In Review: 'Babylon,' 'Living'
Damien Chazelle's offers a wild vision of Hollywood's earliest day while Bill Nighy delivers one of the year's best performances in a remake of a Kurosawa classic.
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Damien Chazelle’s Babylon opens, more or less, with a big pile of elephant shit. This is what is called a statement of intent. Should you come expecting a handsome, lacquered treatment of Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the silent era was making its transition to sound, Chazelle wants to make it plain that you’re not going to get it. His ‘20s are roaring, starting with a house party of Satyricon-esque delirium, during which the appearance of the elephant is merely the capper to an evening of orgiastic excess, funded by an industry that had exploded in popularity and cultural cachet. If any of the guests were to get trampled by the elephant, at least they would die happy.
The model for Babylon, outside the characters and urban myths Chazelle cherry-picks to give his impression of the era, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, shot through with the emotional relentlessness of Anderson’s Magnolia. The bifurcation of the silent and sound eras in Chazelle’s film are presented as starkly as Anderson’s porn chic ’70s shifting, via a gunshot at a New Year’s Eve party, into the dreary hangover of the ’80s, when the home video market turned adult films into an artless grind. There’s a slower fade between eras in Babylon, but the contrast is just as broad: Chazelle’s silent era is a fun, liberated community of work-hard/play-hard types who seek (and give) pleasure wherever they go; once those temperamental mics are set up on airless soundstages, the films turn stiff, the business reorders itself, and the marquee talents of yesteryear find themselves on the outside looking in.
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With an aggression that’s two-thirds exhilarating to one-third enervating, Chazelle directs, like the jazz drumming prodigy with bleeding hands in his Whiplash, without modulation or mercy. The events barrel into each other like the pratfalls in a Buster Keaton comedy, to the point where its hero’s rise through the film industry from production assistant to studio executive feels like it happens in one long, sleepless blur. There are big stars in the cast, but our wide-eyed surrogate is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American laborer who’s rewarded for his elephant-wrangling in the opening scene with grunt work on set the next day. No one will have gotten a wink of sleep the night before.
The fateful party that sets the events in motion takes place at the ranch estate of Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a major movie star whose flamboyant get-togethers are hottest invites in town. Other characters are introduced at the party, including Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a gossip columnist who’s entangled in her subjects’ lives; Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), an exotic cabaret singer and niche star of her own; and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpeter whose career in movies stands to benefit from sound. But no one makes a bigger impression—or grander entrance—than Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie), a wild child from Jersey whose absolute conviction that she will be famous turns out to be totally justified. And the smitten Manny gets in on the ground floor.
For as long as it stretches, Babylon feels like a movie of distinct set pieces, never better than that first visit to set, when Jack is off shooting a large-scale historical melodrama with dozens of extras and effects, and Nellie is making her debut on one of the many stages scattered around the open-air set. Because silence is not necessary for silent-film production, it’s a rambunctious and creatively charged atmosphere, and Manny quickly gains a foothold for himself when all the cameras break on Jack’s shoot and it’s up to him to peel into town to get a rental before they lose the light. It’s an intoxicating calamity, which is also a good way to describe Babylon much of the time.
In the scenes between set pieces, the film can feel rudderless and repetitive and loud, because characters like Nellie, for example, are put on such obvious narrative trajectories. Chazelle puts viewers through the wringer in the best of times, but as fortunes start to change for the worst, the film marshals a dark energy, particularly in a sequence that’s lifted nearly wholesale from the “Rectum” descent in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, one of our current century’s most difficult watches. The sheer heedlessness of Babylon is its finest quality, undercut a little by a squareness and sentimentality just under the surface. Chazelle seems to know we’re in another era that’s dying, too, and he’s inviting us to his own bonfire, with $80 million of Paramount’s money as kindling. The flame burns hot and it burns out, and movie lovers are left to wander off into the cold, cold night. —Scott Tobias
Babylon opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.
Dir. Oliver Hermanus
Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) leads by example. A mid-level bureaucrat in London’s public works department in the early 1950s, Williams dresses like a gentleman, attends to his work quietly, dutifully, and with appropriate seriousness. He both understands that the government’s ability to get anything meaningful done has some pretty severe structural limitations and isn’t shy about passing requests on to other departments or quietly tucking them in a pile of papers for another day. His employees do the same, as new hire Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharpe) soon discovers. He arrives eager to get things done, only to be told there’s a proper way to go about the job and getting things done is often secondary to it. Like those around him, he’s expected to punch in and punch out and ride the train back home soberly just like Williams does. Yes, it would be nice if the neighborhood women clamoring to turn a bombed-out vacant lot into a playground could get their wishes, but most wishes don’t come true, do they?
From the outside, Williams looks like a man incapable of, or at least uninterested in, introspection. But a dire diagnosis giving him six months to live (maybe nine if he’s lucky) upends his habits and his ability to hide his feelings, at least around some. After opting to head to the seaside instead of the office one day, Williams finds himself opening up to Sutherland (Tom Burke), a gregarious bohemian who first takes an interest in Williams because he’s willing to share his medicine then decides to show him a hedonistic good time. Williams talks even more freely with Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), a recently departed employee whose vivaciousness is a kind of beacon drawing him out of the darkness. But that doesn’t mean the darkness doesn’t still beckons.
If Living’s plot sounds familiar, there’s a reason. Directed by Oliver Hermanus and scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains of the Day and thus no stranger to mid-century English repression), the film adapts Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film in which Takashi Shimura plays a Tokyo bureaucrat who focuses his final days on turning a neighborhood cesspool into a playground. It’s tough work, remaking a masterpiece and, instead of reinventing the original beyond a change of scenery, Living opts to stay faithful in every detail to its inspiration. Ishiguro’s script keeps both the details of the original’s plot and its structure, and Hermanus complements it with restrained direction in a classic style, down to the choice of academy ratio and a credits sequence that could have been lifted from a British drama of the era it depicts. (The film does sub in period-appropriate watercolor hues for Kurosawa’s black-and-white.) More importantly, it stays true to Ikiru’s spirit, realized in part by fine supporting turns but especially by Nighy’s work in the lead.
Nighy delivers the kind of performance in which even the slightest change of expression feels meaningful, conveying Williams’ soul-deep crisis in gestures more than words. When he does speak, he’s careful about what he says and how he says it, sometimes practicing conversations before opting not to start them after all. Like Shimura before him, he plays the character as a man whose life has been dulled by years spent following a grinding routine and accepting lowered expectations. His newfound force of will in the face of death, however humble his goals, becomes an understated kind of heroism.
Years back I had the good fortune of attending a screening of Ikiru hosted by Roger Ebert. He introduced it as the rare film that could turn those who watch it into better people. I don’t know that I believe any film has that power, but I love that Ebert did. And if any film could make that claim it’s Ikiru, which depicts leading a good and meaningful life as hard work, but also the only work that matters. Driven by Nighy’s moving, understated work, Living’s faithfulness to Kurosawa’s film allows it both to echo that feeling while making it feel timeless. —Keith Phipps
Living opens today in limited release before expanding.
Nothing I hate more than reading a positive review for a film that Sony Pictures Classic won't release wide until Spring 2023.
edit 1/25: local AMC had promotional postcards advertising Living for 1/12/23 which is both a weird marketing idea and great news.
I’m debating whether to see Babylon while I’m on vacation this week. The main film this review reminded me of is John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust, with its apocalyptic vision of life in 1930s Hollywood that was made at Paramount nearly half a century ago, during a cycle that also yielded Merchant Ivory's The Wild Party, John Byrum's Inserts, Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon, Peter Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon, and Ken Russell's Valentino. Goes to show this kind of revisionist history is hardly new.