Review: "Inglourious Basterds" (Tarantino, USA)

Ryland Walker Knight

Above: Mélanie Laurent veils herself in Inglourious Basterds

Fairy tale from the start, complete with a little big bad wolf (or hawk, as it is) sent to blow a house down, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is, as should be expected, of the Grimm lineage: crass and bloody and tragic and funny, at most events twisted. It opens with a smack-you-scatty pointer title card, "Once Upon a Time In Nazi-Occupied France," to tell us Tarantino sees World War II as just another Leone epic, maybe, with better dialog; another vaguely cartoon setting to pile on film references and cruelty, with little regard for real world historical accuracy. Our auteurist auteur favors the faith that the cinema is its own history. Thus, the film is not quite a romp, but certainly not a guilt-fest either. After all, this Nazi we open with, though fanged, doesn't huff and puff to get in the door; the farmer he's visiting, somewhat sleepy and porcine, invites this polite and intelligent and queasily charismatic inquisitor inside. Consequently, the little piggies aren’t piggies but Jews (the hawk says “rats” to ape Goebbels’ propaganda machine/studio) cowering underfoot—and, to overlap my metaphor, one little piggie transforms past rat into Red Riding Hood, only to exact her revenge at a cost. Indeed, the film consumes itself, burns its body, explodes to pieces before our eyes only to be gobbled up, vacuum-like, by a last stand branding that reduces the war (the film) to a symbol in the form of a scar. Where Death Proof kept halving itself—effectively remaking and one-upping the Kill Bill mommy saga with different drapery—Basterds keeps excoriating everything, loud and proud and begging to be heard. It screams for cinema, for revenge, for winners taking all. It demands satisfaction. It leaves no wake and few survivors and does not ask for mourning but for movie-red blood.

This is not to say the film is the action extravaganza the savvy marketing would have you believe. But only a fool would promote the film as it really is: a gab-fest largely talked out in subtitles. While there are plenty of gunfights, each punctuates some spare stretch of interrogation exposition. If you’re on board with these little battles of wit, each will ratchet tension with every indulgent line and you’re guaranteed a good time; if not, if you’re just bored, you’ll just be bored, and too bad. A good way to get on board is to appreciate Tarantino’s love of actors: his cinema is predicated on performances and his generosity no doubt inspires the fine work he captures. The star of this show, already trumpeted (already palmed), is Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Hans Landa, our little big bad wolf also known as “The Jew Hunter.” He is without peer, for the most part, though Michael Fassbender’s Lieutenant Archie Hicox might come close as the centerpiece of the centerpiece of the film—a wickedly interminable, bite-your-nails basement bit of espionage and role-play. To call Mélanie Laurent—as Shosanna Dreyfuss (as Emmanuelle Mimieux)—an equal to Waltz would be almost apt, and her scene opposite him is a marvel of reticence and at-bay confusion. Mostly, she's masked or masking something until, blown up silver screen big, she reveals her great, big, true face. But, to be blunt, she’s given less to work with, mostly hurt and pride, although this in turn makes her characterization more human than Landa's goofy, breezy malice. Then again, she’s all concept, too, wrapped in layers of herself, a self-willed projection, like everything in the picture.

Overriding Tarantino’s gratuitous gore instincts is his allegiance to the power of the cinema, which he makes material (literal) here in the form of a combustible nitrate collection—an active ingredient in history’s molding and mauling, in the world’s record of who brutalized better. Tarantino doubly asserts cinema’s power as weapon when we see the title of the film etched into the butt of Lt Aldo Raine’s rifle. Raine is Brad Pitt, he of top billing and Basterd-command, but he’s on screen about a third of the time and he never fires that rifle; he prefers his buck knife. If he speaks for Tarantino, this might signal the importance of editing over on-set shooting—and indeed the picture clips along well, the action scenes pop in perfect flurries of death—but no matter the elegant and minimal mounting, this picture is exhausting as much as exhilarating. The cartoon impulse mostly works, though Eli Roth’s inevitably bad accent (“The Bear Jew” is from Boston?) is an expected ill. The Basterds costume parade would wear thin, but—were it not for how far Tarantino pushes his parodic, insane contortions of ethical conversation about judgment and identity and cinema’s power over both (the image is autocratic!)—this back-lot buffoonery cackles a big “fuck you” to representation and to any who stand in its way on the road back home, to the movies.

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Tarantino
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