Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino has been talking about his WWII film, Inglourious Basterds for a decade, and writing it for fifteen. A wild fantasy made up of elements of a combat adventure, alternate history, character comedy and exploitation horror, the film is not so much a running story as five segmented chapters revolving around a central nub.

First, a note on the film’s title which is Tarantino’s deliberate misspelling of an obscure 1978 Italian war adventure, his declared inspiration and the first of hundreds of references to other films Inglourious Basterds contains. The film proper opens with another, a nod to Sergio Leone in the scene-setting chapter heading “Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied France”, in which a French dairy farmer who is hiding a Jewish family is visited by the film’s bad guy, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz). In a few deft strokes, the director lays out the scene as Landa interrogates Denis Menochet, who plays the dairy farmer, at his kitchen table. It is the best section in the film, brilliantly played, nerve-wracking and daring and among the finest in any Tarantino movie.

The story then switches to the exploits of Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a tough-talking hillbilly soldier with an unexplained scar around his neck. Raine commands the Basterds, a specially-recruited squad of vengeful Jewish soldiers sent on a secret kill-on-sight mission behind enemy lines. He has charged each of his men to deliver him one hundred Nazi scalps; an act of barbarism intended to strike terror in the hearts of the German ranks. Of the eight men in the troop, only half are introduced to us by name and only a couple are given a back-story, evidence of the amount of editing Tarantino’s decade-long script required in order to release the film at a tolerable length.

In a parallel story, we meet Soshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish girl who watched her family killed by the demonic Col. Landa and is living under an assumed identity as a French cinema-owner in Paris. The next three chapters combined tell the sometimes long-winded story of the Basterd’s finest hour; an audacious mission to bomb Soshanna’s cinema during the screening of a propaganda film attended by Hitler and his high command. Helping them is German movie-star turned spy Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who presides over a massively over-extended sequence set in a French cellar bar where the Basterd’s and Michael Fassbender’s clipped British Lt Archie Hicox (a former film critic, no less) mingle nervously with the Nazi’s over a card game and a pint. Meanwhile, in Paris and unbeknownst to the Basterds, Soshanna has hatched her own plan to blow up the cinema, using a pile of highly combustible nitrate celluloid as explosive.

Even more than his last film Death Proof, a misjudged celebration of sleazy 1970s exploitation cinema, Inglourious Basterds is a love-note to cinema. Almost every major character has a direct connection to the world of film; there’s a producer and a critic, a cinema-owner and a projectionist, an actor and an actress. Although Tarantino’s most immediate reference point is gung-ho war caper The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds is composed of sketches derived from another dirty dozen entirely; an arch pastiche of obscure spaghetti westerns, forgotten B movies, gory giallo horrors and 1930s German expressionist drama.

If the fragmented story is tricky to follow, it proves impossible to keep pace with the director’s catalogue of influences, name-drops and cameo tributes. Best not to bother. The film is intended as an experience, not a lecture in cinema sub-genres or, given the licence the director takes with history, a documentary on WWII. Through the blur of homage, violence, gore and snappy backchat, what emerges is a vision of Tarantino’s alternate, hyper-realistic world, a place peopled by movie characters, where anything is possible. This is a film about sensation and spectacle. It’s about that indefinable, impalpable quality: cool.

Leaden in parts and talkative to the point of irritation, Inglourious Basterds is no masterpiece but it is still Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown. I am prepared to forgive the director his egotism, his fetishism, his know-it-all arrogance and his verbosity because when he is good, he is really very good indeed. There is the nagging sensation, however, that Tarantino is serving up junk food when he has all the ingredients for a sumptuous banquet.

Read my interview with Tarantino for Death Proof here


Anonymous said...

John, I think that this review hits all of the key points in what I think is an accurate assessment of Inglourious Basterds' worth!

I have found that too many people have reached for the "you either love Tarantino or hate him" cliche when justifying their excessively favourable reviews. In fact, if you do appreciate his best work, then the flaws and disappointments that this film undoubtedly contains should be quite evident!

Ken Armstrong said...

Just finished sticking up my own review and was interested to read yours.

You win. :)

Declan Burke said...

Squire -

"Although Tarantino’s most immediate reference point is gung-ho war caper The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds is composed of sketches derived from another dirty dozen entirely; an arch pastiche of obscure spaghetti westerns, forgotten B movies, gory giallo horrors and 1930s German expressionist drama."

He's just a magpie, really, isn't he? I know genius steals, but something original once in a while wouldn't go amiss.

Cheers, Dec

??? said...

I enjoyed the film, its not the best film ever made but it is good. And why is the fact that its a Tarantino flick of any real importance? If this was any middle of the road director, I think it would get a totally different reception. Surely the most important aspect of a film is whether it is entertaining or not, not who directed it or what other films it borrows from and this film is definetly entertaining. There are a number of critics out there (present company not included) who dislike films just because its cool to dislike them and conversly pretend to like films because its cool to like them - when they are clearly shit. Okay rant over

ColmB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jayrob said...

yeah you've hit the main areas's here, great review : ) im my own mini review im quoted typing "masterpiece" check it out if you agree with my views on what makes this film so good..

basterds just blows kill bill out of the water dosent it!