Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 23, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Screen Director Spotlight: Damien Chazelle

Director Spotlight: Damien Chazelle

Niamh Cherrett explores Damien Chazelle's flamboyant, colourful world, declaring La La Land her top pick.
5 mins read
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Director Spotlight: Damien Chazelle

BABYLON | Official Trailer (2022) | Paramount

Niamh Cherrett explores Damien Chazelle’s flamboyant, colourful world, declaring La La Land her top pick.

Damien Chazelle is a director whose love of cinema runs evident above all else. Across his three major films, Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016), and Babylon (2022), he creates a sense of the artist searching for their moment in history. You can genuinely gauge his passion for the industry and his recognition of its extreme instability. 

Beginning with Whiplash, Chazelle’s fascination with the obsessed artist becomes evident. The film depicts a budding drummer attempting to cope with his abusive conductor in the search for fame. Throughout the narrative, he discards the good in his life in what he sees as the only path to artistic prominence. Chazelle plays with the notion that pain equals greatness, as Andrew suffers both at the hands of the physically and mentally abusive Terence Fletcher and himself, physically bleeding across his drum set. Across the narrative, I found myself emotionally exhausted, whether desperate for Andrew to stop drumming or entirely absorbed in his dedication to fame. For me, the film’s best part is the final scene, as Andrew finally levels Terence’s obsessive power and therefore achieves his pinnacle of artistic perfection. This five-minute refusal to look away from Andrew’s drumming holds us in this mentality and summits the pain, glory, loss and insanity of the obsessed but brilliant artist. 

In La La Land, this obsession emerges through Chazelle’s love of cinema, as Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone brilliantly illustrate the staged perfection of early Hollywood. This film is not for realists, with perfectly formed cinematography, use of colour, costume, and choreography, but for those who appreciate the marvel of Singin’ in the Rain or Rebel without a Cause. Chazelle’s work pays homage to these cinematic works and plays upon their wondrous yet abandoned techniques. La La Land is my favourite of these three films, as it captures the fleeting beauty within the young, exciting, tumultuous love of Sebastian and Mia and in the revival of music and choreography that is unknown in modern Hollywood. This film feels like a nostalgic reach back to a more optimistic time but also reflects its heart-breaking transience. As Mia and Sebastian look at each other in the final scene, we are transported back across their relationship and the optimism of this cinematic period and left with a profoundly nostalgic desire for more. 

From highs to lows, obsession to insanity, pain to beauty, Chazelle perfectly illustrates the glorious turbulence of Hollywood

In both Whiplash and La La Land, a sense of control runs through Chazelle’s filmmaking process; in his most recent film Babylon, however, this couldn’t be further away. Babylon is unhinged; from its outset, the seemingly endless party scene epitomises the hedonistic chaos of 1920s Hollywood. Gone is the staged perfection of Mia and Sebastian, as Chazelle looks behind stylised Hollywood to portray Nellie – and all her accompanying madness. This film doesn’t give a moment’s respite. Instead, it encapsulates the limitless madness and glory of this industry, flung between death, sex, drugs, and gangs, and culminating in an extraordinary montage of the entire history of cinema. I loved this film and thought the decadent insanity it portrayed was thoroughly entertaining, but I can also understand the criticism that Chazelle was perhaps aiming too high. Amongst multiple storylines running across every part of Hollywood from 1926 to 1952, perhaps Chazelle mislaid his delicate touch. Unlike my response to his other films, I was not left with that nostalgic desire for more, but rather an overwhelmed saturation. This film watched like the culmination of Hollywood, but also the culmination of Chazelle’s Hollywood fascination, and I genuinely have no idea where he can go next. 

Damien Chazelle’s films are some of my favourites, not because of their narrative, characters, or style – but rather to the emotion they induce. Each of these films portrays time’s fleeting nature but does not hesitate to attempt to capture that moment. From highs to lows, obsession to insanity, pain to beauty, Chazelle perfectly illustrates the glorious turbulence of Hollywood and leaves you caught between wanting more but knowing that it wouldn’t have been as good if it had continued.

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