This review originally appeared in Venus Zine.
Bested by Basterds
Quentin Tarantino brings with to the multiplex with Inglourious Basterds
By Melissa Silvestri
Published: August 28th, 2009
Six years after his last major feature (Kill Bill) Quentin Tarantino returns with Inglourious Basterds, an anachronistic, wildly inaccurate re-telling of WWII history, where Jewish fighters take bloody revenge upon the Nazis who massacred their people. Don’t expect any sentimentality or bleeding-heart moments, this film will hold you in with this layered nuance in the powerful dialogue scenes and draw you deeper into the relations between the Germans occupying France and the French citizens just barely concealing their contempt.
Contrary to the film’s advertising, Brad Pitt is not the star, but rather the marquee name to bring audiences in. More suited as a supporting actor in unusually comic roles, he lightens up the otherwise dark film with quick wit and brevity, as the charismatic leader of a squad of Jewish-American soldiers turned rogue warriors, earning a reputation as the Inglourious Basterds, men who torture and bludgeon Nazis and German soldiers to a pulp, usually leaving one alive to tell the tale, but left with a lifelong mutilation to never allow anyone to forget what they represented.
The opening scene is a stunning and mesmerizing 20-minute dialogue between a French dairy farmer and a German Nazi named Colonel Landa, played with cool insouciance by Christoph Waltz. His play on words, feigning ignorance of French, and warm smile undercut with deadly threats keeps the audience both charmed and in fear of him. The Jewish family that the farmer was hiding is massacred by the SS, save for a teenage girl, Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), who runs for her life, Landa deciding to let her escape, assuming she’ll be caught sometime.
Three years later, Shoshanna, now living under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux, runs a movie theater in Paris, hiding her Jewish ancestry under German rule. She is just trying to live her life in peace and not be discovered, when a young German soldier (Daniel Bruhl), celebrated for his heroics, courts her repeatedly, with no luck, as she despises him and his people for obvious reasons. To her dismay, he ends up getting her theater to host the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film called Nation’s Pride, where he plays himself fighting the Italians, a la Audie Murphy. With a packed theater full of Nazis, Shoshanna realizes she can kill them all at once by burning the theater down, exacting revenge in the name of her people. Laurent delivers this fire and passion beautifully, picturing her as a Resistance heroine nearly sacrificing herself to spare horrors put upon the Jewish race.
Inglourious Basterds is marked by some of Tarantino’s trademarks: drawn out dialogue scenes, film discussions, spurts of obscene violence, a beautiful woman’s foot. However, there is something intense and more effective about the film, especially in the scenes between the French and German people. Their conversations reveal so much hidden subtlety, no distracting background music, just slowly removing layers to get to the core of a situation and feeling the mounting fear as a French Jew risks being discovered or a German actress’s role as a spy for England is uncovered. Those scenes are really the highlights of the film, as the theater audience is so quiet and still, deeply taking in these highly tense exchanges undercut with cruel wit. There is a lot of ambiguity with the characters and their actions, and it takes a lot of little “aha” moments to realize their intentions or thoughts. This film is unconventional and takes chances with presenting an alternate history of WWII, yet will be memorable for the stunning performances given by Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz, and the talent that Tarantino has been crafting extensive dialogue scenes that don’t always say so much on top but reveal many entendres underneath.