrogate into this insane world, he delivers a moving performance that grounds the film. It’s the emotional anchor that allows his glitzy costars to go off the leash with their colourful character turns. 

Robbie’s La Roy is a hurricane in a skimpy red dress, a manic performance that storms between seduction, rage and tragedy. Pitt, meanwhile, is effortlessly charming here. He’s an actor who soars when paired with idiosyncratic filmmakers (Tarantino, Fincher, the Coens…), and has once again found an ideal collaborator with Chazelle.

After the rather cold biopic First Man, it’s a joy to watch Chazelle let loose with this heady cocktail of social satire, dark comedy, and gross-out gags. There’s enough poo and vomit here to make Ace Ventura blush. 

The outrageous highs come with crashing lows, and Babylon does not shy from diving into the dark side of Hollywood. Stars are put on pedestals made of sand, only for the waves of change to send them crashing down. The showbiz dream can all too easily turn into a nightmare. 

Despite its warnings about the dangers of the industry, the film is clearly smitten with cinema, its love shining out of each of its gorgeous celluloid frames. Chazelle stumbles when it comes to the ending, tacking on a pointless montage, but there’s no denying that all of his choices come straight from the heart. It may have bombed at the box office, but this is a big-budget catastrophe worth celebrating.

An exhilarating epic, as outrageously explicit as it is movingly heartfelt. Babylon really has to be seen to be believed.


Babylon is currently showing at the Eden cinemas.