Within the first few minutes of Babylon, we’re treated to an avalanche of elephant shit and a man getting urinated on for sexual pleasure. As an appreciator of lurid, coarse and gaudy things, I laughed and gasped, mouth agape, a smile spreading deliciously across my face like Chuck Jones’ cartoon manifestation of the Grinch. And while what follows never quite reaches the debaucherous heights of these first handful of minutes, Babylon continues on its raucous path as both a passionate love letter to cinema, a damning eulogy for cinema and a pastiche of cinematic influences (somewhere in between Fellini and Paul Thomas Anderson) that writer/director Damien Chazelle never quite compares with. And yet he manages, somehow, to craft a memorable work that’s undoubtedly his own.
But it’s all a far cry from any of Chazelle’s previous three features, measured works of talent and craftsmanship that proved ample fodder for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. One was about a fervently committed student of jazz, one was a modern-day musical and love letter to jazz (Chazelle loves both jazz and to make films that are love letters to other things) and one was a biographical drama about Neil Armstrong. Chazelle returns following the box office lows of the latter film, 2018’s First Man, determined to make a big impression. But does he? This brings me to the pressing, overarching question that I’ve been mulling over ever since I stepped out of my Babylon screening: Does Damien Chazelle have the juice?
In recent months, I’ve been appointing things as either having “the juice” or not having “the juice.” It’s a good, simple and intrinsic metric to define quality, one that requires few words but speaks volumes. You might be reading this and wondering what exactly “the juice” is. How does one define “the juice,” and whether or not something or someone “has it?” But the juice need not be defined, lest it be diminished. The juice is a vibe, a feeling, an inextricable part of something’s DNA. You either have the juice or you don’t have the juice, it’s as simple as that. Examples of things or people that have the juice: James Cameron, Season 2 of The White Lotus, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, Austin Butler. Things that do not have the juice: Scream (2022), Ti West, Olivia Wilde, buccal fat removal. I digress.
So, let’s consider whether or not Damien Chazelle has the juice. Chazelle is used to making an impression, and already made a notable one in Hollywood eight years ago. Upon the release of his first feature, Whiplash—a tense, immersive psychological drama that earned J.K. Simmons’ towering performance an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor—Damien Chazelle was written about with the same sort of newly discovered wunderkind fervor as Paul Thomas Anderson once was. At 28-years-old, Chazelle had already made something nominated for Best Picture. At 32, he became the youngest person ever to win Best Director, for his sophomore film La La Land. And while the Ryan Gosling-led First Man went out with a quiet whimper instead of a bang four years ago, it still snagged four Oscar nominations. With Babylon, it’s clear that Chazelle wants to make a big impression again.
And Babylon does do just that, though mileage may vary. Some critics are calling it one of the best films of the year, while others are calling it not only the worst film of the year, but one of the worst films they’ve ever seen. Using fictional characters, Babylon charts the real-life transition from silent films into the talkies during 1920s Hollywood, and the fallout that many silent film actors experienced in the wake of this industry and culture-altering shift. But Chazelle doesn’t depict this turning point in history with the same steady, striking yet inconspicuous artistry that defined his previous three films; a talented but unremarkable personal style that put him somewhere between auteur and journeyman. Chazelle, like the characters of his first three films, are perfectionist technicians.
With Babylon, Chazelle goes for broke to create a stylish epic that attempts to indulge in the same excess as the roaring ‘20s—a three-hour exercise in nauseating technical vulgarity to rival that of Elvis, and sprawling, often convoluted interconnected story arcs as if to recreate the feeling of being on cocaine…like all of the film’s characters. The narrative focuses primarily on a handful of industry outsiders and a fading member of the old guard, working their way through a system that doesn’t value their labor. This highlights the degree to which punishing drudgery and abuse is necessary to keep the Hollywood machine well-oiled and to create the lasting art that moves us. The film ends on a montage of movies—new and old—that divides many viewers as to whether it celebrates cinema and what it’s taken to get us to where we are now, or eulogizes cinema and where it’s headed. Babylon embodies a decidedly cynical viewpoint for the director of La La Land to take on, with some critics calling it not only hypocritical, but cruel, hateful and opportunistic.
Wherever you fall on Babylon (for all its obvious flaws, I am very much on the positive side), it’s fantastic that the film has been so divisive. A healthy film discourse isn’t just founded on praise-singing or contemptuous loathing, but a mixture of the two. When a film provokes strong feelings on either end of the spectrum, a director has triumphed in a critical respect. Creating polarizing work is more interesting to me, more “juice-worthy,” than creating something that’s widely beloved and massages the favorable impulses of critics. Art should make some people angry at the same time it’s making others weep. The worst thing a movie can be is inoffensively ok.
But whether or not I liked Babylon, and whether or not it’s a good thing that it’s so polarizing, doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t answer the question of whether Damien Chazelle has the juice. At the same time, Babylon can’t help but, sometimes, feel like baby’s first provocation. This perception simmers under every scene meant to shock and awe, lending to the feeling that Chazelle is truly desperate to not simply impress anymore. Chazelle has already impressed us with his methodical prowess three times over, and maybe that hasn’t been enough for him. First Man was a masterful achievement in technical filmmaking that came and went, and already tends to be forgotten amid the widespread praise of La La Land and Whiplash. If Chazelle can’t catch our eyes with his sheer talent anymore, perhaps the next move is to overwhelm the senses.
But Chazelle isn’t Baz Luhrmann, or John Waters, or Brian De Palma—he doesn’t live and breathe tastelessness and sleaze. It’s hard to untangle the director’s clean-cut, Harvard boy roots and the chaste precision of his previous work with a new film that embeds its prestige sheen in projectile vomit and underground sex dungeons, and propulsive, comic camera pans that merely recall exploitation junkie Tarantino. It all comes off like Chazelle is a kid who’s out of his depth and knows it, too. It is difficult not to view his casting of Spike Jonze in the role of a frazzled, German silent film director as an intentional reference to Jonze’s status as a longstanding collaborator on the Jackass films. It’s as if Chazelle is interested in upping his street cred with the increasingly admired lowbrow, as his perfectionist work has begun to slide from view in the same year when Jackass Forever has topped many “Best of the Year” lists.
For all my enjoyment of Babylon—exceedingly messy, discordant, maximalist and decadent; qualities I tend to gravitate towards in art—it still rubbed me as an incredibly self-conscious film. In his efforts to leave audiences awe-struck, Chazelle reveals his artistic insecurities. In the final montage, Chazelle showcases clips from Persona, The Matrix and Avatar; groundbreaking works that are forever canonized in film history. Whether or not this montage is meant to be a celebration of cinema or a nail in its coffin, one can imagine Chazelle questioning whether any of his own works will ever be rubbing shoulders with the same films; would a fledgling director one day put La La Land or Whiplash in their own compilation of greats? It’s too soon to know where Chazelle’s work will fall as people look back on film history, but it’s too obvious that such a question nags at Chazelle to the degree that a film like Babylon gets made, in part, because of it. For these reasons, we must be clear: Damien Chazelle does not have the juice.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.