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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.27.09





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Dogs on the Run

Quentin Tarantino returns with a vengeance

by Jason Blair

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS: Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Cinematography, Robert Richardson. Starring Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender. Universal Pictures, 2009. R. 153 minutes.

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds

In the sense that WWII provides him an immense historical framework, Quentin Tarantino is in new territory with Inglourious Basterds, a revisionist epic in which a band of Jewish avengers hunt down Nazi soldiers. Set in and around Paris, the film exploits the high anxiety of Vichy France, a milieu made more credible by the appearance of actors who, while unfamiliar outside Europe, make unforgettable contributions. But credibility and verisimilitude are slippery things in the hands of Tarantino, a director for whom, according to Ella Taylor, “derivation is the sincerest form of flattery.” In fact, Inglourious Basterds is vintage Tarantino, and quite possibly the director’s masterpiece. The historical context gives the fitful director a massive canvas on which to work, providing his usual strokes and flourishes a more comfortable, lasting home. 

Brisk Inglourious Basterds isn’t. The film, which contains at least four storylines, is elegant in structure but languid in pace, the action slowly converging on a small Parisian theater for the premiere of a German propaganda film. The first chapter, “Once Upon a Time … in Vichy France,” nods to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, suggesting both a primer for reading subsequent chapters — Basterds is a film about the influence of film — as well as a reminder that Tarantino is at the top of his powers. The opening chapter of Basterds also introduces the film’s villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a cruel and calculating but clownish man referred to as the “Jew hunter.” Landa’s visit to a small French dairy farmer, a man he suspects of harboring Jews, is chilling and absurdly tense. Waltz is so mesmerizing as Col. Landa that he has no natural equal in Inglourious Basterds; the Basterds’ commander, Col. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), is intended to rival the Nazi, but Pitt’s performance is rigid and accent-driven, a problem that befell Leo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond.

Hiding on that dairy farm was Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a beautiful girl who emerges a few years later in Paris as Emmanuelle, the owner of a small Parisian cinema. A German officer named Zoller (Daniel Brühl) falls for Emmanuelle, insisting she host a major premiere at her theater, which eventually brings her back into contact with Col. Landa. (Their painfully tense reunion is already referred to as the “strudel scene.”) Emmanuelle hatches a plan to burn down the theater with the German brass inside, a plan the Basterds — unaware of Emmanuelle — plan to duplicate. In an allusion only Tarantino could make, Emmanuelle inserts a film of her own — inspired by the German classic Metropolis — into the film reel, after which she intends to set fire to the film stock. (The voice of Samuel Jackson, in an odd irruption of narration, reminds us that film burns faster than paper.) Meanwhile, Aldo sneaks into the premiere as the escort of Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German film star. As self-aware as ever, Tarantino is asking the movies to kill fascism. The question is: Can the movies oblige him?

Inglourious Basterds is not without problems. Like Spike Lee, Tarantino is his own worst enemy, seemingly unable to rein himself in when reins are needed. The line between intensity and exhaustion, between compelling and overwrought, seems obscure to the gifted director. During one completely useless bar scene, I began to wonder just how, not to mention if, Basterds would pull out of the spiral. It does. After years of silly experimentation, Tarantino is finally serious again, creating a tightly fitted revenge fantasy which takes its cues from Westerns as easily as from classic cinema. For the first time since Jackie Brown, I felt Tarantino making a film, not merely an association of scenes to suit himself and his cinephile friends. Made by a director other than Tarantino, Basterds would be hailed universally as a masterpiece. I’m not ready to say it isn’t one; neither, I expect, is Tarantino.