Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review - Inglourious Basterds

Taking its title from an obscure 1970's Italian film, and taking everything else from Quentin Tarantino's cinema-obsessed brain, Inglourious Basterds is a war film like no other. Pitched awkwardly between a semi-realistic wartime setting and a cartoonish fantasy narrative, the film is an eclectic blend of cinematic styles, held together by the director's typically verbose script, his taste for extreme violence, numerous movie references, and unexpected flashes of humour. Inglourious Basterds pays tribute to earlier war films as well as spaghetti westerns and film noir, and even the opening credits unfold in a variety of fonts. In other words, it's a mess, but it's a fascinating one, elevated by moments of greatness before being brought low by Tarantino's inability to contain his more excessive instincts, and a screenplay that collapses into near-incoherence towards the end. The film's myriad flaws prevent Tarantino's long-in-gestation epic from being the film it could have been, but when the movie works, it's glorious.

One of those high points occurs right in the opening moments, setting a standard that the rest of the film struggles to meet. It occurs in a French farmhouse, where Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed "The Jew Hunter," is sitting with the farmer (Denis Menochet) whom he suspects of sheltering a Jewish family. In fact, Landa doesn't suspect the man of this; he knows the family are there, he even knows where they are, but he draws out the interrogation anyway, toying mercilessly with his prey. Landa, with his insidious charm, mastery of languages, and passion for detective work (he likes to use a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe as a prop) is a magnetic villain who is played so beautifully by Waltz, he quickly becomes the film's most compelling character. This introductory sequence, the first of five numbered chapters, is stunning on a number of levels, from Tarantino's clever writing and tightly coordinated direction, to the flawless acting from Waltz and Menochet. Taken in isolation, this single sequence is one of the finest things Tarantino has ever done, but then we meet the Basterds, which kind of spoils the mood.

The Inglourious Basterds themselves are a group of Jewish-American soldiers, brought together by Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine for one purpose only – to kill Nazis in the most brutal fashion possible. Raine sets his men the target of collecting one hundred Nazi scalps each, and in the film's second chapter we find them in the aftermath of an ambush, collecting their scalps and interrogating the few remaining survivors, one of whom will be let go to spread fear among his fellow soldiers, with the swastika carved into his forehead a permanent reminder of his encounter with the Basterds. While the shift in tone here is problematic – does Tarantino expect us to be appalled by the slaughter of a Jewish family, before enjoying the celebratory violence inflicted upon the Nazis? – my chief issue with this section is simply the fact that the titular characters aren't worth the screen time. Most of the film had elapsed before I finally got used to Pitt's oddly constipated performance, whereas Eli Roth's turn as the baseball bat-wielding "Bear Jew" is totally amateurish. For the most part, they're the only two Basterds who get anything significant to do, and their scenes often feel like an unnecessary subplot to a far more interesting narrative.

In the third and fourth chapters, a number of characters are introduced, complicating matters while also contributing to some of Tarantino's best scenes. One of these is Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who survived the Landa-led attack that massacred the rest of her family in the opening scene and now runs a cinema under an assumed identity. She meets a young German soldier (Daniel Brühl) who becomes infatuated with her, and is offered the chance by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to stage the premiere of his new film at her cinema; an offer that brings her back into contact with Landa (another gripping conversation), and gives her the opportunity for revenge. She's not the only one thinking along these lines, as the action then moves to London, where film critic-turned-soldier Archie Hicox (a wonderful Michael Fassbender) is being briefed ahead of Operation Kino, a mission aimed at blowing up the cinema while all of the German high command are inside. This operation has been set up in collaboration with the Basterds (although it's unclear how or when) and famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Is this too much plot for one movie? Given the difficulty Tarantino has in pulling these threads together it seems to be the case, and some of the plotting in the final third is unbelievably poor.

But while Tarantino can't create a coherent whole with Inglourious Basterds, he remains a master of creating memorable individual sequences. The film's last truly brilliant coup takes place in a French bar, where Hicox and two German Basterds, posing as Nazis, liaise with von Hammersmark for the first time. This single sequence plays out for over twenty minutes, segueing from drinking games to a tense standoff in which the accuracy of Hicox's impersonation is tested to the limit, and Tarantino sustains the atmosphere of unease marvellously. The scene is built upon his dialogue and in fact the scene itself becomes about language, adding an extra intriguing layer to the drama. Perhaps it's just the fact that we're hearing it filtered through different languages, but Tarantino's dialogue feels fresher and more potent here than in any of his recent features, and his direction is extremely impressive too. Apart from the occasional gimmicky aside (scrawled onscreen captions, a Samuel L Jackson-narrated history of nitrate film), he handles the film with a classical restraint at times, which makes his visual flourishes – Shosanna's preparation for the premiere, for example – all the more impactful. Inglourious Basterds is a beautifully designed film all round, from the evocative production design to Robert Richardson's typically striking cinematography.

He just can't control himself, though, and he finally torpedoes his own film. The climactic sequence is an audacious revisionist take on history in which cinema itself has the power to defeat the Third Reich. I'm not bothered by Tarantino's rewriting of true events so much, but as the story retreats into fantasy it seems to matter less and less; we don't care about the fate of anyone we've just spent two and a half hours with, because they're just movie characters who don't exist in the real world; there's nothing vital at stake. As such, the film just becomes a meaningless parade of puerile violence, which grows extremely tiresome, and proves Tarantino still seems to be trapped in a state of arrested development. His linguistic virtuosity is undeniable, as is his directorial verve, but I long for Tarantino to come back to earth, and to start making films in a world I recognise rather than the movie-world playing on an endless loop inside his own head. Inglourious Basterds is a small step forward in many respects, but it hardly merits the hubristic final line: "You know, I think this might just be my masterpiece." Sorry Quentin, it's not even close.