Film review: Inglourious Basterds

The stated goal of Mr. Tarentino, the director, was to make a spaghetti western. I know too little about that subgenre to assess the success of this film in this regard. Inglourious Basterds could certainly be called many other things. A war thriller, for instance, though it does not really work as such because it is too slow-paced and wordy to create any sense of suspense. Or one could simply classify Inglourious Basterds as a World War II historical. If so, it rather starkly distinguishes itself from the rest of the genre by taking an original position: here the sadistic killers are Jews and the hapless victims German soldiers. But then no one ever faulted Mr. Tarentino for making conventional movies.

Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarentino

Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarentino

In a nutshell the eponymous Basterds are a unit of the United States military composed of Jewish soldiers of German or Austrian origin. Their mission is to operate behind enemy lines and spread terror among German soldiers by scalping them, bashing their skulls with baseball bats and carving swastikas into their foreheads. Oddly enough, this unit is headed by Second Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who not only is not Jewish but does not speak a word of German. This should disqualify him for this type of mission, but this is not the sole instance where the film requires a total suspension of disbelief. It obviously does not aim for what is likely or historically accurate, but rather for a type of graphic violence more typical of video games than traditional cinema.

A parallel story is that of Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent) a young Jewish woman from Eastern France, who has barely escaped the massacre of her family at the hands of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz.) A few years later, Shoshanna, who now calls herself Emmanuelle Mimieux, mysteriously finds herself the proprietress of a movie theater in Paris.

The two threads meet when the Basterds and Shoshanna independently plan on destroying her movie theater, commandeered for the premiere of a propaganda film, which all the Nazi brass, including Hitler himself, will be attending.

There are several problems with the film. First, as noted above, it moves at a glacial pace and would have benefited from losing an hour or so. There is in particular a sort of parlor game in a French tavern between German officers, a German actress who is a double agent, and the Basterds that seems interminable. It is not without interest in its own, but it slows down the film to such an extent that we lose sight of the plot.

The second issue is Brad Pitt’s performance as Lieutenant Raine, who is supposed to be the lead character. Mr. Pitt sports an unexplained rope mark around his neck, and speaks in what purports to be a Tennessee accent. The part is so contrived and over-the-top that it would have required a great character actor, à la Jack Nicholson, to pull it off. Mr. Pitt never rises above cartoonish.

inglourious basterds Christoph Waltz

inglourious basterds Christoph Waltz

But not all is lost on the performance front!  Another actor jumps in and steals the show: Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He is charming, witty, débonnaire (when he is not killing people in his professional capacity, that is,) speaks fluently several languages. He smokes a pipe reminiscent of fellow sleuth Sherlock Holmes, for the Colonel prides himself of being an expert Jew hunter. Mr.Waltz won, quite deservedly, a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Festival.

Melanie Laurent Inglourious Basterds

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

Female performances are all good, and that of Mélanie Laurent, whom I had watched before in minor parts in various French films, stands out. Her Shoshanna, unlike the Basterds, is not a mere sociopath. She retains a sense of humanity. We sympathize with her exasperation when she unwittingly attracts the attentions of the real-life and onscreen “hero” of the Nazi propaganda film, we share her contempt and pity for him, her unwavering determination to seek not only revenge but justice.

Furthermore Mr. Tarentino should be commended for hiring actors who are native French and German speakers, instead of Americans specializing in fake foreign accents. In fact the only fake accent in the film is that of Brad Pitt. This is rare enough in Hollywood not to go unnoticed. Hopefully Mr. Tarentino will be a trendsetter in this regard.

I wondered about something that has, to my knowledge, not been discussed by the director or professional film critics. So maybe it is just me,but I could not help thinking of recent inglorious episodes of the Irak war, when some American troops, on orders of their superiors, likewise engaged in conduct that was contrary to international and U.S. law. Are the Basterds of the film a reference to Abu Ghraib and similar events? Even the actor who played Hitler resembled more the late Saddam Hussein than the Führer.

On a final note, something bothered me while I was watching the film: the audience kept giggling during the entire movie. Not outright laughs, but embarrassed, adolescent giggles. Strange, because I saw this in the United Kingdom, where it is rated 18, meaning that no one under that age is allowed in, even accompanied by an adult.Personally I did not find the film funny, and am at a loss to interpret the audience’s reaction. Guilty pleasure at the display of violence, perhaps?

Anne Thompson, in her review for Variety notes that “Tarentino throws you out of the movie with titles, chapter headings, snatches of music.” Very true, and it is all to Mr. Tarentino’s credit to make it clear that his film is not meant as a realistic depiction of World War II, but as a revenge fantasy, a thought-provoking alternate history. I would have appreciated the same level of honesty from another WWII film, The Reader.

Melanie Laurent Inglourious Basterds

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

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