Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Glorious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds

Although it's unlikely to win Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards (the best film on the list of nominations that I've seen is The Hurt Locker), Inglourious Basterds still comes as something of a happy surprise. Director Quentin Tarantino works from a movie-fed imagination, one that's completely soaked in a love of genre films – art movies, Asian action films, and exploitation pictures. But in his most celebrated works, like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), he made a fetish out of movie love. If Jean-Luc Godard had, according to author Paul Coates, once transformed movie audiences into film critics, Tarantino chose to turn his audience into pop culture junkies who savoured his insider movie references. In recent years, with the hubris of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, and more recently, the torpor of Death Proof, Tarantino was pretty much swallowing his own tale. But Inglourious Basterds, an alternate World War II action drama, shows Tarantino bringing his movie intoxication to bear on something more than just indulging a fetish. Without question, it’s his best film.

Inglourious Basterds is a pipe dream soaked in the aroma of old World War Two films. It's a fairy-tale account of the Second World War, where a Jewish guerrilla outfit led by a non-Jewish American southerner, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), wreaks havoc on the occupying Nazi army in France. As they send Adolph Hitler (Martin Wuttke) into fits of rage, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known as “the Jew Hunter” (in a self-conscious style worthy of Columbo), also tracks down the Basterds. Although that’s the basic storyline, Inglourious Basterds sets up a number of narratives introduced by chapters (just as he did in Pulp Fiction). But this time the multiple stories deepen the underlying theme of the picture rather than call attention to their cleverness. As for the theme itself, Critics at Large film critic Shlomo Schwartzberg, writing in the Canadian Jewish News, already put his finger on it. “Inglourious Basterds evokes a ‘reality’ that so many Jews, understandably, wish had existed during World War Two,” Schwartzberg writes.”[It’s] a world in which Jews…could have taken charge of their own destiny without being beholden to non-Jews who, mostly, were indifferent to their fate.”

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt

At its core, Schwartzberg’s point makes for a pretty potent subject, an alternate history that could inspire a justifiable blood lust, but (for once) Tarantino doesn’t use cathartic violence as a means to pander to the audience. Instead he wakes us from the illusions that those violent genre movies can create. He shrewdly mixes in real characters, like Hitler and Goebbels (Sylvester Goth), with fictional ones like Landa, German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger invoking Dietrich), who’s working with the Allies; and the Basterd Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), who’s called “The Bear Jew” because of his abilities to club Nazis to death with his baseball bat. The strategy is to set up a dramatic shell-game with our cinematic memory. All through Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s people don disguises, personas and allusions (mostly figures out of film and literature) only to have their masks ultimately stripped away.

Christoph Waltz

Tarantino works deftly with an international ensemble cast that speaks German, French, Italian and English. German actor Christoph Waltz, who deservedly won the Best Actor Prize in Cannes, is a frighteningly slippery figure, an unnerving portrait of the adaptable bureaucrat (by way of Klaus Barbie) who possesses an expedient morality. Waltz is clever enough to uncover the Nazi resistors but he doesn’t (except once) attack them; rather, he asks his prey leading questions that allows each individual to trip into his noose. (In these particular extended scenes, Tarantino has never written sharper dialogue that dramatically pays off.)

While I would have liked the Basterd members to be a little bit more defined, Brad Pitt gives Raine some nicely textured flourishes as a mountain man who doesn’t get turned into a hick. (Imagine an Appalachian Van Johnson playing Patton.) Melanie Laurent is also luminous as Shoshanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish refugee who survives her family’s slaughter at the hands of Landa. While living under an assumed name, she runs a small movie theatre and draws the amorous attention of a young German soldier Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who becomes a war hero after gunning down a number of Allied soldiers. To provide morale for the troops, Goebbels makes a movie about Zoller (with the soldier getting to portray himself). This marksman appeals to Goebbels to have the movie premiere at Shoshanna’s theatre in order to impress her. While Shoshanna agrees, it’s only so she can launch her own plot to avenge her parents. But unbeknown st to her, the Basterds are also cooking up a plan to trap the entire high command of the Nazi leadership who will also be in attendance. In those final scenes, which contain a few unexpected epiphanies, Inglourious Basterds achieves a grandeur that is both spellbinding and unsettling.

Inglourious Basterds occasionally goes off the rails in tone (especially in some back-story inserts narrated by Samuel Jackson), but this is Tarantino’s most ambitiously fulfilling movie. Without losing any of his swagger, Quentin Tarantino has devised a story that uncorks his talent in a whole new way. By giving meaning and purpose to his abundant technique, he shows us what movie love is truly for.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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