BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 21, 2009
There is a moment in the first scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds that is not what it appears to be. A Nazi colonel named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is interviewing a French farmer (Denis Menochet) he believes to be sheltering Jews. Landa is conducting the inquiry in more than passable French (yes, with subtitles and everything), when he pauses. He's come to the limits of his francais, he claims. Does the farmer speak English and, if so, might they continue in that tongue? He does, and they do.
At the time it seems an absurd contrivance, and a dispiriting concession to the belief that American audiences won't shell out ten bucks to see any film so presumptuous as to present itself in another language. Moreover, it's hard to shake the suspicion that Tarantino wants us to believe it is such a concession. But it is not--Landa has his reasons for the switch--and the dialogue in Inglourious Basterds is not, for the most part, conducted in English. Tarantino has taken the common-sense, but nonetheless radical, step of casting German (and Austrian) actors in the German roles and French actors in the French roles, and allowing them to speak in their native tongues, with the result that perhaps just 30 percent of the film is in English. It is one of several early signs that Tarantino's ambitions for the film are broader than for any he's directed since Pulp Fiction--and of just how far he comes in fulfilling those ambitions.
That first scene is a knockout, one of the tautest cat-and-mouse exchanges since Dennis Hopper discussed Italian genealogy with Christopher Walken in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance--the surface bonhomie heightening, rather than concealing, the lethal tensions beneath. Though he overplays his hand on occasion in the latter portions of the film, Waltz is a genuine revelation as the smugly insinuating Jew-hunter Landa. If the actor were not already well-known in Europe, one would call it a star-making performance; instead, we can settle for star-importing.
Not everything in the film is quite so appealing, though the ratio of good Tarantino (the sharp dialogue; the structural inventiveness; the encyclopedic enthusiasm for historic cinema) to bad Tarantino (the bloodbaths-as-narrative-escape-hatches; the indecisive border between homage and parody) is considerably higher than it has been post-Jackie Brown. For any who might worry that Inglorious Bastards is, as the film's marketing seems to promise, a Holocaust-revision variation on Kill Bill, a gory, unimaginative slog by baseball bat and bowie knife through acres of Nazi corpses, the movie is a very pleasant surprise. For those who were looking forward to such a Kill Wilhelm, well, you do still get a bit of batting practice.
The movie's animating premise is perhaps its weakest element: Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a self-described Tennessee mountain man, assembles a special team of eight Jewish soldiers to parachute behind enemy lines to kill and terrorize Nazis. Those whom the "Basterds" kill are scalped (Raine is also part Apache); those they let live have swastikas carved into their foreheads, a Nazi "uniform" they will never be able to take off. Like most of Tarantino's more aggressive provocations--e.g. his delight in the novelty of having women butcher other women in Kill Bill--this is an idle one. There's no moral weight to the violence in the film, nor any meaningful resonance of the Holocaust or the war itself. It's merely a gimmick, a heavy stacking of the deck so that we will forgive, and perhaps applaud, the Basterds' ritual mutilations. The true moral universe in which the film unfolds is that of the spaghetti westerns to which Tarantino has frequently compared it: a world in which the strong are above the law and the way to tell the good guys from the bad guys is not by their acts but by the kind of hats they wear. (On a related note, if the film's score occasionally sounds as though it was assembled from old Ennio Morricone tracks, that's because, to a considerable degree, it was.)
From this dubious core, however, the film sprawls in improbable directions, becoming, among other things, Tarantino's most explicit movie about the movies to date. A French Jew (Melanie Laurent) escapes a death squad and reinvents herself as the proprietress of a Paris movie house, only to find herself romanced by a young German war hero and budding film star (Daniel Bruhl) who plays himself in a Nazi propaganda film. Meanwhile, another German star, Bridget von Hammersmark (a very good Diane Kruger), is conspiring with the Allies against Hitler, her primary contact being a British commando (Michael Fassbender) who is also a film critic (!) and an expert on German cinema. (One of Tarantino's better inside jokes is to have the German-born Fassbender playing a Brit who impersonates a Nazi and jeopardizes the mission with his imperfect accent.) There is a discussion regarding whether Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who among other duties oversaw the German film industry, preferred to be compared to Louis B. Mayer or David O. Selznick. Several characters are named in homage to B-movie stars (Raine, a play on Aldo Ray, and Hugo Stiglitz among them), and the Italian western and crime-film director Enzo G. Castellari, who directed the original 1978 Inglorious Bastards (from which this movie borrowed its title but nothing else), has a cameo as a mid-century version of himself. The whole affair culminates with a massive, murderous set piece at the movie house, which testifies to the purifying power of film as a political medium and film stock as a combustion agent.
It would be easy for this level of self-knowing irony to descend into preciousness, and on occasion it does, as in the stunt-casting of Mike Myers as a British general named Ed Fenech (a nod to Italian giallo starlet Edwige Fenech) and the aggressively incongruous narration offered now and then by Samuel L. Jackson. But for the most part, Tarantino maintains a powerful sense of urgency and momentum. Though the recourse to extreme violence is occasionally tiresome, the patient skill with which he builds to these eruptions is exceptional. Beginning with the first scene between Landa and the farmer, Tarantino stages a series of quietly fraught encounters--between a Jew and the Nazi she barely escaped years before, between commandos impersonating German officers and an inconveniently sociable Gestapo agent--and ratchets the tension exquisitely. He's aided considerably by the strength of his international cast, with one exception: Hostel director Eli Roth, in a Basterd role originally intended for Adam Sandler, who proves that he can butcher dialogue as effortlessly as backpackers. Even Pitt, in the cartoonish role of Raine, manages to find some dignity beneath the caricature.
There is a great deal to like here, from the strong roles afforded to women (a Tarantino specialty) to the exceptional set design and meticulous eye for detail. (It's the rare film nowadays that knows when champagne is served in a flute and when it is served in a coupe.) Yet, there is something frustrating, too, about the movie, which even as it reminds viewers just how talented Tarantino is, can't help but also remind of the disappointing ends to which he has turned that talent in the 15 years since Pulp Fiction. Inglourious Basterds is in some ways a return to that early form, but in others an example of the weaknesses that have plagued his more recent work. The enthusiasm for adolescent scenarios and over-reliance on violence--a direct response to the commercial failure of the relatively nonviolent Jackie Brown--are the most obvious, but perhaps not the most significant.
Between two Kill Bills and Death Proof, this is the fourth consecutive Tarantino project constructed as an ostentatiously self-conscious, frequently parodic take on a B-movie genre. By now this is a Tarantino mini-genre of its own, of course, but it's also a dodge, a way of letting himself off the hook for anything that doesn't quite pan out. Dialogue in Kill Bill atrocious? Well, of course, it's a chop socky satire. Plot of Death Proof wafer-thin? It's supposed to be, in homage to 70s vengeance flicks and car culture. Inglourious Basterds is far better than those films, but it is still, in some fundamental sense, less movie than "movie." And if Tarantino hopes to reach his full potential as a filmmaker, someday he's going to have to find the nerve to work once again outside the quotation marks.