Design a site like this with
Get started


Director: Damien Chazelle (USA). Year of Release: 2022

1926, Bel Air California. The Los Angeles suburb which will become part of Greater Hollywood is still largely dust track and desert. A man drives a horse box, ready to pick up his latest delivery. Turns out that he’s not moving a horse, but taking an elephant to a party thrown by a movie exec. While he and one of the movie exec’s minions struggle to transport the elephant up a mountain, it becomes agitated and covers them in shit. If this is your idea of hilarity, you’re in the right place.

We move inside the party which is full of enforced jollity and gratuitous nudity. A fat man lies on the floor as a woman pisses on him. He gets excited, saying in a childish voice that it tickles. If you are that way inclined, you can spend your time trying to work out which real life actors and Hollywood executives are being portrayed here. Personally, I think that this sort of stage wink to people who have read more film history than they ought to, is the worst kind of showing off.

As the film develops, we are introduced to a number of characters from the party. First there’s Jack Conrad, a much married actor with a Clark Gable moustache, although this is a generation before Gable. Conrad is struggling to negotiate the transition to talkies and we follow the degeneration of his career. In one scene he sneaks into a cinema and watches with horror as the audience bursts into laughter at the lines he delivers, lines which he thought were the epitome of elegance.

Then there’s the elephant carrying gopher Manuel Torres (please call me Manny). Manny is from Mexico, but he tells people he’s from Madrid to avoid anti-Mexican prejudice. He is desperate to get a job – any job – in the movie industry, and is jubilant to be offered a job working for Jack. He climbs his way up the greasy pole and eventually finds work as a film producer, although he tells the actors what to do on set, and tries to pass himself off as a film executive.

Manny helps Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress (they weren’t called actors back then) into the party. Nellie tells Manny that she may not have been in any films, but she is already a star – you are either born a star or you aren’t. As the film proceeds, she acquires a career as well as a gambling and drugs habit. Manny tries to protect her throughout and we learn the worst secret in the world when he professes his undying love for her. We’d worked that one out for ourselves, thanks.

Chronicling it all is Elinor St John, who I don’t remember seeing at the party. Elinor is a supercilious critic, whose main function in the film is to move the plot along for other characters. So it is Elinor who teaches Nellie how to mix in high society, in what presumably is a hommage to My Fair Lady (did you know that hommage is French for “blatant rip off by someone who lacks the wit of the original”?) And it is she who tells Jack that he’s a washout, but hey, he’ll live through his films.

Then there are the two clearly non-white characters (Manny is able to pass as a Spaniard). Lady Fay Zhu is a lesbian Asian-American singer who has an erotic scene with Nellie when the actress decides to night wrestle a snake (there are lots of scenes like this, which look pretty but make no sense at all if you pause to think). As Hollywood cleans up its act, Lady Fay is eased out of both Hollywood and this film. She steals the scenes that she’s in, but is allowed very little personality.

Finally Sidney Powell is a Black trumpeter who is playing in the band at the party. Although Sidney occasionally appears in the film, he’s only allowed one real scene, when Manny persuades him to Black up, as he’s too pale skinned for an audience in the Southern States. This is a terrible indictment of recent racism, but we only see it as something which happens to Sidney. We are not allowed to know what he thinks, and after this scene he effectively disappears from the film.

I must admit to leaving Babylon feeling a bit cheated. I have since read that there were some people who actually liked it, but the initial reviews I read were so unremittingly negative that I went expecting a new level awful (I can’t add much to this hatchet job by the wonderful Eileen Jones). So, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the film, but I was anticipating something that is so bad that it would provide a memorable experience. Something like Spencer, say.

So, I regret to report that Babylon isn’t terrible, it’s just a bit bland and boring. There are some individual scenes which may have even worked in a different film, but this is such an incoherent mess that here they feel like an insult to our intelligence. There may be a place somewhere for subterranean crocodiles and rat eating. But in Babylon it all just seemed to be part of a desperate “please look at me” vibe which rejected any thought of plot in favour of mindless spectacle.

This review comes, as ever, with the caveat ”other opinions are possible”.Tonight’s cinema was packed, even though the film has been running for several weeks already, and finished at an antisocial time on Sunday evening. And, yes, some people laughed, even at the elephant shitting scene. At the same time, the laughter died down as the film went on (and on), and a few people left the cinema early. The fact that I didn’t shows how seriously I take this reviewing lark.

But the biggest question remains. This all lasts over 3 hours. Why? Just why?

%d bloggers like this: