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Cannes Dispatch, 2009: Part Three: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

(Weinstein Co.)


Thursday, May 21, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin


“I’m French,” a beautiful young woman in Nazi-occupied Paris tells a decorated German soldier in Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature, Inglourious Basterds.

“We respect our directors.”

Tarantino’s new movie is a spaghetti Western-inflected World War II fantasia about a renegade band of Jewish-American soldiers conducting secret operations in occupied France. Like Police, Adjective, the great Romanian film that is one of the festival’s great discoveries, the subtext of Tarantino’s new movie is a meditation on language and subterfuge.

Much of the dialogue is in spoken French and German. To some extent, the director has finally made his Eric Rohmer movie. The talk is sometimes lyrical, explosive, humorous and oblique, but Tarantino’s greatest risk is subverting audience expectation by substituting talk for action. Tarantino referenced Heaven’s Gate in the press conference, but his movie never quite reaches for the hallucinatory.

Tarantino has appropriated the title of a solid, enjoyable 1978 action movie by Italian filmmaker Enzo Castolleri (who spelled it conventionally, Inglorious Bastards) that evoked the acid westerns and anti-establishment war movies that flourished in Vietnam-era America, like Kelly’s Heroes.

The young cinema enthusiast Shosanna (played by the terrific young French actress Melanie Laurent) is a Jew who escaped the horrific Nazi attack that wiped out her family, as seen in the film’s gripping prologue. Now she’s staging her own revenge plot that parallels a secret mission coordinated by the OSS-directed “Basterds,” working in concert with a German spy (the beautiful actress Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger) to assassinate the Nazi party’s high command during a premiere Paris screening of a Goebbels-produced propaganda film about a German war hero (Daniel Bruhl).

The Basterds’ commanding officer, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is a Southerner with a brutally sardonic sense of humor and plainspoken disposition who’s instructed his operatives to match his bounty demand of “100 Nazi scalps.” Tarantino’s conceit is that the Basterds have attained such notoriety for their ruthless guerilla actions that they have spread fear, ruptured the morale of the Third Reich’s high command and unsettled the Fuhrer.

Raine’s Nazi equivalent, Capt. Hans Lando (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) is a suave and sophisticated polyglot who’s earned the sobriquet “the Jew Hunter” for his notoriously police methods. He’s introduced in one of the movie’s two standout sections — the prologue set in a cabin at a dairy farm in the French countryside.

Like previous Tarantino works, the confrontation between Lando’s Aryan sophisticate and the French farmer (Denis Menochet) is a felicitous and stylized pas a deux whose musical rhythm and counter flow is punctuated by the most chilling shot in the movie, a panning of the camera into the floorboards that reveals the man, his wife and three children are hiding. Tarantino’s work here is purposeful and detailed, like the terrifying shot of the wife holding her hand over her mouth in order to avoid detection.

As part of the undercover mission, the British soldier Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is recruited. In one of the many movie allusions, the officer is used not only because he’s fluent in German, but the fact that his civilian occupation is that of a film critic who specialized in Weimar-era German cinema.

It sets up the film’s other great set piece, the planned rendezvous at a restaurant in a village of Nadine. Hammersmark has been planted with two German-speaking operatives of the Basterds joined by Hicox. A rival party of German soldiers and the appearance of a German captain sabotage the meeting, setting in motion a long and complicated sequence where subtleties of expression, vocal inflection and accents are central to the masquerade of the Basterds’ attempt to outmaneuver their German counterparts.

Inglourious Basterds is larky and fun, but it is rarely thrilling or exciting and it is marred by long stretches of dead space. Daniel Bruhl plays the German officer whose bravery Goebbels has capitalized to make into the propaganda film. His performance is so inert and solicitous towards the admittedly quite stunning Lauren, the nasty elegance and dark wit of Landa is never duplicated here.

Formally, the story is predicated on language and speech, but the filmmaking is static. The expressiveness of the early work has seemingly vanished. The moviemaking rarely feels kinetic or particularly attuned to the emotional involvement of the characters.

Tarantino has never been the most fluid or naturalistic storyteller: He retains his great nerve and instincts, but the looseness of his craft is now more readily apparent. His work has flair but lacks the discipline and a shaping drive and sensibility to marry the disparate parts and contrasting tones that Ernst Lubitsch found with To Be or Not To Be or François Truffaut worked through in his excellent, underrated The Last Metro.

Interestingly, French director Robert Guediguian’s stirring, tougher The Army of Crime provides a sharp counterpoint to Tarantino’s comic fugue. It’s a beautifully made period piece about the extraordinary true story of the Manouchian Group. Written by Giles Taurand (who’s done excellent work for Raul Ruiz and Andre Techine), the film is about a group of ethnic and naturalized French citizens that formed an audacious Resistance network that carried out lethal attacks against German occupiers and their French collaborators.

The group was named for Missak Manouchian, an Armenian poet whose father was murdered during the Turkish-engineered genocide during World War I. He recruits a progressive gang of Jews, Poles, Hungarians and Czechs drawn to the French concepts of liberte, fraternite, egalite to undercut their foreign occupiers and Vichy collaborators. Guediguian beautifully, expressive weaves a fresco out of the various stories and identities of the various principals. The work harshly and unflinchingly points out the venal behavior and savage techniques of the Vichy authorities and police structure in blatantly utilizing anti-Semitic propaganda, racial hatred and torture to defeat the partisan insurgency. It’s not going to generate a tenth of the coverage occasioned by Tarantino’s new film, but it is by far the braver, more imaginative and harrowing work.






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