The age-old question of the death of cinema seems to have gained momentum in recent years, between the rise of platforms, the closure of theaters during a pandemic and the difficulties of recovery.
In any case, it coincides with a general impulse of its defenders to declare their love for an art to which their existence is summed up. 2022 thus ends with no less than three films devoted to the seventh art, from Spielberg to Mendes , via Chazelle , who had already probed behind the scenes of the system, and returns here to expose the turning point taken by the industry at the end of the 1920s when talkies arrived.
Damien Chazelle has here his great work, and spares no effort to live up to the myth he describes: the form is ample (3h08), the actors are first class, and the picture is exhaustive with a series of shots -sequences on the sets where the industry is running at full speed, repeating this panoramic view of the simultaneous filming that we already saw in Singin’ in the Rain or Bogdanovich ‘s Nickelodeon .
Chazelle seeks to capture the crazy energy of the dream factory, and the way in which it perfectly embraces the mantra of a nation presented as the “land of opportunity”, where careers are made on the roll of a dice, and where luck is granted to everyone, from the street girl to the Latin warehouseman, including the African-American musician: multiracial, overflowing with ideas and initiatives, cinema is in tune with what the industry can have more galvanizing.
But it is of course a question of investing in the same movement the backstage of such euphoria, where excess is the key word: in this era of the Pre-Code, money and notoriety seem to have pulverized any notion limit. The gigantic orgiastic party which opens the film sets the tone: Chazelle makes the backstage an object of pure cinema, marries the crowd on cocaine and delivers a trashy modulation of the register including Baz Lurhamnmade himself the specialist.
Nothing will be spared, as evidenced by this opening shot of an elephant defecating directly on the camera: piss, vomit, spit, blood and other secretions will flood the frame, in a continuous catharsis seeing belching bodies incapable of supporting the excesses that we impose on them.
Bad taste is assumed, and this other side of the coin does not only consist of scraping the varnish of glamor: it also makes vulgarity the very material of cinema, with an audacity which risks leaving more than one on the spot. side.
Because Chazelle , in his stylistic exercise aiming to pastiche the infinite range of the seventh art, summons as much the magnitude of a Griffith as the decadence of a Von Stroheim, and updates them by citing the cocaine-induced excess of a Scorsese ( Margot Robbie clearly follows in the footsteps of DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street for her performance) or the descent into the mysteries of perversion of a Gaspar Noé .
This gallery of monsters can obviously be off-putting, and over more than three hours, certain sequences may seem less effective than others, like this revolt against the right-thinking society on which we vomit exactly as Ruben Ostlund proposed in Without Filter. But this vulgarity is not limited to a gratuitously provocative motif: it is, in a certain way, the nerve of creativity during the discovery of the actress, who, in a silent cinema where everything passes through the body, knows precisely sway, cry or dance on command, and direct his wildness directly towards the lens.
This is also the interest of the film, not to make its protagonists simple victims of a system which will crush them: on the contrary, the latter knows how to feed on their savagery, their spinelessness (Brad Pitt’s character ) or their ability to get rid of all empathy (the Latino who became executive director for the big clean-up in the studios).
And when the party is over, the animals wake up in pain. Chazelle, here too, works in detail on the question of the arrival of talkies, notably in a very long sequence resuming, in eight takes, the entire revolution of sound recording on a set. And this is probably where all the vigor of his vast enterprise lies: summoning all possible registers to celebrate the work of cinema artisans, and in particular humor.
Babylon is an often hilarious film, which makes fun of the difficulties encountered by a freewheeling industry, in which people die regularly, all in a permanent race against time. The sunset sequence is in this way a model of the genre, which allows us to move from the most disheveled comedy to the tempo of a virtuoso alternating montage, before converging towards an explosion which, deactivating all the parodic and cynical charge of the beginnings , kneels before the magic that the teams managed to bring about.
This powerful emotion, although it can obviously fade over the more than three hours of the story, and become impoverished in a few somewhat didactic speeches, is never lost sight of. We find it in the sequence where Robbie listens to the audience’s reaction and replays three years later the one she embodied to perfection in Once upon a time in Hollywood , the essential reunion of Chazelle with the musicians he can’t help but film, and the empathy with which he accompanies the icons doomed to disappear.
The metaphor of the fire and the shadow cockroaches that survive in it describes with a certain accuracy this art of too bright light that is the star system, and the impossible wisdom of those who expose themselves to it. By gradually leaving the stars in the off-camera of a doorframe or the opaque night of a deserted street in Los Angeles, Chazelle salutes a bygone era and gradually silences the shattering tumult of his Roaring Twenties .
The epilogue of La La Land fantasized, in the form of a chromatic summary, the life of a couple who could not exist in reality; that of Babylon restores to the much-cited film, Singing in the Rain , the ability to inscribe the passage of time into the mythological legend.
And too bad if here too, Chazelle does too much by excessively quoting the entire history of future cinema, too bad if his film was a resounding flop during its American release: a small link among the candidates for oblivion, lucid disciple of posterity, his last love song will consist of passing the baton to let the artists intone the requiem, convinced that they alone have the power to sublimate the pain, in this collective art and now more than a century old, resuming on his account the truth delivered to one of his characters: “ It’s bigger than you ”.