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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11 Comments to “Film review: Inglourious Basterds”

  1. David Fili says:

    I was surprised how engaging it was. Be sure to look through the completed ones…tabs on the left of the screen.DonnaPerugini recently posted..Stickman LIVES! Draw Stickman and Watch Him Move

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  3. Penny says:

    thank you for the review. Mr. Tarrantino is noted for his violent longish movies here in US. when he wrote a 2 part episode for a series about Nevada CSI workers, it was the most violent of the series and one of the lead actors was buried underground.
    as for Brad Pitt, once I saw the ads with him speaking, i wondered what accent he was doing, didnt’ sound like any German accent i have ever heard and now you say he is supposedly from Tennesse. well that’s not their accent either. actually he is better at producing than acting. he is not even eye candy.
    i look forward to your review of the Reader and of course more artwork from 18th century.
    Merci Madame Catherine

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Certainly, Cheryl, the world is a dark and frightening place today, but no darker, more frightening or more violent than in the past. I found the violence in this film disturbing, and still more disturbing the reaction of the audience. Yet this seems to be a great commercial success in spite of everything…

  5. Cheryl S says:

    That Quentin Tarentino achieved this much success in life is a sad commentary on where we are as a society.
    Mr. Tarentino is a dark and sinister man.
    What is the excuse for his type of movie, that they mirror the world we live in? That the darker elements of man’s nature need to be explored?
    Excuse me but, I would rather have a peaceful mind rather than a terrorized one…thanks any Mr. T.
    It is the Tarentino type film that have helped in reducing our society to new lows of indecency, vulgarity, and wretchedness.
    I find nothing redeeming in watching some persons head being bashed in with a baseball bat no matter how great the acting was or, how hard they needed to rehearse! Boo Hoo.
    The world celebrates Mr. Tarentino for his brilliance and talent.
    Why am I always shocked at that????
    He should be shunned!
    I wouldn’t order a hamburger from Quentin Tarentino!
    That people in the theater were not shocked and horrified at the violence but giggling, is sad testament that Mr. Tarentino helped significantly in transforming our society into the dark and frightening place it is today.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Frankly, Elisa, I can’t tell whether his accent is any good. His perforrnance was probably the weakest I have seen so far.

  7. Elisa says:

    Brad Pitt gave an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning American” last month. He mentioned that he learned to do a Tennessee accent for the movie.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Sure, Harlan, speaking of noir, I was reminded of Kiss of the Spider Woman, though that one was more compelling. Thanks for directing me to the Charlie Rose interview!

    Here’s the link to it:
    http://charlierose.http.internapcdn.net/charlierose/082109CRS.wmv

  9. Harlan Lewin says:

    Catherine,
    I am fascinated by the giggling in the audience. Something’s up. I haven’t seen the movie but I saw Charlie Rose interview Tarentino who kept saying the movie wasn’t historical or a comment on the Holocaust, just a story, which would fit with the spaghetti western formula. Rather than a spaghetti western it sounds like an imitation or unintentional send-up of noir movies about WWII. I don’t intend to see it. Even The Producers, whose satire is sympathetic gave me the creeps. I’ll spend the time re-watching The Last Metro. I’ll stick to Eastwood for my spaghetti.

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Arnie! I believe Tarentino was quite serious about the spaghetti western reference. I believe he even tried to hire Ennio Morricone to score the film.

    As for The Reader, I found it very disturbing in that it failed to deal honestly with the Holocaust. I will publish my review next week, and we will compare notes…

  11. Catherine,

    I have not seen Tarantino’s film, but I found your review interesting nonetheless, and have a few quick reactions:

    1. Without knowing Tarantino’s politics (but guessing he was not a supporter of George W. Bush), or whether his statement about the film being a modern kind of spaghetti western was tongue in cheek, I find exceedingly likely your suggestion that this film is, or maybe became, a not so covert commentary on the American jingoism in the Iraq War.

    2. I am curious to read your review of The Reader, which I thought was a great film, which dealt with complex moral issues in a complex way, but I gather you did not.

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