In “Babylon”, “Mon crime” and “The Fabelmans”, Chazelle, Ozon and Spielberg seem to miss a certain golden age of cinema. Despite the difficulties, it remains a living art today.
The same image circulates from film to film at the beginning of the year 2023: it is a huge room copiously filled with dazed spectators, who are all looking in the same direction, that of a gigantic screen.
We are at the heart of the 20th century. Films were screened in balcony rooms in front of thousands of people huddled together. In The Fabelmans by Steven Spielberg, a 5-year-old boy goes to the cinema for the first time accompanied by his parents. He sees, with wide eyes, projected on an immense wall, a train dismembering itself in a great chaos of wagons projected in the air (Under the biggest marquee in the world by Cecil B. DeMille, 1953). He comes out concussed, temporarily unable to speak, the sensory explosion was so immense.
In babylon by Damien Chazelle, a man bursts into tears in front of Let’s sing in the rain (1952). It must be said that he worked in Hollywood in the 1920s and that the film, telling the story of the violent industrial transition from silent to talking, resonates strongly with his own life (normal since Damien Chazelle plundered, to write his film, Let’s sing in the rain – and it is not because he heavily spills the beans with this clever epilogue that his gesture differs from plagiarism).
In my crime by François Ozon, the two heroines cross the Paris of the 1930s to see Bad Seed by Billy Wilder. In the room, they listen, charmed, among a dense and intoxicated audience, Danielle Darrieux humming in her nightingale voice.
These three projection scenes tell the same thing in the same tone: the vanished magic of these sumptuous temples that constituted the cinemas of the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s; the fervor of these vast crowds gathered in front of a popular spectacle that spoke to everyone; the liturgical dimension of this pagan ceremony, between the mass and the hypnosis, which constituted a cinema session. Such nostalgic outpourings are not without some awkward questions. What if the heyday of cinema was definitely far behind us, and the most desirable spectacle it could still offer was essentially the staging of its own legend?
The epilogue of babylon is, from this point of view, revealing. On the screen where is projected Let’s sing in the rain are replaced by images from Muybridge’s first films, then the arrival of the Light train, the Enucleated Moon by Méliès, The vampires de Feuillade, Louise Brooks, The Wizard of Ozthe first Godards, personas of Bergman and so on until Avatar. The sequence is a bit awkward. It is both an advertising spot from a Ministry of Culture for the rescue of theaters and a tribute clip projected at the opening of an Oscar ceremony. And even running to Cameron (thus the extreme present, via the current box ofAvatar 2…), such a prayer has something a little funereal about it.
Of course, there is cinema as a symbol, a grand total, legendary storytelling. And then there are the films, which we necessarily love in isolation, or which we reject, which we tear away in any case from this great unified narrative. In spite of the correspondences between the films, one can for example find the Babylonian fresco of Damien Chazelle grandiloquent and superficial and on the contrary overwhelming and totally inhabited the autobiography as a man engendered by the cinema of Steven Spielberg. We will have the opportunity to return often and at length to the magnificent The Fabelmans until its release on February 22. We also hope that by then, and after, many other films will be able to tear cinema away from these testamentary daydreams and will affirm in action that it is also an art of the 21st century.