Monday, 24 August 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Trust Quentin Tarantino to upend convention. For all its faults (indulgence, overlength, an infantile delight in its own excesses), his new WWII parody Inglourious Basterds is likely the most audacious mainstream movie experiment of the year.

Here, finally, QT seems to have fused his own lurid mania with the populist desires of his audience. There are flaws, many of them - but, far from the misfiring Kill Bill series, as a movie, it's cohesive and entertaining, not made simply so the director can get his jollies at the expense of others.

It opens with what is arguably the stand out sequence, chapter one entitled 'Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France'. To the symphonic soaring sounds of Ennio Morricone, a nervous French farmer anticipates the arrival of the German SS, represented by the impeccably polite yet menacing Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Landa is a classic Tarantino creation and Waltz gives the film's break-out peformance, carefully picking away at the farmer's reserve (and indeed that of all the other characters he meets) to discover the location of a Jewish family hiding beneath the floorboards.

Here Tarantino is on top of his game, alternating music with silence, every line of dialogue encoded with a darkly funny double meaning, every subtle camera movement building to the inevitable crescendo of violence. He lays all his thematic and aesthetic cards on the table in this witty opening, holding his own distorted mirror up to history. The scene ends with the escape of Shoshanna, the character who turns out to be the crux of the narrative.

Say again? Yes that's right, those seduced by the film's advertising could be forgiven for thinking that the movie does indeed belong to the Basterds (introduced separately in the following chapter), an elite unit of Jewish fighters committed to scalping Nazis, headed by a scenery chewing Brad Pitt as Lt Aldo Raine (imagine a Gable, Brando and Wayne cocktail). But they'd be wrong. Audiences may be blindsided as to where the main revenge is launched from.

Continuing in this episodic fashion, we are gradually introduced to Melanie Laurent (another excellent performance) as an older Shoshanna, running her own cinema and fending off the attentions of Daniel Bruhl's Nazi sharpshooting champion Frederick Zoller. When she faces a proposal to screen Zoller's latest propaganda film to the entire Nazi High Command, her plans for vengeance begin to take shape, as does the narrative and the audience's focus. Heck, it's only taken an hour to see where the film is coming from but Basterds is nothing if not lugubrious.

Thankfully the film is never less than compelling and really hits its stride in the second half when the Brits, working with the Basterds and Diane Kruger's tough talking actress turned informant Bridget von Hammersmarck, draw up their own scheme for getting even with the Third Reich. Almost a self-contained movie on its own (in fact the same could be said of each sub-divided section), Tarantino's parody of stiff upper lipped Tommy's is truly hilarious, with a delightfully sly performance from Michael Fassbender as Lt Archie Hicox. This segment culminates in that classic Tarantino trope: the Mexican stand-off, only this time with the skillfully managed criss crossing language barriers.

As expected this kind of episodic narrative is incredibly difficult to sum up on its own terms, despite the above highlights, and there's little doubt a stronger two hour film is aching to get out (Tarantino acolyte director Eli Roth as 'The Bear' also smacks of stunt casting). But Tarantino clearly has faith in his scenario, outrageous and gratuitous as it is, building to a climatic conflagration that has to be seen to be believed, one that gives full rise to the term 'Jewish Revenge Fantasy'. Let it also be said that he is probably the only director around at the moment who would make a Nazi the most likeable character (Waltz' terrific performance does its bit there): Landa's needling of the Basterds' attempts at an Italian disguise is the funniest scene in the film. As the Colonel himself might say: That's a bingo!

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