DIR: Quentin Tarantino
CAST: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent,
Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Michael Fassbender
“Y’ know what? I think this might just be my masterpiece.”
So ends Quentin Tarantino’s long awaited Inglourious Basterds, the men on a mission movie he’s spent a decade talking about making. As Brad Pitt leans into camera and delivers that line it is hard not to see Tarantino in his place, addressing us the audience. There are, indeed, moments in the glorious mess that is Inglourious Basterds that come close to justifying that statement, but as a whole the film doesn’t quite hang together.
Given that Tarantino’s been working on it for so long you would have thought that the story of the Basterds - a team of Jewish-American soldiers sent behind enemy lines to kill, and scalp, Nazis - would be the beating heart of this film. That’s not the case. Not only do the Basterds play a more minor role than you might expect in terms of their screentime, they have little role to play in the film’s real overarching story, and what they do doesn’t really change the outcome of anything. If Inglourious Basterds didn’t feauture the characters it is named for the only real difference in the film would be that it would be shorter, tighter, and more focused. It is the other story in the film that really holds things together, and really commands the attention as a narrative. That story is about Shoshana Dreyfus (Laurent), whose entire family is murdered by ‘Jew hunter’ Hans Landa (Cannes Best Actor winner Waltz). Four years later, now running a cinema in Paris, Shoshana gets a chance at vengeance when her cinema is chosen to host the premiere of Goebbels’ latest propaganda film, with the entire Nazi high command in attendance.
Tarantino does, late in the day, and very loosely, draw these threads together, but the overwhelming feeling is that he wrote two films and decided to shoot them as one. Brad Pitt is cartoonish as Aldo Raine; with a southern accent straight out of comic stereotypes r us, and he gives a big, bold, strutting performance. It’s about an inch from going too far, but ends up working because it fits the tone that Tarantino is going for here. This is a film largely about wish fulfillment: the Nazi’s were so foul and evil that it is easy to empathise with the desire to kill them in outrageously violent and pitiless ways, and equally easy to empathise with the desire to do what Tarantino does here and comprehensively rewrite history. It is the tone that Tarantino takes that really allows Inglourious Basterds to work, he’s so clearly dancing on the edge of becoming parodic that even the film’s most outlandish flourishes work within this alternate, heightened world that he’s building. It may be a gigantic mess of a film, but it’s a ridiculously entertaining mess.
My attention was most engaged by the story of Shoshana. In one outstanding scene she encounters Landa at a restaurant. That scene is full of Tarantino’s snappy dialogue, but it is the physical performances of both Laurent (her constantly darting eyes) and Waltz (his total assurance and frighteningly matter of fact manner) that really make it play. Pitt may be the name, but Waltz and Laurent are the stars of this movie and whenever either is on screen the film is better for it. Waltz gives what, by right, should be a starmaking performance as Landa. At times he’s a riot, hamming it up outrageously during the movie’s funniest scene, in which he reveals an ability to speak fluent Italian. In other scenes he’s shark like, predatory, threatening, dispassionate, and fucking scary. This works best in the film’s long opening scene, a brilliant short film in it’s own right where, despite his outward friendliness, Waltz hints at Landa’s total corruption. It’s a very nicely judged piece of acting; technically accomplished in all four of the languages it is delivered in, and steals the film completely. Melanie Laurent is another real find, a gorgeous young French actress who I had never previously heard of, but will now be looking out for. She makes for an interesting avenger, because her slight frame and willowy beauty belie her intentions.
In this story we really get to know the characters. Landa may be entertaining, but he’s instantly hateable, while Shoshana is easy to like and her desire for vengeance is easy to share. There’s also more good work done here, particularly in the story that has Daniel Bruhl, as a German war hero and the star of Goebbels’ movie, falling for Shoshana. That’s an interesting thread, because Bruhl is charming and engaging, and if his character weren’t a Nazi war hero you can imagine that we’d soon be watching a romantic comedy. It adds a little complexity to what is, by its own admission, a rather shallow film. The best part of the whole movie lies in the detail of Shoshana’s plan; using a pile of highly flammable nitrate film in place of explosives, to destroy her cinema and Nazi high command. It is a genius idea, and one that feels like it belongs in a film by the world’s most famous cinephile, and Tarantino pulls it off beautifully in a stunning, exciting and frenetic climactic sequence.
If this were the whole of Inglourious Basterds then I think it would be among the best films of the year so far. The problem comes in the film’s bitty and digressive nature. Every so often, as this story advances, we’ll get what feels like an episode of The Adventures of the Inglourious Basterds. These often resemble an ultraviolent cartoon, and seem, for the most art, to exist in a strange limbo, some way from the main thrust of the movie. These episodes, with the notable exception of an interminable set piece in a basement, are all highly entertaining, but they are digressions. They also lack even the modicum of character and depth afforded in Shoshana’s story. Only three of the Basterds (Pitt, Eli Roth and Til Schweiger, great as a German fighting with the Basterds) has more than a handful of lines, indeed a majority remain mute and because of the narrow parameters of their mission (“we’re in the killn’ nazi bidness”) none ever really develops much depth, or engages our sympathy the way Shoshana does. They feel more like the film’s jesters, but the rest of the movie hardly takes itself seriously, and so their presence is barely required.
Tarantino isn’t a director given to restraint, but he really lets himself off the leash here. Inglourious Basterds is a real visual treat. During the opening sequence there is one great shot that, after a long preamble, takes us under the floorboards of a house and ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels, without a word being spoken. The most stunning sequence, though, is the final set piece, with Shoshana’s face taunting her victims from the cinema screen, and the going up in flames. There is perhaps nothing as iconic as the Reservoir Dogs walking down the street, but visually this is Tarantino’s freshest film in some time, he leans less heavily on his visual obsessions (though there is a foot fetish moment, and Diane Kruger’s feet are, it has to be said, much more attractive than Uma Thurman’s). Tarantino is having fun here, and so do we. It’s ill disciplined and overlong, but that is forgivable.
For the most part Inglourious Basterds feels less like a feature and more like a series of short films. Most of them are great on their own terms, though one falls flat. As a whole the film is massively entertaining, and throws up many memorable moments, but it ends up being too much of a mess to be a truly great movie, which it could have been.